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Defense Mechanisms

Defense Mechanisms

Because of anxiety provoking demands created by the id, superego, and reality, the ego has developed a number of defense mechanisms to cope with anxiety. Although we may knowingly use these mechanisms, in many cases these defenses occur unconsciously and work to distort reality.

While all defense mechanisms can be unhealthy, they can also be adaptive and allow us to function normally. The greatest problems arise when defense mechanisms are overused in order to avoid dealing with problems.

There are a number of defense mechanisms that have been described by researchers. Sigmund Freud’s daughter, Anna Freud described ten different defense mechanisms used by the ego.

Denial is probably one of the best known defense mechanisms, used often to describe those who seem unable to face reality or admit and obvious truth (i.e. “He’s in denial.”). Denial is an outright refusal to admit or recognize that something has occurred or is currently occurring. Drug addicts or alcoholics often deny that they have a problem, while victims of traumatic events may deny that the event ever occurred.

Denials functions to protect the ego from things that the individual cannot cope with. While this may save us from anxiety or pain, denial also requires a substantial investment of energy. Because of this, other defenses are also used to keep these unacceptable feelings from consciousness. 

Repression is another well-known defense mechanism. Repression acts to keep information out of conscious awareness. However, these memories don’t just disappear; they continue to influence our behavior. For example, a person who has repressed memories of abuse suffered as a child may later have difficulty forming relationships.

Sometimes we do this consciously by forcing the unwanted information out of our awareness, which is known as suppression, but it is usually believed to occur unconsciously

If you have ever had a bad day at work, then gone home and taken out your frustration on family and friends, you have experienced the ego defense mechanism of displacement. Displacement involves taking out our frustrations, feelings, and impulses on people or objects that are less threatening. Displaced aggression is a common example of this defense mechanism. Rather than express our anger in ways that could lead to negative consequences (like arguing with our boss), we instead express our anger towards a person or object that poses no threat (such as our spouses, children, or pets).

Sublimation is a defense mechanism that allows us to act out unacceptable impulses by converting these behaviors into a more acceptable form. For example, a person experiencing extreme anger might take up kick boxing as a means of venting frustration. Freud believed that sublimation was a sign of maturity that allows people to function normally in socially acceptable ways.

Projection is a defense mechanism that involves taking our own unacceptable qualities or feelings and ascribing them to other people. For example, if you have a strong dislike for someone, you might instead believe that he or she does not like you. Projection functions to allow the expression of the desire or impulse, but in a way that the ego cannot recognize, therefore reducing anxiety.

Intellectualization works to reduce anxiety by thinking about events in a cold, clinical way. This defense mechanism allows us to avoid thinking about the stressful, emotional aspect of the situation and focus only on the intellectual component. For example, a person who has just been diagnosed with a terminal illness might focus on learning everything about the disease in order to avoid distress and remain distant from the reality of the situation.

Rationalization is a defense mechanism that involves explaining an unacceptable behavior or feeling in a rational or logical manner, avoiding the true explanation for the behavior. For example, a person who is turned down for a date might rationalize the situation by saying they weren’t attracted to the other person anyway, or a student who blames a poor exam score on the instructor rather than his or her lack of preparation.

Rationalization not only prevents anxiety, it may also protect self-esteem and self-concept. When confronted by success or failure, people tend to attribute achievement to their own qualities and skills while failures are blamed on other people or outside forces.

When confronted by stressful events, people sometimes abandon coping strategies and revert to patterns of behavior used earlier in development. Anna Freud called this defense mechanism regression, suggesting that people act out behaviors from the stage of psychosexual development in which they are fixated. For example, an individual fixated at an earlier developmental stage might cry or sulk upon hearing unpleasant news.

Behaviors associated with regression can vary greatly depending upon which stage the person is fixated at:
• An individual fixated at the oral stage might begin eating or smoking excessively, or might become very verbally aggressive.
• A fixation at the anal stage might result in excessive tidiness or messiness.
Reaction formation
Reaction formation reduces anxiety by taking up the opposite feeling, impulse, or behavior. An example of reaction formation would be treating someone you strongly dislike in an excessively friendly manner in order to hide your true feelings. Why do people behave this way? According to Freud, they are using reaction formation as a defense mechanism to hide their true feelings by behaving in the exact opposite manner.

Other Defense Mechanism
Since Freud first described the original defense mechanisms, other researchers have continued to describe other methods of reducing anxiety. Some of these defense mechanisms include:
• Acting out – The individual copes with stress by engaging in actions rather than reflecting upon internal feelings.
• Affiliation – Involves turning to other people for support.
• Aim inhibition – The individual accepts a modified form of their original goal (i.e.a coach rather than an athlete.)
• Altruism – Satisfying internal needs through helping others.
• Avoidance – Refusing to deal with or encounter unpleasant objects or situations.
• Compensation – Overachieving in one area to compensate for failures in another.
• Humor – Pointing out the funny or ironic aspects of a situation.
• Passive-aggression – Indirectly expressing anger.

