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A defence mechanism is an unconscious psychological mechanism that reduces anxiety arising from unacceptable or potentially harmful stimuli. Sigmund Freud was one of the first proponents of this construct.
Defence mechanisms may result in healthy or unhealthy consequences depending on the circumstances and frequency with which the mechanism is used. In psychoanalytic theory, defence mechanisms (German: Abwehrmechanismen) are psychological strategies brought into play by the unconscious mind to manipulate, deny, or distort reality in order to defend against feelings of anxiety and unacceptable impulses and to maintain one's self-schema. These processes that manipulate, deny, or distort reality may include the following: repression, or the burying of a painful feeling or thought from one's awareness even though it may resurface in a symbolic form; identification, incorporating an object or thought into oneself; and rationalization, the justification of one's behaviour and motivations by substituting "good" acceptable reasons for the actual motivations. In psychoanalytic theory, repression is considered as the basis for other defence mechanisms.
Healthy persons normally use different defences throughout life. An ego defence mechanism becomes pathological only when its persistent use leads to maladaptive behaviour such that the physical or mental health of the individual is adversely affected. Among the purposes of ego defence mechanisms is to protect the mind/self/ego from anxiety and/or social sanctions and/or to provide a refuge from a situation with which one cannot currently cope.
Structural model: Id, ego, and superego
The concept of id impulses comes from Sigmund Freud’s structural model. According to this theory, id impulses are based on the pleasure principle: instant gratification of one's own desires and needs. Sigmund Freud believed that the id represents biological instinctual impulses in humans, such as aggression (Thanatos or the Death instinct) and sexuality (Eros or the Life instinct).
For example, when the id impulses (e.g., desire to have sexual relations with a stranger) conflict with the superego (e.g., belief in societal conventions of not having sex with unknown persons), unsatisfied feelings of anxiousness or feelings of anxiety come to the surface. To reduce these unpleasant feelings, the ego might use defence mechanisms (conscious or unconscious blockage of the id impulses).
Freud believed that conflicts between these two structures resulted in conflicts associated with psychosexual stages.
Definitions of individual psyche structures
Freud proposed three structures of the psyche or personality:
- Id: The id is the unconscious reservoir of the libido, the psychic energy that fuels instincts and psychic processes. It is a selfish, childish, pleasure-oriented part of the personality with no ability to delay gratification.
- Superego: The superego contains internalised societal and parental standards of "good" and "bad", "right" and "wrong" behaviour. They include conscious appreciations of rules and regulations as well as those incorporated unconsciously.
- Ego: The ego acts as a moderator between the pleasure sought by the id and the morals of the superego, seeking compromises to pacify both. It can be viewed as the individual's "sense of time and place".
Primary and secondary processes
In the ego, there are two ongoing processes. First there is the unconscious primary process, where the thoughts are not organised in a coherent way; the feelings can shift, contradictions are not in conflict or are just not perceived that way, and condensations arise. There is no logic and no time line. Lust is important for this process. By contrast, there is the conscious secondary process, where strong boundaries are set and thoughts must be organised in a coherent way. Most conscious thoughts originate here.
The reality principle
Id impulses are not appropriate in civilised society, so there is societal pressure to modify the pleasure principle in favour of the reality principle; that is, the requirements of the external world.
Formation of the superego
The superego forms as the child grows and learns parental and social standards. The superego consists of two structures: the conscience, which stores information about what is "bad" and what has been punished, and the ego ideal, which stores information about what is "good" and what one "should" do or be.
The ego's use of defence mechanisms
When anxiety becomes overwhelming, it is the ego's place to protect the person by employing defence mechanisms. Guilt, embarrassment and shame often accompany anxiety. In the first definitive book on defence mechanisms, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence (1936), Anna Freud introduced the concept of signal anxiety; she stated that it was "not directly a conflicted instinctual tension but a signal occurring in the ego of an anticipated instinctual tension".
The signaling function of anxiety is thus seen as a crucial one and biologically adapted to warn the organism of danger or a threat to its equilibrium. The anxiety is felt as an increase in bodily or mental tension and the signal that the organism receives in this way allows it the possibility of taking defensive action regarding the perceived danger. Defence mechanisms work by distorting the id impulses into acceptable forms, or by unconscious or conscious blockage of these impulses.
