“Defense Mechanisms” are certain ways in which we think or behave that serve to protect or “defend” our egos/identities from emotional pain or suffering. People often use defense mechanisms to distance themselves from gaining a full awareness of their own unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
The more primitive a defense mechanism, the less effective it works for a person over the long-term. However, more primitive defense mechanisms are usually very effective short-term, and hence are favored by many people and children especially (when such primitive defense mechanisms are first learned). Adults who don’t learn better ways of coping with stress or traumatic events in their lives will often resort to such primitive defense mechanisms as well.
Most defense mechanisms are fairly unconscious – that means most of us don’t realize we’re using them in the moment. Some types of psychotherapy can help a person become aware of what defense mechanisms they are using, how effective they are, and how to use less primitive and more effective mechanisms in the future.
Vaillant's categorization of the 4 levels of defense mechanisms:
Level 1 - Pathological
Defense mechanisms on this level, when predominating, almost always are severely pathological. These four defenses, in conjunction, permit one to effectively rearrange external experiences to eliminate the need to cope with reality. The pathological users of these mechanisms frequently appear irrational or insane to others. These are the "psychotic" defenses, common in overt psychosis. However, they are found in dreams and throughout childhood as well.
Level 2 - Immature
These mechanisms are often present in adults and more commonly present in adolescents. These mechanisms lessen distress and anxiety provoked by threatening people or by uncomfortable reality. People who excessively use such defenses are seen as socially undesirable in that they are immature, difficult to deal with and seriously out of touch with reality. These are the so-called "immature" defenses and overuse almost always leads to serious problems in a person's ability to cope effectively. These defenses are often seen in severe depression and personality disorders. In adolescence, the occurrence of all of these defenses is normal.
Level 3 - Neurotic
These mechanisms are considered neurotic, but fairly common in adults. Such defenses have short-term advantages in coping, but can often cause long-term problems in relationships, work and in enjoying life when used as one's primary style of coping with the world.
Level 4 - Mature
These are commonly found among emotionally healthy adults and are considered mature, even though many have their origins in an immature stage of development. They have been adapted through the years in order to optimize success in life and relationships. The use of these defenses enhances pleasure and feelings of control. These defenses help us integrate conflicting emotions and thoughts, while still remaining effective. Those who use these mechanisms are usually considered virtuous.