Personal Psychology
Defense mechanisms

Defense mechanisms are a set of unconscious way to protect one’s personality from unpleasant thoughts and realities which may otherwise cause anxiety. The notion of defense mechanism is an integral part of the psychoanalytic theory. Although often described as detrimental and negative ways that an individual deals with overwhelming stressors; these mechanisms can also be applied positively when dealing with conflicts. Used sparingly, they help people face difficult life situations. However, a defense mechanism can also lead to a neurosis if it causes a person to adopt ineffectual or inappropriate coping strategies.

Examples of defense mechanisms include: the examples given here are generally negative applications of the mechanism; although, these mechanism can often be used in healthy fashion to deal with stressors

Acting Out. Dealing with emotional stressors by actions rather than reflections or feelings.
For example, a person facing a small problem responds quickly with intense passion when the situation would not have required it.

Altruism. Dealing with emotional stressors by dedication to meeting the needs of others.
For example, a person putting away her own problems starts to volunteer.

Anticipation. Dealing with emotional stressors by experiencing emotional reactions in advance of, or anticipating consequences of, possible future events and considering realistic, alternative responses or solutions.
For example, after a difficult job interview an unemployed candidate expects that he might not be selected by the employer.

Avoidance. Dealing with emotional stressors by refusing to encounter situations, objects, or activities because of the fear of failures or difficulties. Often seen in phobias.
For example, a worker refuses to confront an employer fearing his or her reactions.

Compensation. Dealing with emotional stressors by overemphasizing other activities or situations.
For example, a physically unattractive adolescent starts weightlifting.
Denial. Dealing with emotional stressors by failing to recognize obvious implications or consequences of a thought, act, or situation.
For example, a disabled person plans to return to former activities although it is evident it is virtually impossible.

Displacement. Dealing with emotional stressors by redirecting emotion from a ‘dangerous’ object to a ‘safe’ object.
For example, a worker is angered by his superior but suppresses his anger; later, on return to his home, he punishes one of his children for misbehavior that would usually be tolerated or ignored.

Humor. Dealing with emotional stressors by emphasizing the amusing or ironic aspects of the conflict or stressors.
For example, a patient is laughing off the fact that physicians are unable to diagnose himself with a specific disease.

Idealization. Dealing with emotional stressors by overestimating the desirable qualities and underestimating the limitations of a desired object.
For example, a lover speaks in glowing terms of the beauty of an average-looking woman he has recently dated.

Intellectualization. Dealing with emotional stressors by excessive use of abstract thinking or complex explanations to control or minimize disturbing feelings.
For example, a husband is constructing elaborate logical explanations for his wife recent paranoid ideas.

Introjection. Dealing with emotional stressors by internalizing the values or characteristics of another person; usually someone who is significant to the individual in some way.
For example, adopting the ideals of a charismatic leader in order to deal with feelings of one’s own inadequacy.

Isolation. Dealing with emotional stressors by splitting-off of the emotional components from a difficult thought. The mechanism of isolation is commonly over utilized by people with obsessive compulsive personalities.
For example, a medical student dissects a cadaver without being disturbed by thoughts of death.

Passive Aggression. Dealing with emotional stressors by indirectly and unassertively expressing aggression toward others. See Passive-aggressive page for further details.

Projection. The opposite of introjection. Attributing one’s own emotions or desires to an external object or person.
For example, saying others hate you when it is you who hates the others.

Rationalization. Dealing with emotional stressors by inventing a socially acceptable or logical reason to justify an already taken unconscious emotional action.
For example, becoming drunk and then after-the-fact saying that it was need to ‘take the edge off’.”

Reaction formation. Dealing with emotional stressors by converting an uncomfortable feeling into its opposite.
For example, a married woman who is disturbed by feeling attracted to another man treats him rudely.

Repression. Moving thoughts unacceptable to the Ego into the unconscious, where they cannot be easily accessed.

Somatization. Dealing with emotional stressors by physical symptoms involving parts of the body innervated by the sympathetic and parasympathetic system.
For example, a highly competitive and aggressive person, whose life situation requires that such behavior be restricted, develops hypertension.

Sublimation. Dealing with emotional stressors by using the energy in other, usually constructive activities.
For example, playing sports to relieve stress or anger.

Suppression. Dealing with emotional stressors by deferred dealing with the stressor.
For example, a worker finds that he is letting thoughts about a date that evening interfere with his duties; he decides not to think about plans for the evening until he leaves work.

Undoing. Dealing with emotional stressors by negating a previous act or communication.
For example, after having made a derogatory statement to his wife, a husband brings her a gift.

Anxiety and Ego-Defense Mechanisms

In Freud’s view, the human is driven towards tension reduction, in order to reduce feelings of anxiety.

Anxiety : an aversive inner state that people seek to avoid or escape.

Humans seek to reduce anxiety through defense mechanisms

Defense Mechanisms can be psychologically healthy or maladaptive, but tension reduction is the overall goal in both cases.

A comprehensive list of Defense Mechanisms was developed by Anna Freud, Sigmund’s daughter.

Freud specified three major types of anxiety :
Reality Anxiety : the most basic form, rooted in reality. Fear of a dog bite, fear arising from an impending accident. (Ego Based Anxiety)

Most Common Tension Reduction Method :
Removing oneself from the harmful situation.

