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Defense Mechanisms: Theories, Features, Methods

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“Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways. ” -Sigmund Feud

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Freud’s lexicon has become embedded within the vocabulary of western society. Words he introduced through his theories are now used by everyday people, such as anal (personality), libido, denial, repression, Freudian slip, and neurotic. Freud believed that when we explain our own behavior to ourselves or others (conscious mental activity) we rarely give a true account of our motivation. This is not because we are deliberately lying. Freud’s life work dominated by his attempts to find ways of penetrating this often subtle and elaborate camouflage that obscures the hidden structure and processes of personality. Early in his career, Freud became very influenced by Josef Breuer’s work on hysterical patients. Inspired by Breuer, Freud posited that neuroses had their origins in deeply traumatic experiences that had occurred in the patient’s past. He believed that the original occurrence had been forgotten and hidden from consciousness. His treatment was to empower his patients to recall the experience and bring it to consciousness, and in doing so, confront it both intellectually and emotionally. And that marked the origin for the theory, Psychoanalysis. Their prior works provided detailed account of free-association method, is customarily regarded as the starting point of psychoanalysis. Joseph Breuer had discovered the “cathartic” method of curing hysteria while treating the patient who would later be immortalized as Anna O. The case made a strong impression on Freud, and few years later he began using a combination of cathartic method and hypnosis in his own neurological practice.

Anna Freud and psychoanalysis

Anna Freud’s (A. Freud) interest in psychoanalysis was piqued when her father began to analyze her in 1918. A. Freud soon became a member of Psychoanalytic Society and began working with children in private practice. Within two years, she was offered a teaching position at the Vienna Psychoanalytic Training Institute. In 1935, she took over as director of the Vienna Psychoanalytical Training Institute. The following year Anna Freud published The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, a book that laid the groundwork for the field of ego psychology and defined A. Freud as an innovative thinker. Anna Freud discovered that children often required different psychological treatment from adults and emphasized the role that early disruptions in attachment could play in subsequent development of psychological problems.

Anna Freud’s father had outlined the psychosexual development, but his work was tentative and based upon the recollection of adults. Through her work with children, Anna tightened her father’s theories, emphasizing that children develop through distinct developmental phases. She also worked and expanded her father’s theory of psychological defense mechanism. In the Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, Anna Freud outlined many defense mechanisms.

Defense mechanism

Ego defense mechanisms are conceptualized as psychological mechanisms for managing distressing or overwhelming affects. Every individual holds preferred views about self. Most of the views we keep for ourselves would be favorable and more subjective. A recurrent problem of human functioning, therefore, is how to sustain these favorable views of self. Any imbalance in this favorable self- perception would violate this preferred view of self. This might occur due to any internal or external event. In such cases, it is necessary for the self to have some mechanism or process to defend itself against threatening implications of this event. Such processes are commonly called defense mechanisms. Each person usually deploys several defenses and is thereby characterized by a defensive style.

In Freud’s view, human is driven towards tension reduction, in order to reduce feelings of anxiety. He regarded anxiety as something felt, an unpleasant affective state or condition. Freud mainly dealt with Neurotic Anxiety, Moral Anxiety and Reality Anxiety. Anxiety neurosis was characterized by extreme nervousness, apprehension or anxious expectations, heart palpitation, disturbances of respiration, sweating tremor and shuddering, and the source of danger that evoked this reaction was internal rather than external. Reality anxiety is the most basic form of anxiety rooted in reality. The reduction of anxiety may serve powerfully to reinforce behavior that brings about such a state of relief or security. To reduce anxiety, human seek defense mechanisms. Defense mechanisms and coping strategies are discussed as two different types of adaptational processes. They may be clearly differentiated on the basis of psychological processes involved, but not on the basis of their relation to outcomes measures. criteria that critically differentiate between defense and coping processes include the conscious/unconscious status, intentional/no intentional nature of process, dispositional/situational status of the process, and the conceptualization of the processes as hierarchical.

