What is… a defense mechanism

MH@H Insights into Psychology: Defense mechanisms - time to get a little Freudian

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms.  This week’s term: 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.

A number of defense mechanisms have been identified by Freud himself and in later work by his daughter Anna Freud as well as other researchers.  Here are a few examples.

Repression

Repression pushes 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.

Projection

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.

Displacement

Strong feelings towards one person are acted out on someone else who is seen as a more acceptable target.  Based on the explanation from Simply Psychology, it sounds like 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 because showing this anger would be inappropriate, you end up taking it out on your spouse when you get home after work.

Sublimation

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?

Denial

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.

Regression

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 other people that may be in the picture.  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 hospitalized on an inpatient unit is sometimes (although of course not always) an indicator of regression.

Rationalization

Most of us rationalize to some extent, but the more sensitive the ego, the more unconsciously this happens.

Reaction formation

This occurs when your natural reaction to something is unwanted or unacceptable, so instead the mind forms a reaction that is very much the opposite of the natural reaction.

 

There are a variety of other examples, including passive-aggression, hypochondriasis, intellectualization, and dissociation.

While I would agree that these are strategies that we use to protect ourselves psychologically, overall 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 going on 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?

 

You can find the rest of my What Is series here.

Sources:

 

Mental Health @ Home Store Therapy mini-ebook collection

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25 thoughts on “What is… a defense mechanism

  1. kachaiweb says:

    I love me some Freud! I may not understand it all correctly but I do enjoy his theories very much. As for the defense mechanisms, I use them all. Not all in a pathological way and not all at once. For me, I understand the Eros and the Thanatos as the life-drift and the death drift. And sex falls under the Eros.
    I believe very much in sublimation, I think my will to create is my strongest point, that is able to fight down its opponent. Although something went wrong along the way as the Eros diminished and the other one has a bigger playground now.
    Regression, yes, I do that. I remember once we went for a hot chocolate in a very famous bar. They had the best hot chocolate in the whole country, it was also not cheap. We went on a cold winter evening. I was all dolled up and after waiting in line for this ‘specialty’ I trip and the chocolate fell on the floor. That was bad. But then I started to cry in the middle of the bar! So yes, my ‘inner child’ was strong there 😄 ah yes, I was 25 at the time.

    • ashleyleia says:

      I don’t think that inner child ever goes away. And yes, Freud is certainly quite the character. Imagine how fascinating it would be to be a fly on the wall during one of his sessions with a client.

      • kachaiweb says:

        Ha! We would know much more and understand the theory more. I once red a letter between him and a mother, asking for his help in regards to her homoseksual son. He declined with such grace and assured the lady that there was nothing wrong with her son. That was around the 1900!

  2. Meg says:

    Dr. Freud approves of your post!!

    I find regression interesting. With me, I feel as if part of me never aged past childhood to begin with, so it’s not technically regression. I guess I’m referring to my weird love of rainbows, stuffed animals, dolls, and vibrantly colorful artwork on every wall. I’ve never really understood what it all goes back to, but it’s like a funhouse up here. And then, I’m sure you’ve noticed how I sometimes call my mom “Mommy” when I’m blogging. Huh. Weirdness! But none of it causes any problems in my life (quite the opposite–I love the rainbow), so I don’t worry about it. I just wonder.

    I think you’re supposed to use sublimation for dieting, like, you want a chocolate bar? Eat something only half as unhealthy instead! But it never works for me. I eat the chocolate bar!

  3. Paula Light says:

    I have a lot of “things” in this area and I like to believe I’m pretty aware of them and why they exist. Forex, I can be very (internally) judgmental in a sour grapes way of others, when in fact I’m really just envious. Like if I see a PDA couple I’ll think eww they’re just publicly overcompensating for their shitty home life. But they might have a fabulous home life! Etc.

  4. lumpdates says:

    A lot of my recurring dreams seem clearly related to repression, but I tend to be quite a skeptical person. A therapist I saw briefly was asking me about my dreams, insisting that all dreams have meaning. I said “Really? One time, I dreamt that my mom bought me some socks. What does that mean?” A little too snarky, perhaps.
    I like to say my most prominent defense mechanism is humor. If I don’t laugh, I’ll cry, and I really hate crying in front of people.

  5. Michael A. Kuch says:

    Excellent post, Ashley. Definitely, coped with Denial for many years. Regression today. Aging, as you’ve suggested. Avoidance of conflict. A general passivity is probably not the best defence mechanism.

  6. Hannah Celeste says:

    Love your “what is” series so much! Is it weird that I recognize every single one of these defense mechanisms as things that I do?? Some resonate a lot more than others, but I do all of these to a degree.

  7. Michelle says:

    I have done a few of these. I do experience denial and taking my feelings out on others. I also will attempt pushing people away. I often times feel like going back to harming myself. It is usually the first thought that comes in my mind because it’s what I know that works. I thankfully have been good not to.

    The last thing you said about sex is something I haven’t heard of before. It isn’t always on my mind and not what I would turn to.

  8. crushedcaramel says:

    These are all so interesting. I am not surprised most of us need to find some ways to protect ourselves in what can be a harsh world at times.

    I have a very close friend who is very special to me. We spent a lot of time together as teenagers when she and her siblings were involved in a court case. Two people (formerly “friends” of their family) were sent to prison for the acts of sexual abuse they committed towards my friend and her siblings.

    In her twenties, she developed chronic fatigue syndrome. Almost everyone ascribed this to the level of stress she had been under for years in connection with that abuse and the court case.

    I spent time with her and her husband. What a beautiful creature she was. Her personality was so fascinating. I always felt I wanted to protect her from anything else the world would throw at her.

    One day we nipped into the supermarket and when we went to pay for the shopping we headed to the checkouts where there were two banks of cashiers back to back (four cahiers in total, facing different directions. There seemed to be four separate queues. We wandered to what we believed was the back of one of the queues. Next moment a woman started screaming at my friend swearing at her for pushing in front of her. I could not believe my eyes! My poor friend just froze.

    I intervened and apologised to the lady saying we had not realized and asking her to go ahead of us. But she continued to rant at the other customers in the queue in front telling them how rude we were.

    When we face that kind of situation, I can imagine most of us would unconsciously display one of strategies you mentioned just to protect ourselves from being belittled in such an unbalanced manner.

    I don’t think much of that has anything to do with sex in all honesty. But I wouldn’t want to argue with anyone about Freud.

    • ashleyleia says:

      I think anytime we’re faced with acutely stressful situations we’re bound to fall back on unconscious mechanisms because it happens too fast to put together another response.

  9. Luftmentsch says:

    I missed this on Friday because WordPress unfollowed me. I repress a lot. I think I’m a very repressed person. There’s a LOT of repressed anger, repressed sexuality, repressed hatred and maybe more because I don’t allow myself to feel these things because I find them too dangerous. I probably used academic work as displacement activity for many years until I got too depressed to work at all. I used to be a workaholic; now, I feel I can’t function much of the time. I’ve probably been in denial in the past and certainly I regress when very stressed. And I rationalise a lot of stuff that seems logical to me, but not to other people. That’s partly autistic rigidity.

    It’s easy to mock Freud, but I think he had some interesting ideas even if they don’t all stand up to modern scrutiny and are rarely falsifiable in a Popperian sense. And he took the mind, and talking therapy, seriously when many people did not.

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