Theories and classifications
The list of defence mechanisms is huge and there is no theoretical consensus on the exact number. Classifying defence mechanisms according to some of their properties (like underlying mechanisms, similarities or connections with personality) has been attempted. Different theorists have different categorizations and conceptualizations of defence mechanisms. Large reviews of theories of defence mechanisms are available from Paulhus, Fridhandler and Hayes (1997) and Cramer (1991). The Journal of Personality published a special issue on defence mechanisms (1998).
In 1936, Anna Freud enumerated the ten defence mechanisms that appear in the works of Sigmund Freud: 1. Repression, 2. Regression, 3. Reaction formation, 4. Isolation, 5. Undoing, 6. Projection, 7. Introjection, 8. Turning against one's own person, 9. Reversal into the opposite, 10. Sublimation or displacement.
Both Anna Freud and her famous father Sigmund studied defence mechanisms but Anna spent more of her time and research on five main mechanisms: repression, regression, projection, reaction formation, and sublimation. All defence mechanisms are responses to anxiety and how the consciousness and unconscious handle the stress of a social situation.
- Repression: when a feeling is hidden and forced from the consciousness to the unconscious because it is seen as socially unacceptable.
- Regression: falling back into an early state of mental/physical development seen as “less demanding and safer”.
- Projection: possessing a feeling that is deigned as socially unacceptable and instead of facing it, that feeling or “unconscious urge” is seen in the actions of other people.
- Reaction formation: acting the opposite way that the unconscious instructs a person to behave, “often exaggerated and obsessive.” For example, if a wife is infatuated with a man who is not her husband, reaction formation may cause her to – rather than cheat – become obsessed with showing her husband signs of love and affection.
- Sublimation: seen as the most acceptable of the mechanisms, an expression of anxiety in socially acceptable ways.
Otto F. Kernberg (1967) developed a theory of borderline personality organization of which one consequence may be borderline personality disorder. His theory is based on ego psychological object relations theory. Borderline personality organization develops when the child cannot integrate helpful and harmful mental objects together. Kernberg views the use of primitive defence mechanisms as central to this personality organization. Primitive psychological defences are projection, denial, dissociation or splitting and they are called borderline defence mechanisms. Also, devaluation and projective identification are seen as borderline defences.
In George Eman Vaillant's (1977) categorization, defences form a continuum related to their psychoanalytical developmental level. They are classified into pathological, immature, neurotic and "mature" defences.
Robert Plutchik's (1979) theory views defences as derivatives of basic emotions, which in turn relate to particular diagnostic structures. According to his theory, reaction formation relates to joy (and manic features), denial relates to acceptance (and histrionic features), repression to fear (and passivity), regression to surprise (and borderline traits), compensation to sadness (and depression), projection to disgust (and paranoia), displacement to anger (and hostility) and intellectualization to anticipation (and obsessionality).
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) published by the American Psychiatric Association (1994) includes a tentative diagnostic axis for defence mechanisms. This classification is largely based on Vaillant's hierarchical view of defences, but has some modifications. Examples include: denial, fantasy, rationalization, regression, isolation, projection, and displacement.
The psychiatrist George Eman Vaillant introduced a four-level classification of defence mechanisms:
- Level I – pathological defences (psychotic denial, delusional projection)
- Level II – immature defences (fantasy, projection, passive aggression, acting out)
- Level III – neurotic defences (intellectualization, reaction formation, dissociation, displacement, repression)
- Level IV – mature defences (humour, sublimation, suppression, altruism, anticipation)
Level 1: Pathological
The mechanisms on this level, when predominating, almost always are severely pathological. These six defences, in conjunction, permit one effectively to rearrange external experiences to eliminate the need to cope with reality. The pathological users of these mechanisms frequently appear irrational or insane to others. These are the "psychotic" defences, common in overt psychosis. However, they are normally found in dreams and throughout childhood as well. They include:
- Conversion: The expression of an intrapsychic conflict as a physical symptom; some examples include blindness, deafness, paralysis, or numbness. This phenomenon is sometimes called hysteria.
- Delusional projection: Delusions about external reality, usually of a persecutory nature.
- Denial: Refusal to accept external reality because it is too threatening; arguing against an anxiety-provoking stimulus by stating it doesn't exist; resolution of emotional conflict and reduction of anxiety by refusing to perceive or consciously acknowledge the more unpleasant aspects of external reality.
- Distortion: A gross reshaping of external reality to meet internal needs.
- Extreme projection: The blatant denial of a moral or psychological deficiency, which is perceived as a deficiency in another individual or group.