History of defense mechanism

Until about 1900, Freud considered defense to be a mental function, one of the several faculties of the mind. Within this conception, no marked difference was marked between several defense mechanisms. Any psychic material could use any defense function. The defense function was related to painful feelings and affects of patients. From 1900 until the publication of the Ego and the Id. Freud’s focus during this time was on inner psychic reality, and especially the unconscious drives. During this period, the function of defense was thought of as a counterforce against the push of drives for discharge. With the publication of the Ego and the Id, Freud introduced his model of personality as consisting of three structures- id, ego, and superego. This structural model was amplified by Freud in “Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety”. One of the first systematic theories of defense mechanism was provided by Anna Freud in her book, The Ego and the Mechanism of Defense, in which she did a detailed study on defense mechanism and expanded the field. She made the point clear that Defense Mechanisms protect the ego by warding off anxiety and guilt feelings.

These two motives for defense- anxiety and guilt- are taken up by Fenichel in his extensive discussion of defense mechanisms. Fenichel explains defensive functions within a developmental framework, beginning with experience of primary anxiety, which occurs early in life when organism flooded either with excitement or with the uncontrolled discharge of instinctual energy. At this early stage, the ego is passive and experiences this flooding as panic. Later in development, when the ego can anticipate the possibility of instinctual impulse discharge, a judgment of an impending danger is made and expressed in the form of an anxiety signal. This anxiety signal in turn indicates the need to start defensive action. If the ego control fails, anxiety becomes overwhelming and a panic reaction ensues.

Key characteristics of defense mechanism

George. E. Vaillant (1971) in his book Ego Mechanisms of Defense: A Guide for Clinicians and Researchers mentioned five basic nature of defense mechanism.

  • Defenses are a major means of managing instinct and affect.
  • They are unconscious
  • They are discrete (from one another)
  • Although often the hallmarks of major psychiatric syndromes, defenses are dynamic and reversible.
  • They can be adaptive as well as pathological.

Commonly used defense mechanisms

Repression: Repression is perhaps the most significant of defense mechanisms in that repressed feelings and impulses can lead to the use of many other mechanisms. This was the first defense mechanism discovered by Sigmund Freud, in his theory the impulsive desires of the psyche’s id are prevented by being fulfilled by the ego, which observes the Reality Principle – that our actions are restricted by our environment, including social etiquette. Moreover, the superego acts as our moral compass, inducing feelings of guilt at having experienced the irrational desires that the id creates. For example, in the Oedipus complex, aggressive thoughts about the same sex parents re repressed.

Projection: When we experience feelings or desires that cause anxiety, or that we are unable to act on owing to the negative impact that they would have on us or those around us, we may defend the ego from resulting anxieties by projecting those ideas onto another person. Mostly the thoughts which would be projected on are the ones that would cause guilt such as aggressive and sexual fantasies or thoughts. For example, a person who is afraid of crossing a bridge with a friend might accuse them of having a fear of heights, and in doing so, avoids accepting their own weaknesses.

Displacement: Displacement occurs when a person represses affection, fear or impulses that they feel towards another person. Accepting that it is irrational or socially unacceptable to demonstrate such feelings, the psyche prevents them from being converted into actions. However, the feelings are instead displaced towards a person or animal whom it is acceptable to express such sentiments for. For example, someone who is frustrated by his or her superiors may go home and kick the dog, beat up a family member, or engage in cross-burnings.

Sublimation: Sublimation is considered to be a more adaptive defense mechanism in that it can transform negative anxiety into a more positive energy. Psychiatrist George Vaillant identified it as a mature defense mechanism, which we can use to adapt to arising anxieties. For example, fixation at oral stage of development may later lead to seeking oral pleasure as an adult through sucking ones thumb, pen or cigarette.

Denial: The self denial of one’s feelings or previous actions is one defence mechanism to avoid damage to the ego caused by the anxiety or guilt of accepting them. A person might also deny to their physical behavior, such as theft, preferring to think that someone forced them into committing the crime, in order to avoid dealing with the guilt should they accept their actions. Denial is an undesirable defense mechanism as it contravenes the reality principle that the id adheres to, delving into an imaginary world that is separate from our actual environment. For example, smokers may refuse to admit to themselves that smoking is bad for their health.

