In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is defense mechanisms.
The concept of defense mechanisms was originally proposed by Sigmund Freud. They’re strategies that are used unconsciously in order to protect the ego when faced with uncomfortable feelings.
Freud identified a number of defense mechanisms, as did his daughter Anna Freud and other researchers in later work. Here are a few examples.
Conversion involves transforming mental distress into physical symptoms. Conversion disorder, now known as functional neurological symptom disorder, involves neurological symptoms that occur as part of a mental disorder rather than arising from physical causes.
I’d say this is probably the rockstar go-to for many of us. However, when it becomes less conscious it can start to predominate and become pathological.
Strong feelings towards one person are acted out on someone else who is seen as a more acceptable target. Displacement happens when the id (the source of primitive drives) wants X, the superego (the conscience) won’t allow X, so the ego substitutes Y as a compromise.
This could occur if you were angry at your boss, but since showing this anger would be inappropriate, you end up taking it out on your spouse when you get home after work.
Distortion involves reshaping reality into something very different from what it actually is.
Hypochondriasis involves being overly preoccupied with fear that one has a serious illness.
Idealization is exactly what it sounds like – magnifying someone’s strengths and minimizing their weaknesses.
Introjection involves adopting the characteristics of others we identify with. An extreme version of this is identifying and empathizing with an abuser, as occurs in Stockholm syndrome.
Passive aggression involves indirectly expressing hostility.
The ego views it as unacceptable to have a certain feeling, so that feeling is projected towards another person so it no longer belongs to the ego. In a conflict with another person, this could take the form of accusing the other person of feeling something that’s actually what you yourself are feeling.
Most of us rationalize (using logic to justify unconscious impulses) to some extent, but the more sensitive the ego, the more unconsciously this happens.
This occurs when your natural reaction to something is unwanted or unacceptable. Instead, the mind forms a reaction that’s very much the opposite of the natural reaction.
As we grow older we tend to develop more advanced and adaptive coping strategies. When things get difficult, though, people can start to retreat from stressful situations by reverting to the coping strategies that worked at an earlier stage of development.
Unfortunately, when childlike behaviours emerge, that often doesn’t go over all that well with others. In my work as a nurse, I’d say I’ve seen regression most often in people with borderline personality disorder who are in significant distress. I’ve also seen staff interpret this behaviour as very willful rather than arising from an unconscious defense mechanism. Having a stuffed animal while on a psych ward is sometimes (although of course not always) an indicator of regression.
Repression automatically pushes difficult thoughts and feelings into the unconscious. However, that doesn’t make the associated distress disappear, and Freud believed the thoughts would bubble up into the subconscious in the form of dreams or so-called Freudian slips.
Suppression is similar but occurs consciously rather than automatically. There’s more on these defense mechanisms in the post What Is… Repression vs. Suppression.
Splitting involves classifying people/things as all good or all bad. This is common in borderline personality disorder.
Sublimation involves morphing something unacceptable into something acceptable. Simply Psychology offers this oh-so-Freudian example: “fixation during the anal stage may cause a person to sublimate their desire to handle faeces with an enjoyment of pottery.” There was also this delightful observation: “Sublimation for Freud was the cornerstone of civilized life, as arts and science are all sublimated sexuality.” Why not, right?
Wishful thinking involves acting based on the way we’d like things to be rather than the way they are.
Withdrawal involves removing oneself from a situation/context that stirs up thoughts and feelings we wish to avoid.
Is it all about the sex?
While I would agree that these are strategies that we use to protect ourselves psychologically, I’m not all that keen on Freud’s tendency to reduce everything down to sex. There’s nothing wrong with sex, but I don’t think it underpins everything in our minds all of the time.
Or who knows, maybe that’s just because I’m not getting laid. Or maybe I’m just repressing my penis envy and Electra complex.
Do you recognize any of these defense mechanisms as ones that you use yourself?
- Psych Central: 15 Common defense mechanisms
- Simply Psychology: Defense mechanisms
- Wikipedia: Defense mechanisms
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.