- Splitting: A primitive defence. Both harmful and helpful impulses are split off and unintegrated, frequently projected onto someone else. The defended individual segregates experiences into all-good and all-bad categories, with no room for ambiguity and ambivalence. When "splitting" is combined with "projecting", the undesirable qualities that one unconsciously perceives oneself as possessing, one consciously attributes to another.
Level 2: Immature
These mechanisms are often present in adults. These mechanisms lessen distress and anxiety produced by threatening people or by an uncomfortable reality. Excessive use of such defences is seen as socially undesirable, in that they are immature, difficult to deal with and seriously out of touch with reality. These are the so-called "immature" defences and overuse almost always leads to serious problems in a person's ability to cope effectively. These defences are often seen in major depression and personality disorders. They include:
- Acting out: Direct expression of an unconscious wish or impulse in action, without conscious awareness of the emotion that drives that expressive behavior.
- Fantasy: Tendency to retreat into fantasy in order to resolve inner and outer conflicts.
- Idealization: Tending to perceive another individual as having more desirable qualities than he or she may actually have.
- Introjection: Identifying with some idea or object so deeply that it becomes a part of that person. For example, introjection occurs when we take on attributes of other people who seem better able to cope with the situation than we do.
- Passive aggression: Aggression towards others expressed indirectly or passively, often through procrastination.
- Projective identification: The object of projection invokes in that person a version of the thoughts, feelings or behaviours projected.
- Projection: A primitive form of paranoia. Projection reduces anxiety by allowing the expression of the undesirable impulses or desires without becoming consciously aware of them; attributing one's own unacknowledged unacceptable or unwanted thoughts and emotions to another; includes severe prejudice and jealousy, hypervigilance to external danger, and "injustice collecting", all with the aim of shifting one's unacceptable thoughts, feelings and impulses onto someone else, such that those same thoughts, feelings, beliefs and motivations are perceived as being possessed by the other.
- Somatization: The transformation of uncomfortable feelings towards others into uncomfortable feelings toward oneself: pain, illness, and anxiety.
- Wishful thinking: Making decisions according to what might be pleasing to imagine instead of by appealing to evidence, rationality, or reality.
Level 3: Neurotic
These mechanisms are considered neurotic, but fairly common in adults. Such defences have short-term advantages in coping, but can often cause long-term problems in relationships, work and in enjoying life when used as one's primary style of coping with the world. They include:
- Displacement: defence mechanism that shifts sexual or aggressive impulses to a more acceptable or less threatening target; redirecting emotion to a safer outlet; separation of emotion from its real object and redirection of the intense emotion toward someone or something that is less offensive or threatening in order to avoid dealing directly with what is frightening or threatening. For example, a mother may yell at her child because she is angry with her husband.
- Dissociation: Temporary drastic modification of one's personal identity or character to avoid emotional distress; separation or postponement of a feeling that normally would accompany a situation or thought.
- Hypochondriasis: An excessive preoccupation or worry about having a serious illness.
- Intellectualization: A form of isolation; concentrating on the intellectual components of a situation so as to distance oneself from the associated anxiety-provoking emotions; separation of emotion from ideas; thinking about wishes in formal, affectively bland terms and not acting on them; avoiding unacceptable emotions by focusing on the intellectual aspects (isolation, rationalization, ritual, undoing, compensation, and magical thinking).
- Isolation: Separation of feelings from ideas and events, for example, describing a murder with graphic details with no emotional response.
- Rationalization (making excuses): Convincing oneself that no wrong has been done and that all is or was all right through faulty and false reasoning. An indicator of this defence mechanism can be seen socially as the formulation of convenient excuses.
- Reaction formation: Converting unconscious wishes or impulses that are perceived to be dangerous or unacceptable into their opposites; behaviour that is completely the opposite of what one really wants or feels; taking the opposite belief because the true belief causes anxiety.
- Regression: Temporary reversion of the ego to an earlier stage of development rather than handling unacceptable impulses in a more adult way, for example, using whining as a method of communicating despite already having acquired the ability to speak with an appropriate level of maturity.
- Repression: The process of attempting to repel desires towards pleasurable instincts, caused by a threat of suffering if the desire is satisfied; the desire is moved to the unconscious in the attempt to prevent it from entering consciousness; seemingly unexplainable naivety, memory lapse or lack of awareness of one's own situation and condition; the emotion is conscious, but the idea behind it is absent.
