Defense Mechanism


defense mechanism is the coping technique individuals unconsciously use to protect themselves from getting hurt in unpleasant situations (e.g. conflicts, unhappiness). Without defense mechanism, people may suffer from psychological and mental illness.  In Freudian psychoanalytic theory, defense mechanisms are unconscious, psychological strategies brought into play by various entities to cope with reality and to maintain self-image.

Healthy persons normally use different defenses throughout life. An ego defense mechanism becomes pathological only when its persistent use leads to maladaptive behavior such that the physical and/or mental health of the individual is adversely affected. The purpose of ego defense mechanisms is to protect the mind/self/ego from anxiety and/or social sanctions and/or to provide a refuge from a situation with which one cannot currently cope.

Defense mechanisms are more accurately referred to as ego defence mechanisms, and can thus be categorized as occurring when the id impulses are in conflict with each other, when the id impulses conflict with super-ego values and beliefs, and when an external threat is posed to the ego. The term ‘defense mechanism’ is often thought to refer to a definitive singular term for personality traits which arise due to loss or traumatic experiences, but more accurately refers to several types of reactions which were identified during and after Sigmund Freud’s daughter Anna’s time. Defense mechanisms are sometimes confused with coping strategies. One resource used to evaluate these mechanisms is the ‘Defense Style Questionnaire.’

The concept of id impulses comes from Sigmund Freud’s structural model. According to this theory, id impulses are based on the pleasure principle: instant gratification of one’s own desires and needs. Sigmund Freud believed that the id represents biological instinctual impulses in ourselves, such as aggression (Thanatos or the Death instinct) and sexuality (Eros or the Life instinct). For example, when the id impulses (e.g. desire to have sexual relations with a stranger) conflict with the superego (e.g. belief in societal conventions of not having sex with unknown persons), unsatisfied feelings of anxiousness or feelings of anxiety come to the surface. To reduce these negative feelings, the ego might use defense mechanisms (conscious or unconscious blockage of the id impulses).

In the ego, there are two ongoing processes. First there is the unconscious primary process, where the thoughts are not organized in a coherent way, the feelings can shift, contradictions are not in conflict or are just not perceived that way, and condensations arise. There is no logic and no time line. Lust is important for this process. By contrast, there is the conscious secondary process, where strong boundaries are set and thoughts must be organized in a coherent way. Most conscious thoughts originate here.

Id impulses are not appropriate in civilized society, so society presses us to modify the pleasure principle in favor of the reality principle; that is, the requirements of the external world. The superego forms as the child grows and learns parental and social standards. The superego consists of two structures: the conscience, which stores information about what is ‘bad’ and what has been punished, and the ego ideal, which stores information about what is ‘good’ and what one ‘should’ do or be.

When anxiety becomes too overwhelming, it is then the place of the ego to employ defense mechanisms to protect the individual. Feelings of guilt, embarrassment and shame often accompany the feeling of anxiety. In the first definitive book on defense mechanisms, ‘The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense’ (1936), Anna Freud introduced the concept of ‘signal anxiety’; she stated that it was ‘not directly a conflicted instinctual tension but a signal occurring in the ego of an anticipated instinctual tension.’ The signalling function of anxiety is thus seen as a crucial one and biologically adapted to warn the organism of danger or a threat to its equilibrium. The anxiety is felt as an increase in bodily or mental tension and the signal that the organism receives in this way allows it the possibility of taking defensive action towards the perceived danger. Defense mechanisms work by distorting the id impulses into acceptable forms, or by unconscious or conscious blockage of these impulses.

The list of defense mechanisms is huge and there is no theoretical consensus on the total number. Classifying defense mechanisms according to some of their properties (i.e. underlying mechanisms, similarities, or connections with personality) has been attempted. Different theorists have different categorizations and conceptualizations of defense mechanisms.

In George Eman Vaillant’s (1977) categorization, defences form a continuum related to their psychoanalytical developmental level: Level I – pathological defenses (i.e. psychotic denial, delusional projection); Level II – immature defenses (i.e. fantasy, projection, passive aggression, acting out); Level III – neurotic defenses (i.e. intellectualization, reaction formation, dissociation, displacement, repression); and Level IV – mature defenses (i.e. humor, sublimation, suppression, altruism, anticipation). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) includes a tentative diagnostic axis for defense mechanisms largely based on Vaillant’s hierarchical view, but has some modifications. Examples include: denial, fantasy, rationalization, regression, isolation, projection, and displacement.

