When people hear the term defense mechanisms their mind usually associates it with old fashioned psychology and Freud. However, being able to identify, label and recognize defense mechanisms could be quite a valuable capacity. Defense mechanisms are a part of normal functioning. Everyone uses them without even realizing it. Becoming aware of defense mechanisms and the manner in which it is displayed during our interactions with others can teach us allot about the true raw feelings of the other person. Beside a deeper insight, being able to identify and understand the working of the defense mechanisms can also improve our communication abilities. Therapy can increase our awareness to our own defense mechanisms, when and why we use them and how effective they really are. Increasing our awareness and the ability to identify the defense usage can help promote in the future the use of a better, more effective and adaptive coping strategy.
What are defense mechanisms? The ego protects the individual from the anxiety by using defense mechanisms. Defense mechanisms operate outside consciousness and awareness of the individual. They are activated without effort, choice or conscious intentionality. Defenses provide a sense of comfort and security, yet defense mechanisms do not solve the source of anxiety. They only reduce the anxiety felt. Defense mechanisms are an alternative way of expressing the impulses in a manner that will not create conflict with society’s norms and demands. Defenses enable self-protection by reducing awareness of unpleasant thoughts, desires, fears and feelings. They restore emotional balance and keep the affect within acceptable limits. Defenses also help the individual to deal with unsolvable conflicts with other people and with the conscience (Vaillant ,1992). They enable the individual to have the time needed to get used to new conditions and changes in the self-image. Defense mechanisms thus promote psychological well-being, increase adaptability, allow normal psychological development and maintain self-coherence due to the fact that they reduce, alter and manipulate one’s own awareness of disturbing thoughts, desires, perception and feelings (Cramer, 1998).
The followings are a few commonly used defense mechanisms and their descriptions.
1. Reaction formation: a process of converting wishes and unacceptable or undesirable impulses that are perceived to be threatening into their opposites and by doing so preventing their dangerous expression (Moore & Fine, 1995). It entails behaving completely contrary to how one truly feels. The transformation protects the individual’s self-esteem and promotes confidence. Unconscious defense mechanisms such as reaction formation will assist an aggressive man, for example, to protect himself from his own aggressive impulses by motivating him to act just the extreme opposite and being overly kind, helpful and generous to others.
2. Turning against self: A defense mechanism in which the aggression and hostility that is felt towards another person is redirected towards the self. This defense mechanism is highly correlated with depression, masochism and suicidal impulses (Moore & Fine, 1995). Behaviour can include self-destructive behaviours, self-demeaning humour, provocative behaviour, taking extreme risks and etc.
3. Projection: Projection allows one to observe one’s own unwanted and unacceptable traits, thoughts, feelings and impulses in others. Projection enables the avoidance of the realization that these undesirable traits are an actual part of the self. Observing negative traits in others puts others in a negative and unfavourable light, which indirectly puts a more positive light on the self. The self is perceived as more superior as it does not possess those intolerable traits. An example, a spouse may get really angry at their partner and say that they are inconsiderate and selfish when in fact it was the spouse who demonstrated selfishness in that situation.
4. Intellectualization: The overuse of logic and abstract thinking as a way of avoiding the experience of emotions. The result is cutting off the affective experience from the hurtful situation. Emotions are being thought of instead of experienced. By suppressing the feelings, the individual attempts to regain control over his or her dangerously threatening impulses and emotions (Conte & Pluchik, 1995). For example, a person was given a diagnosis of terminal illness and instead of feeling sadness and grief, that person is spending all his time, energy and focus on exploring and researching medical books.
5. Regression: a retreat to an earlier developmental stage that embodies a behaviour that was given up or outgrown. It involves immature behaviour (Conte & Pluchik, 1995). For example, being overwhelmed by anxiety a teenager becomes very clingy.
6. Denial :Commonly used to avoid dealing with painful emotions, situations, events and thoughts, which they do not want to admit. It is the blunt refusal to accept reality as it is and acting as if it does not exist. For example, a drug addict that claims that his habit does not influence his life and that he has no problems.
7. Acting Out: An over the top reaction and extreme behaviour that is done in order to express thoughts or feelings to others. Generally originate from lack of ability to relate or express the self in a better way. It functions as an immediate release of pressure and emotions that were built up and provides a sense of relief. An example could be temper tantrum.
8. Sublimation: Refocusing unacceptable and harmful impulses, thoughts and emotions into more socially acceptable and productive ones. For example, instead of externalizing aggression and becoming violent, the person takes up boxing.
The link below will help demonstrate the use of defense mechanisms in various situations. Not all examples are precise but it is entertaining and a bit of fun…
Conte, H. R., & Plutchik, R. (1995). Ego defenses: theory and measurement. New York: John Wiley & son.
Cramer, P. (1998). Defensiveness and defense mechanisms. Journal of Personality, 66, 6, 878-894.
Moore, B. E., & Fine, B. D. (1995). Psychoanalysis-the major concepts. Michigan: Yale university press.
Vaillant, G. E. (1992). Ego mechanism of defense: a guide for clinicians and researchers. Washington DC: American psychiatric press.