Regression: Regression occurs when a person reverts to the types of behavior that they exhibited at an earlier age. Stress of adult life and the associated anxiety may lead to a person seeking comfort in things which they associate with more secure, happier times. When we are troubled or frightened, our behaviors often become more childish or primitive. For example, they might regress by eating meals that they were given as a child, watching old films or cartoons, teenagers may giggle uncontrollably when introduced into a social situation involving the opposite sex.

Rationalization: Rationalization is the cognitive distortion of “the facts” to make an event or an impulse less threatening. Occurs when a person attempts to explain or create excuses for an event or action in rational terms. In doing so, they are able to avoid accepting the true cause or reason resulting in the present situation. For example, if a person fails an exam, they may excuse themselves from blame by rationalizing that they were too busy to revise during the revision period.

Reaction Formation: This is where a person goes beyond denial and behaves in the opposite way to which he or she thinks or feels. When the insatiable desires of the id conflict with the ego and super ego, a person may formulate a reaction to those impulses. Often, this action is the direct opposite to the demands of the original desire, and helps to counteract impulses which may be unacceptable to act out or fulfill. For example, the dutiful daughter who loves her mother is reacting to her Oedipus hatred of her mother, anal fixation leads usually to meanness, but occasionally a person will react against this leading to over generosity.

Isolation: The defense mechanism of isolation can lead a person to separate ideas or feelings from the rest of their thoughts. In distinguishing an emotion or impulse from others in this way, a person attempts to protect the ego from anxieties caused by a specific situation. For example, a person with a particularly stressful job may use isolation to separate their work life from their family life, avoiding the stress affecting their relationships.

Undoing: The defense mechanism of “undoing” is based on the notion that it is possible to make amends, to correct mistakes made. When we act on an idea or impulse that we later regret, we may adopt a defense mechanism of attempting to “undo” that action in order to protect the ego from feelings of guilt or shame. For example, A person may intentionally push past someone in a shop, but realizing that the person was frail, feel guilty with regards to their behavior. They may try to undo their action by apologizing or offering to help the person.

Introjection: Introjection occurs when a person takes stimuli in their environment and adopts them as their own ideas. This may involve internalizing criticism from another person and believing the other person’s points to be valid. For example, A person may introject religious ideas that they have heard at church, or political opinions that friends espouse. Behavior can also be introjected – the mannerisms of a father may be observed by his son and then replicated.

Acting Out: When the id component of the human psyche signals the desire to act on an impulse, the ego and super ego will often counteract it if they feel that that behavior would be counterproductive or immoral. A person may want to curse after falling over in a busy street, but the ego, perceiving this as contradicting social etiquette, will often lead to them holding back on the expletives. On some occasions, however, we may not be able to balance the impulses of the id and will defend the ego by simply acting out the irrational desires. For example a person might “act out” by theatrically storming out of a stressful meeting when they would otherwise stay calm and hide their unease.

Dissociation: People who use dissociation as a defense mechanism tend to momentarily lose their connection to the world around them. They may feel separated from the outside world, as though they exist in another realm. Dissociation often helps people to cope with uncomfortable situations by ‘removing’ themselves from them. The may enter a state of daydreaming, staring into space and letting their mind wander until someone nudges them, prompting them to acknowledge reality once more.

Compartmentalisation: Compartmentalization is a lesser form of dissociation, wherein parts of oneself are separated from awareness of other parts and behaving as if one had separate sets of values. An example might be an honest person who cheats on their income tax return and keeps their two value systems distinct and un-integrated while remaining unconscious of the cognitive dissonance.

Intellectualization: Intellectualization is a defense mechanism in which reasoning is used to block confrontation with an unconscious conflict associated emotional stress. When a person is attached emotionally to an issue, they may be tempted to consider it in intellectual terms. This often involves standing back from the situation and attempting to take a cold, neutral view of it. For example, a person who has been made redundant after twenty years of service to a company may intellectualize it, acknowledging the management’s view that redundancies needed to be made for the company to survive. However, this defense mechanism of intellectualization would not necessarily prevent the person’s passionate feeling that they have been betrayed after committing to work for the company for so long.