Neurotic Anxiety : Anxiety which arises from an unconscious fear that the libidinal impulses of the ID will take control at an in opportune time. This type of anxiety is driven by a fear of punishment that will result from expressing the ID’s desires without proper sublimation.

Moral Anxiety : Anxiety which results from fear of violating moral or societal codes, moral anxiety appears as guilt or shame.

Defense Mechanisms

When some type of anxiety occurs, the mind responds in two ways :

First, problem solving efforts are increases, and Secondly, defense mechanisms are triggered. These are tactics which the Ego develops to help deal with the ID and the Super Ego.

All Defense Mechanisms share two common properties :

They can operate unconsciously
They can distort, transform, or falsify reality is some way.
The changing of perceived reality allows for a lessening of anxiety, reducing the psychological tension felt by an individual.

Types of Defense Mechanisms:

The most basic defense mechanism.
Sometimes referred to as : defensiveness
Repression can be conscious but is most commonly unconscious.

Advantages :
Can prevent inappropriate ID impulses from becoming behaviors.
Can prevent unpleasant thoughts from becoming conscious.
Can prevent memories of things we have done wrong from resurfacing.
Repression does not have to be total, partial memories where only the single piece of damaging information is “forgotten” is common.
What an individual represses depends upon cultural expectations and the particular development of an individuals super-ego.

When people are overwhelmed by the anxiety present within a situation, they can engage an even more severe form of memory repression : Denial

In Denial, the individual denies that the threatening event even took place !
In war, a mother receives word that her Son has been killed, and yet refuses to believe it, still setting the table for him, keeping his room and clothes current.
At school, a student seeing a grade of “C” next to their name, and automatically assuming the professor made a grading error.
Alcoholics and other Substance Abusers who refuse to admit they have a problem, despite it being very apparent to everyone around them.
Denial becomes more difficult with age, as the ego matures and understands more about the “objective reality” it must operate within.
People engaging in Denial can pay a high cost is terms of cathected psychic energy which is used to maintain the denial state.
Repression and Denial are the two main defense mechanisms which everybody uses.

In projection, anxiety is reduced by claiming another person actually has the unpleasant thoughts that you are thinking. You are attributing your own repressed thoughts to someone else.

For example, lets say that you do not like someone.
Your mother and father always told you to treat other people well, and to be friendly to everyone.

These thoughts from your parents become embedded in your super ego.
You discover that you do not like this person.
If you allow this thought to consciously surface, you will experience moral anxiety in terms of guilt feelings, because this conscious thought goes against the moral prohibitions of your super ego.
So, instead of consciously thinking the anxiety provoking thought ” I do not like this person” , this defense mechanism allows for the non-anxiety provoking thought
“This person does not like me ”

This is a post-hoc (after the fact) defense mechanism.

Rationalization allows tofind logical reasons for inexcusable actions.

For Example : Cheating on Taxes
Possible Rationalization : It is better that I hold onto this money or the government will spend it on weapons of mass destruction.
Fail to get into Med school (law school) :
Possible Rationalization : I didn’t want to pursue that career, anyways.
Rationalization helps to protect our sense of self-esteem
Rationalization is closely tied to the Self-serving Bias : The tendency to interpret success as inwardly achieved and to ascribe failure to outside factors.


Thinking about events in cold, hard, rational terms.
Separating oneself from the emotional content of an event, focusing instead on the facts.

Intellectualization protects against anxiety by repressing the emotions connected with an event.

For example, a wife who learns her husband is dying tries to learn all she can about the disease, prognosis, treatment options. By doing this she can help repress the emotional onslaught of feelings of loss and anger which can accompany the death of a loved one.
Freud believed that memories could have both conscious and unconscious aspects, and that intellectualization allows for the conscious analysis of non-anxiety provoking information about an event.

Because of partial fixations in any of the psychosexual stages of development, regression can occur when an individual is faced with high levels of stress in their life.

Regression is the giving up of mature problem solving methods in favor of child like approaches to fixing problems.
Someone with an oral fixation may increase their cigarette smoking of lollipop licking behavior when stressed at work.
Someone who is anal retentive might become more detail oriented and fastidiously neater as a result of anxiety.
This regression represents a way of relating to the world that was formerly effective.
Regression is a way to try to recapture some childhood satisfaction.

Displacement is the shifting of intended targets, especially when the initial target is threatening.

The classic use of displacement is in the understanding of displaced aggression.
An individual is “dressed down” by the supervisor at their job.
They feel anger and hostility toward their supervisor.
Their ID, driven by aggressive impulses, would like to tear the boss’s head off.
The Ego, being reality based and very much in favor of continued paychecks, realizes that this is not a good idea and therefore does not remove boss’s head.
The person goes home, but still has this aggressive impulse.
The Ego allows for the individual to scream at the spouse, since it feels this will not threaten future paychecks.
The spouse, now angry and upset, displaces their anger on their child, who then becomes angry and kicks their pet dog, a further displacement of anger.

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