Using Defense Mechanisms in Grief

Defense mechanisms refer to behaviors used to protect oneself from unpleasant thoughts and emotions like guilt, anger, shame, and jealousy.  Some people find these yucky emotions so unacceptable that they will unconsciously employ defense mechanisms to prevent themselves from ever having to acknowledge or experience them.

Sigmund Freud first proposed the concept of ‘defense mechanisms’ as an element of his influential theory of personality. For those of you who took Psych 101, think back to the Id, Ego, and Superego in which all elements, with the exception of the ego, preside in the unconscious. Since their introduction, the concept of defense mechanisms has been expanded quite a bit, and they are still used today to try understand certain behavioral patterns.

Defense mechanisms are common, we all use them from time to time, often without realizing. Let’s take a look at a few common defense mechanisms to see if any look familiar to you.

[Of Note: There are many defense mechanisms, we will only mention a handful here. If you’re interested in learning more a quick Google search will turn up quite a few reliable results.]


Denial is used to avoid acknowledging an unpleasant truth or reality; usually because this reality is painful or threatening.  In grief, we often hear ‘denial’ mentioned in the context of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grief.  However, there is no end to the ways that a person can use denial to protect themselves in their grief.  For example, by saying and believing things like – “I don’t need help.” “I’m fine.” “I don’t have a problem.” “Nothing needs to change” or “I’m over it.”


Who hasn’t had a good grief temper tantrum? I know I have.  When a person uses regression they revert to an earlier stage of development and display what might look like immature and insecure behavior.  A person engaging in regression in their grief might do things like shutdown or withdraw, become clingy with family and friends, or act childish.


Projection is when a person attributes their own unacceptable thoughts and feelings to someone else.  So for example, if I were mad at my husband but I didn’t want to acknowledge my feelings of anger so instead I projected my feelings onto my husband by saying,“I know you’re mad at me. Why are you mad at me?” 


Displacement is when a person has thoughts and emotions towards someone or something, but instead of directing them towards the appropriate source, they take them out on another person or object.  This defense mechanism is often used when a person is unable to express their emotions towards the actual source because it would be ineffectual or have negative consequences.

Quite often grieving people have very strong feelings towards things like faith, illness, death, grief, the person who died, or the person they blame for the death. In many of these instances, they can’t take their emotions out on the source, so instead they displace them onto someone else.


We’re definitely guilty of intellectualizing our grief here at WYG (I mean, have you seen our grief theory section?) When a person is confronted with painful or frightening emotions they might try to intellectualize them, rather than actually experiencing them.  In this way, they avoid making contact with their feelings by examining them from an arm’s length away.



When a person behaves or thinks negatively towards a person, they may feel guilty and try to undo their actions by counteracting them with opposite actions or thoughts. For example, if I said something hurtful to my best friend I may feel guilty and try to balance things out by paying her four compliments.

Undoing can play a role in grief in a number of ways. People commonly feel guilty for thinking or saying negative things about deceased individuals.  However, relationships don’t suddenly become one-dimensional because a person has died; they often remain as multifaceted in death as they were in life. Also, people sometimes die before their loved one’s have had a chance to make amends, and after they die there are very few opportunities  to resolve, or undo, what has been said, thought, or done.


Sublimation is when a person channels their painful and threatening experiences into positive, or acceptable, outlets.  We see examples of sublimation in grief time and time again when people use their experiences to create, educate, advocate, and support.



April 25, 2017

3 responses on "Using Defense Mechanisms in Grief"

  1. thanks for being here

  2. Very helpful as always. I’m sure I’ve deployed a few of these. Thanks, girls!

  3. This was great. I work at a large hospice agency and sent this out to the staff, with the thought that it can help to just identify and notice these reactions in families/patients they are working with…but also within themselves (including me!). The carried grief that comes with our own personal losses and grief, and then working with death and dying every day takes a toll, and sometimes just being able to name what the reaction is that is going on in others or within ourselves can lead to more compassion and kindness. Thanks for sharing this!

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