Compensation: Alfred Adler observed that much of human life is devoted to compensating for whatever we think are our weaknesses. Sometimes we try to improve on whatever we are weak in; some people recognize a weakness in one area, but try to excel in another. The most famous example being Demosthenes becoming great speaker, this can be seen in average student becoming outstanding athletes, and students who are physically not very attractive becoming great scholars. These are healthy way to handle the anxiety of feeling inferior or inadequate.

Splitting: Splitting occurs when the ego attempts to reconcile multiple aspects or rationales, but resorts to understanding the world in “black and white” terms. A person who experiences splitting may take an “either-or” approach when making evaluations of the world around them, including objects, situations, and people. They tend to view ideas as either right or wrong, with no middle ground or compromise. Similarly, they may take a “good versus bad” approach in relationships, admiring one group of people whilst completely rejecting those who do not live up to their expectations.

Somatization: The somatization defense mechanism occurs when the internal conflicts between the drives of the id, ego and super ego take on physical characteristics. Josef Breuer, a colleague of Sigmund Freud, observed this in the case of Anna O, who sought help from Breuer for hysteria. Breuer discovered that Anna’s anxieties had resulted from traumatic events that had been repressed, but later manifested themselves physically. For example, she experienced paralysis on one side, which Breuer linked to a dream in which she felt paralyzed whilst trying to fend off a snake from her bed-bound father.

Suppression: Unlike many other defense mechanisms, the suppression of thought and emotions is something which occurs consciously and we may be entirely aware that we are attempting to suppress anxieties. Suppression involves attempting not to think about a memory or feelings- a person may try to think of another subject when an uneasy thought enters their mind or they preoccupy their minds by undertaking an unrelated task to distract themselves. A person may also suppress feelings of love or dislike towards a person, behaving normally towards them as though they felt dispassionate towards them.

Social Comparison: When people feel that they have been victims of unjust actions, they may defend the ego by comparing themselves to those worse off. Similarly, we may see similarities between ourselves and others in a better position to improve our self image. These defense mechanisms are known as download or upward social comparisons. For example, a man who has broken a leg and confined to a wheelchair may make a downwards social comparison with a person who has been diagnosed with a more serious condition to make their own situation seem less troublesome. Alternatively, a person might seek to identify with a person of a perceived higher social position, such as when they learn that a celebrity is eating at the same restaurant as they are.

Passive Aggression: Displays of aggression are considered unsociable and undesirable in many societies, so when aggressive or violent impulses are experienced, people tend to avoid them as much as possible. However, the remaining energy driving such aggression may prove to be more difficult contain, and may manifest in other forms, known as passive aggression. A passive aggressive person may be uncooperative in carrying out their duties or other tasks, may deliberately ignore someone when spoken to and might adopt a negative view of their situation, such as their job, and of those around them (e. g. colleagues).

Fantasy: When life seems mundane or distressing, people often use fantasy as a way of escaping reality. They may fantasize about winning the lottery or idealized outcomes of their lives changing for the better in some way. Fantasies help us to explore alternatives to situations that we are unhappy with but unrealistic expectations of them being fulfilled can lead to us losing touch with reality and taking more viable actions to improve our lives.

Avoidance: When a perceived situation creates anxiety, one convenient option is sometimes to avoid it. Although avoidance can provide an escape from a particular event, it neglects to deal with the cause of the anxiety. For example, a person might know that they are are due to give a stressful presentations to colleagues at work, and take a sick day in order to avoid giving it. Avoidance in this situation might be only a short term option, however, if the presentation is rescheduled to another day. Someone may also avoid thinking about something which causes anxiety, preferring to leave it unresolved instead of confronting it.

Anticipation: The anticipation of a potentially stressful event is one way a person might mentally prepare for it. Anticipation might involve rehearsing possible outcomes in one’s mind or telling oneself that will not be as bad as they imagine. A person with a phobia of dentists might anticipate an appointment to have a tooth filling by telling themselves that the procedure will be over in just a few minutes, and reminding themselves that they have had one previously without any problems.

15 July 2020

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