Immature Defenses

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We all use psychological strategies to soften the impact of experience. These strategies are referred to as defense mechanisms in psychology. Sigmund Freud popularized the concept of unconscious processes that dictated outward behaviors. His sixth child, Anna Freud, followed in Freud’s footsteps. In 1937, Anna Freud published The Ego and Mechanisms of Defense. Defense mechanisms is not only a fundamental part of psychanalytical nomenclature but a part of our everyday language. In 1981, John Cristopher Perry developed the Defense Mechanism Rating Scale (DMRS), which organized the variety of defenses into easy to use categories for physicians and therapists. the least adaptive grouping of defenses are referred to as immature defenses.

​The DMRS scores patients on 30 different defenses, placing the defenses into three categories: mature defenses, neurotic defenses, and immature defenses (Murphy, 2021). The categories are on a continuum from most adaptive to pathological.

The three categories (mature, neurotic, and immature) are further divided into seven levels based on the adaptiveness of the mechanism. Lastly, the four levels of least adaptive mechanisms compose the list of immature defenses.

Defenses Developmentally Mediated

We are not just born with a style of defense mechanisms. Our responses to environmental stressors is formed through learning. Like most other psychological phenomenon, there is a complex and dynamic interplay between environments and biological factors (epigenetics, reciprocal determinism) in creation of defense mechanism styles.

​Just like our bodies and cognitive abilities develop with age so does defense mechanisms. Immature defenses may be normative at one stage of development but become increasingly problematic with age (Araujo, Ryst, & Steiner, 2004).

For a variety of reasons, the immature defense mechanisms of childhood may stick, and individuals fail to develop more adaptive reactions to stressful inner states. When this happens, the defensive reaction may still mitigate the heightened emotional arousal but also interfere with adaptive behavioral responses. Consequently, the protective behavior now causes more harm than the pain that is mitigated. Basically, the learned behavior is maladaptive.

“Adaptive defenses usually maximize awareness of affective mental states, allowing an individual to adaptively modulate the expression and gratification of personal needs and desires” (Cavalera, et al. 2022). The underlying goal is to survive and flourish. Adaptive defense mechanisms not only mitigate powerful emotions, keeping them within a window of tolerance, but also allow enough awareness of internal states and external realities to penetrate protections and allow adaptive responses to the underlying problems.

“Less adaptive or immature defenses may involve distortions in the internal representations of self, others, or external reality, and keep potentially threatening ideas, feelings, memories, wishes or fears out of one’s awareness” (2022). Markedly, the complete blindness that immature defenses create may suppress arousal but fail to motivate healthy behavioral responses. Subsequently, the behaviors fail to invite growth or long term solutions.

​The Immature Defenses 

Level 4. Minor Image Distorting Defenses:

  • Idealization of Self-Image
  • Idealization of Other’s Image
  • Devaluation of Self-Image
  • Devaluation of Other’s Image
  • Omnipotence

Level 3. Disavowal Defenses:

  • Denial
  • Rationalization
  • Projection
  • Autistic Fantasy

Level 2. Major Image Distorting Defenses:

Level 1. Action Defenses:

Immature Defense Mechanisms and Psychological Disorders

Studies and research has shown that the extensive use of immature, maladaptive defense mechanisms impacts mental health. “The use of immature and neurotic defense mechanisms was found to have significant relationship with stress, negative emotions, somatic complaints, avoidant personal trait, antisocial personality trait, mood disorder, panic disorder, personality disorder, alcohol use and anger” (Bedel, 2019).

The use of immature defenses in adults is concerning and often suggest deeper underlying unresolved issues.

A Few Final Words

​The unconscious and employed protective mechanisms are a fascinating realm in psychology. Often penetrating beneath the protections with awareness is an avenue to healing.

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Araujo, K., Ryst, E., & Steiner, H. (2004). Adolescent Defense Style and Life Stressors. Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 30(1), 19-28.

Bedel, A., (2019). The Role of Interpersonal Problem Solving in Using the Immature Defense Mechanisms in Adolescents. Universitas Psychologica.

Cavalera, C., Andreani, P., Baumgartner, O., & Oasi, O. (2022). Do Immature Defense Mechanisms Mediate the Relationship Between Shame, Guilt, and Psychopathological Symptoms?. Frontiers in Psychology, 13.

Freud, Anna (1937). The Ego and Mechanisms of Defense. ​Routledge; 1st edition.

Murphy, T. Franklin (2021). Defense Mechanisms. Flourishing Life Society. Published 2-4-2021. Accessed 8-7-2022.

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