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Defense Mechanisms

defense mechanism Graphics courtesy of Medical News TodayOpens in new window

According to Sigmund FreudOpens in new window, many of our characteristics, impulses, wishes, and some external facts are too painful, anxiety provoking, or dangerous to allow into the conscious mind. As Freud discussed over ten decades ago, to function, these facts, feelings, and thoughts are kept in the unconscious mind through mechanisms of defense (Freud, 1894/1962).

Defense mechanisms exist to protect one from knowing the stark truth about oneself and from having to face unpleasant realities. They also help us to resist the impulse to act out on these forbidden wishes.

According to Freudian theory, one of the three main components of the mind, the rational, self-preserving ego, utilizes defense mechanism. To achieve this, however, the ego must remain strong.

In some cases, an individual can become overwhelmed by illness, trauma, stressOpens in new window, or other situations, and defense mechanisms begin to break down. As this happens, the individual experiences anxiety, ranging in intensity from a mild uneasiness to a full-blown, terrifying anxiety attack.

AnxietyOpens in new window can be helpful because it motivates an individual to act in ways to reduce anxiety. Anxiety often prevents the expression of the forbidden impulse; for instance, an individual, while experiencing anxiety, may avoid his boss because he is afraid that he may yell at his boss if they come in contact with one another.

Sometimes, however, the defense mechanismOpens in new window and anxietyOpens in new window system break down entirely, and the individual acts on impulses in a dramatic way. For example, the nice, shy neighbor next door who suddenly goes to McDonald’s and shoots everyone in sight may have experienced such a breakdown.

The fundamental defense mechanism is repression.

Repression involves pushing a fact—such as an action performed in the past or the fact that one was diagnosed with cancer—or a feeling, thought, or membory into the unconscious mind.

For instance, an individual may have feelings of hatred toward his brother. These feelings are painful, threatening to destroy family harmony, and the individual’s ego represses the feelings into the unconscious mind.

Now the individual does not consciously feel hatred. He may have an uneasy feeling around his brother without being able to pinpoint the exact nature or cause of the feeling, or he may even feel an exaggerated love (or both unease and exaggerated love).

Additionally, Freud said that when someone is repressing something, he often represses related feelings and thoughts as well because they may remind him of the repressed impulse or memory. So, for example, the man who hates his brother may end up avoiding his brother to help maintain the repression.

And because his other family members often speak about his brother, he may end up becoming socially withdrawn from them to maintain the repression. And if the hatred is strong enough, he may even avoid his spouse’s brothers they may remind him of his brother, and so on.

Repression may also work with a membory. Suppose an individual behaved in an embarrassing way at a party with a few coworkers. He drank a little too much, began singing at the party, told all present that he loved them, and had to be carried out and driven home. He hates to think about the party and tries to forget by repressing. To be successful in the repression, he may end up avoiding his work friends.

Repression is a powerful defense mechanism that utilizes a great deal of psychological energy. Freud said that we have a limited amount of psychological energy and therefore we can repress only so much without running the risk of building a dam that will certainly burst.

As protection, the mind also utilizes other defense mechanisms. Examples are:

  • projection (attributing one’s own qualities to someone else),
  • rationalization (concocting rational reasons for engaging in unacceptable behavior),
  • reaction formation (converting an impulse into its opposite, for instance, hate into love or vice versa), and others.

Anna Freud (1936) thoroughly described several common defense mechanisms. Cramer (2006) and Cramer and Davidson (1998) reviewed defense mechanisms, discussed research, suggested areas of further research, and identified situations in which particular defense mechanisms may be helpful or harmful.

  1. Cramer, P. (2006). Protecting the self: Defense mechanisms in action. New York: Guilford.
  2. Cramer, P., & Davidson, K. (Eds.). (1998). Defense mechanisms in contemporary personality research [Special issue]. Journal of Personality, 66 (6).
  3. Freud, A. (1936). The writings of Anna Freud: Vol. 2. The ego and the mechanisms of defense. New York: International Universities Press.
  4. Freud, S. (1962). The neuro-psychoses of defense. In J. Strachey (Ed. and Trans.), The standard edition of the complete works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 3, pp. 45 – 61). London: Hogarth Press. (Original work published 1894).
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