Defense mechanisms are means designed to protect us from things we don’t want to deal with. We all experienced at various times feelings of anxiety. Anxiety is characterized by feelings of fear or concern. Simply, it may be defined as fear with no subject. According to Freud’s theory, we are permanently driven towards tension reduction in order to reduce these feelings of anxiety.
Defense mechanisms are essential for our health because they can reduce anxiety and tensions. But there are cases when these defense mechanisms become maladaptive. Even in this case they still have the power to reduce anxiety.
Freud suggested that there are three major types of anxiety:
- Neurotic anxiety is the unconscious fear of being overwhelmed by impulses of the ID. Expressing the impulses of the ID in the original form, without proper sublimation may result in punishment. Anxiety will be driven by the fear of punishment.
- Moral anxiety is characterized by shame and guilt. We usually try to respect moral norms accepted by people in our society. If we do not, we may lose respect of others. Anxiety appears from the fear of violating society norms.
- Reality anxiety represents the fear based on real world events. In this case anxiety is no longer defined as fear with no subject. For example, if we meet a growling dog on our way home is quite normal to be afraid of it. Everybody knows that a growling dog may be dangerous. Fear of a dog bite is an expression of reality anxiety.
In order to cope with these types of anxiety, the ego developed several defense mechanisms. Defense mechanisms work unconsciously. They can deny, transform or manipulate reality.
Defense mechanisms may become maladaptive. In psychoanalytic therapy, the analyst will help the patient to uncover these unconscious defense mechanisms and find new ways to cope with anxiety or stressful events.
The list of basic defense mechanism includes: denial, displacement, repression, regression, projection, intellectualization, rationalization, reaction formation, sublimation, introjection, identification, isolation of affect, conversion, fantasy.
Denial is a simply is simply refusing to acknowledge that an event has occurred. A person may act as nothing has happened. For example, a mother finds out that her little child was killed, and yet she refuses to believe this. The mother still prepares breakfast for her child every morning. Optimistic people deny that things may go wrong. Pessimistic people deny that they may succeed.
Displacement is the shifting of actions from a desired target to a substitute target. It appears when the first target is not permitted or not available and the person focuses her attention to other target. The second target will resemble the original target in some way. For example, the boss gets angry at work and shouts at his employees. An employee goes home and starts shouting at her wife or kids. A woman, rejected by her boyfriend will go out with another boy.
Repression involves placing uncomfortable thoughts in relatively inaccessible areas of the subconscious mind. Even if we forget painful things, they do not disappear. Repressed memories can have several effects such as anxiety or dysfunctional behavior. They may appear in altered forms, such as dreams or slips of the tongue. For example, a child who is abused by a parent later has no recollection of the event, but has trouble forming relationships.
Regression involves taking the position of a child in some problematic situation, rather than acting in an adult way. For example, a person who suffers a mental break breakdown assumes a fetal position, rocking and crying, without trying to do anything for her health.
Projection appears when a person who has uncomfortable thoughts or feelings and she starts to project these onto other people. It may also appear when we see our own traits in other people. The most common example is a couple’s behavior. Usually when a partner is nervous he thinks that his partner is nervous, not himself. He projects his own state of mind on his partner.
Intellectualization involves avoiding uncomfortable emotions by focusing on facts and logic. The emotional aspects are completely ignored. A woman who finds out that she suffers of infertility she starts reading many books in order to find out a rational way to cure herself.
Rationalization appears when we find difficult to accept an event and we start making up a logical reason to understand why it has happened. A man who bought an expensive car starts telling people that his old car was very unsafe. He tries to find a logical reason to explain why he bought such an expensive car.
Reaction formation occurs when a person feels an urge to do or say something and then actually does or says something that is effectively the opposite of what she really wants. If I want to sustain an idea at a school class and I am afraid that I will be criticized, it is possible to sustain another idea, the opposite of the original.
Sublimation is the transformation of unwanted impulses into something less harmful. Artists express their feeling through music or painting. If I am angry I go out to run and by doing this I make sure that I express my angry and nobody will be harmed.
Introjection involves the internalization of significant aspects of a person as a way to accept the loss of that person. For example, if a child loses his father he will take over his father’s qualities. We use to attribute our own unacknowledged feelings to others.
Identification is the internalization of another person’s qualities. Commonly, children follow their parent’s model. In order to do that, they will internalize their parent’s qualities, in their attempt to be just like mom and/or dad.
Isolation of affect involves separating an idea of its associated emotional state in order to avoid emotional turmoil. For example, a person is acting indifferent toward someone when she really dislikes that person.
Conversion occurs when internal conflicts are presented by physical symptoms. A person may complain of muscle pain, numbness of different parts of the body, but in fact she has no major medical problems. Her suffering is caused by internal unsolved conflicts.
Fantasy occurs when a person chooses to live in her own internal world, in order to avoid anxiety caused by interpersonal relations.
The theory of defense mechanisms was expanded in the important work of Anna Freud, daughter of Sigmund Freud. In 1936, she published a new volume, under the title Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. The book is focused on the defenses developed by the ego in order to confront or avoid the conflicts provoked by the id in its relations with the ego and the superego.
Defense mechanisms are useful for our health because they have the purpose to protect us but we may have a problem when a defense mechanism becomes maladaptive.