- Undoing: A person tries to 'undo' an unhealthy, destructive or otherwise threatening thought by acting out the reverse of the unacceptable. Involves symbolically nullifying an unacceptable or guilt provoking thought, idea, or feeling by confession or atonement.
- Upward and downward social comparisons: A defensive tendency that is used as a means of self-evaluation. Individuals will look to another individual or comparison group who are considered to be worse off in order to dissociate themselves from perceived similarities and to make themselves feel better about themselves or their personal situation.
- Withdrawal: Withdrawal is a more severe form of defence. It entails removing oneself from events, stimuli, and interactions under the threat of being reminded of painful thoughts and feelings.
Level 4: Mature
These are commonly found among emotionally healthy adults and are considered mature, even though many have their origins in an immature stage of development. They have been adapted through the years in order to optimise success in human society and relationships. The use of these defences enhances pleasure and feelings of control. These defences help to integrate conflicting emotions and thoughts, whilst still remaining effective. Those who use these mechanisms are usually considered virtuous. Mature defences include:
- Acceptance: A person's assent to the reality of a situation, recognizing a process or condition (often a difficult or uncomfortable situation) without attempting to change it, protest, or exit. Religions and psychological treatments often suggest the path of acceptance when a situation is both disliked and unchangeable, or when change may be possible only at great cost or risk.
- Altruism: Constructive service to others that brings pleasure and personal satisfaction.
- Anticipation: Realistic planning for future discomfort.
- Courage: The mental ability and willingness to confront conflicts, fear, pain, danger, uncertainty, despair, obstacles, vicissitudes or intimidation. Physical courage often extends lives, while moral courage preserves the ideals of justice and fairness.
- Emotional self-regulation: The ability to respond to the ongoing demands of experience with the range of emotions in a manner that is socially tolerable. Emotional self-regulation refers to the processes people use to modify the type, intensity, duration, or expression of various emotions.
- Emotional self-sufficiency: Not being dependent on the validation (approval or disapproval) of others.
- Forgiveness: Cessation of resentment, indignation or anger as a result of a perceived offence, disagreement, or mistake, or ceasing to demand retribution or restitution.
- Gratitude: A feeling of thankfulness or appreciation involving appreciation of a wide range of people and events. Gratitude is likely to bring higher levels of happiness, and lower levels of depression and stress. Throughout history, gratitude has been given a central position in religious and philosophical theories.
- Humility: A mechanism by which a person, considering their own defects, has a humble self-opinion. Humility is intelligent self-respect which keeps one from thinking too highly or too meanly of oneself.
- Humour: Overt expression of ideas and feelings (especially those that are unpleasant to focus on or too terrible to talk about directly) that gives pleasure to others. The thoughts retain a portion of their innate distress, but they are "skirted around" by witticism, for example self-deprecation.
- Identification: The unconscious modelling of one's self upon another person's character and behaviour.
- Mercy: Compassionate behavior on the part of those in power.
- Mindfulness: Adopting a particular orientation toward one’s experiences in the present moment, an orientation that is characterised by curiosity, openness, and acceptance.
- Moderation: The process of eliminating or lessening extremes and staying within reasonable limits. It necessitates self-restraint which is imposed by oneself on one's own feelings, desires etc.
- Patience: Enduring difficult circumstances (delay, provocation, criticism, attack etc.) for some time before responding negatively. Patience is a recognized virtue in many religions.
- Respect: Willingness to show consideration or appreciation. Respect can be a specific feeling of regard for the actual qualities of a person or feeling being and also specific actions and conduct representative of that esteem. Relationships and contacts that are built without the presence of respect are seldom long term or sustainable. The lack of respect is at the very heart of most conflict in families, communities, and nations.
- Sublimation: Transformation of unhelpful emotions or instincts into healthy actions, behaviours, or emotions, for example, playing a heavy contact sport such as football or rugby can transform aggression into a game.
- Suppression: The conscious decision to delay paying attention to a thought, emotion, or need in order to cope with the present reality; making it possible later to access uncomfortable or distressing emotions whilst accepting them.
- Tolerance: The practice of deliberately allowing or permitting a thing of which one disapproves.
Relation with coping
There are many different perspectives on how the construct of defence relates to the construct of coping; some writers differentiate the constructs on various dimensions, but "an important literature exists that does not make any difference between the two concepts". In at least one of his books, George Eman Vaillant stated that he "will use the terms adaptation, resilience, coping, and defense interchangeably".
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