The mechanisms on Level I, 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. They include: Delusional Projection (grossly frank delusions about external reality, usually of a persecutory nature); Conversion (the expression of a intrapsychic conflict as a physical symptom, some examples include blindness, deafness, paralysis, or numbness – sometimes called hysteria); Denial: (refusal to accept external reality because it is too threatening, arguing against an anxiety-provoking stimulus by stating it doesn’t exist, resolution of emotional conflict and reduction of anxiety by refusing to perceive or consciously acknowledge the more unpleasant aspects of external reality); distortion (a gross reshaping of external reality to meet internal needs); splitting (negative and positive impulses are split off and unintegrated, such as when an individual views other people as either innately good or innately evil, rather than a whole continuous being); and Extreme projection (the blatant denial of a moral or psychological deficiency, which is perceived as a deficiency in another individual or group).

Level II mechanisms are often present in adults, they 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. They include: Acting out (direct expression of an unconscious wish or impulse in action, without conscious awareness of the emotion that drives that expressive behavior); Fantasy (a tendency to retreat into fantasy in order to resolve inner and outer conflicts); Idealization (unconsciously choosing to perceive another individual as having more positive qualities than he or she may actually have; Passive aggression (aggression towards others expressed indirectly or passively such as using procrastination); Projection: (a primitive form of paranoia, which reduces anxiety by allowing the expression of the undesirable impulses or desires without becoming consciously aware of them – attributing one’s own unacknowledged unacceptable/unwanted thoughts and emotions to another – includes severe prejudice, severe jealousy, hypervigilance to external danger, and ‘injustice collecting’); Projective identification (the object of projection invokes in that person precisely the thoughts, feelings or behaviors projected); and Somatization (the transformation of negative feelings towards others into negative feelings toward self, pain, illness, and anxiety).

Level III mechanisms are considered neurotic, and are 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. They include: Displacement (shifting sexual or aggressive impulses to a more acceptable or less threatening target, redirecting emotion to a safer outlet); Dissociation (temporary drastic modification of one’s personal identity or character to avoid emotional distress, and separation or postponement of a feeling that normally would accompany a situation or thought; Hypochondriasis (an excessive preoccupation or worry about having a serious illness); Intellectualization (form of isolation; concentrating on the intellectual components of a situation so as to distance oneself from the associated anxiety-provoking emotions – thinking about wishes in formal, affectively bland terms and not acting on them); Isolation (separation of feelings from ideas and events, for example, describing a murder with graphic details with no emotional response); Rationalization (making excuses, such as when a person convinces him or herself that no wrong was done and that all is or was all right through faulty and false reasoning); Reaction formation (converting unconscious wishes or impulses that are perceived to be dangerous into their opposites – behavior that is completely the opposite of what one really wants or feels – taking the opposite belief because the true belief causes anxiety); Regression (temporary reversion of the ego to an earlier stage of development rather than handling unacceptable impulses in a more adult way); Repression (the process of attempting to repel desires towards pleasurable instincts, caused by a threat of suffering if the desire is satisfied – the desire is moved to the unconscious in the attempt to prevent it from entering consciousness); Undoing (a person tries to ‘undo’ an unhealthy, destructive or otherwise threatening thought by engaging in contrary behavior); and Withdrawal (removing oneself from events, stimuli, interactions, etc. under the fear of being reminded of painful thoughts and feelings.

Level IV mechanisms 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 to integrate conflicting emotions and thoughts, whilst still remaining effective. Those who use these mechanisms are usually considered virtuous. They include: Altruism (constructive service to others that brings pleasure and personal satisfaction); Anticipation (realistic planning for future discomfort); Humor (overt expression of ideas and feelings, especially those that are unpleasant to focus on or too terrible to talk about, that gives pleasure to others. The thoughts retain a portion of their innate distress, but they are ‘skirted round’ by witticism, for example self-deprecation); Identification (the unconscious modelling of one’s self upon another person’s character and behavior); Introjection (identifying with some idea or object so deeply that it becomes a part of that person); Sublimation (transformation of negative emotions or instincts into positive actions, behavior, or emotion); and Thought Suppression (the conscious process of pushing thoughts into the preconscious – the conscious decision to delay paying attention to an emotion or need in order to cope with the present reality, making it possible to later access uncomfortable or distressing emotions whilst accepting them).

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