The defense mechanisms are part of our daily life, although we don’t realize their existence. In fact, they are not a rational strategy to deal with problems and conflicts, but rather a kind of “letter up the sleeve” that our unconscious plays to get us safe from a supposed danger. Sometimes they can be providential, but in others they can prevent us from growing and lead us to maladaptive behaviors that are the basis for the later appearance of mental disorders.
What are the defense mechanisms?
Freud was the first to use the term defense mechanisms in 1894, referring to them as “defensive formations to deal with ideas and affections that are painful and unbearable.” In practice, he conceived them as an ego strategy to protect itself from the dangers it envisioned.
Later, in 1936, Anna Freud outlined these mechanisms with greater precision and described in detail how they worked. Her definition of defense mechanisms indicates that these are psychological strategies used unconsciously to protect us from the anxiety that arises from thoughts or feelings unacceptable to us.
In summary, the defense mechanisms:
• Are unconscious and involuntary, operating below the radar of our consciousness
• Mitigate the anguish and anxiety that cognitive dissonance can generate
• Can be adaptive and even creative, but they can also be pathological
How do the defense mechanisms of the “ego” work?
The defense mechanisms are activated to protect us from the feelings of anxiety or guilt that arise when we feel psychologically threatened. They operate at an unconscious level to avoid those unpleasant feelings, avoid cognitive dissonance and, in a general sense, avoid inner conflicts.
The functioning of defense mechanisms is based on dissociation or divalence, to establish a safe distance between what we consider good and bad for us. Thus they “eliminate” the source of tension, insecurity or anxiety.
This strategy allows us to adjust to certain demands, but in reality they don’t solve the basic problem but maintain the latent conflict. In fact, although memories or problems are banished from our conscious memory, they continue to influence and exert pressure on our behavior from the unconscious.
When we set up a defense mechanism it’s as if we were working at half capacity since the capacity for action of our “ego” is restricted, as it cannot deal with the disturbing situation.
Obviously, when the defense mechanism disappears, anxiety comes back and it can be so intense that it can even generate psychotic states, although luckily, in everyday life these cases are unusual, since it’s normal for defense mechanism to disappear when our “ego” is prepared to face the conflict.
Therefore, defense mechanisms are a kind of natural protection against situations we are not psychologically prepared to manage. However, if we resort to them frequently, we may end up suffering from different mental disorders since they don’t represent an adaptive strategy to deal with reality. Projection can give way to delusional projection, the denial to a psychotic negation and distortion of reality to a psychotic distortion.
7 primitive defense mechanisms
The defense mechanisms may have a primitive character or, on the contrary, be very elaborate. The more primitive the mechanism, the more effective it will be in the short term to deal with the situation, since it usually hides it completely. However, it’s also very inefficient in the long term since it doesn’t allow us to elaborate the resources we need to face the situation.
In fact, primitive defense mechanisms are more typical of children or people who don’t have enough psychological resources to deal with problems. When adults don’t know techniques to cope with stress or traumatic events in their lives, they often resort to primitive defense mechanisms.
1. Denial. It consists in refuting the reality or certain facts because are too painful, so that the person acts as if it had not happened or didn’t exist. It’s considered one of the most primitive defense mechanisms since it is characteristic of childhood. However, it’s also one of the most common and we use it a lot in everyday life, for example, when we don’t want to accept an addiction, the loss of a loved person or a trauma and act as if the problem didn’t exist.
2. Regression. It’s when we reactivate behaviors from previous stages of life. It occurs when a problem overwhelms us and we’re forced to look back in search for solutions that were useful in the past but aren’t congruent at the current stage of our development. The problem is that looking back also activates all our fears and anxieties so often this defense mechanism manifests itself in a destructive way. An example is that of the adult who, faced with a problem at work, refuses to go and locks himself in his room (typically adolescent behavior).
3. Action. It’s an extreme behavior that allows us to express thoughts or feelings that otherwise we would be unable to express. For example, instead of saying, “I’m angry with you”, the person who activates this defense mechanism can punch the table or slam the door. That behavior helps him release the tension, without directing it towards the true cause of it. His act expresses desire in a symbolic and distorted way. The problem is that in many cases, this way of dealing with reality leads to self-harm, since the person overturns on himself those negative thoughts or feelings.
4. Dissociation. This primitive defense mechanism causes the person to lose the notion of time or even of their own “ego”, which usually leads to the loss of memories and habitual thought patterns. When this mechanism is activated, the person assumes a psychological distance from what is happening, as if it were not happening to him, in this way he protects himself. It’s a common mechanism in people who have suffered child abuse or in those who have not been able to defend themselves against an aggression. The problem is that these people resort so much to dissociation that tend to develop an image disconnected from themselves and the world, which doesn’t flow naturally, as for the rest of the people.
5. Compartmentalization. This defense mechanism is a less intense expression of dissociation, in which parts of the person are separated from consciousness, so that it ends up behaving as if it had separate sets of values. In practice, we create separate compartments for systems of values and beliefs that are different and opposed to each other, so that they don’t generate a cognitive dissonance or put our identity in crisis. An example can be a person who sometimes behaves honestly, but in other circumstances has no problems to cheat or lie. By compartmentalizing both behaviors, he remains oblivious to cognitive dissonance.
6. Projection. We attribute to another person feelings, desires or motives that are ours but we don’t recognize as our own, since we don’t want to accept them because they would unbalance the image we have of ourselves. By projecting them onto another person, we are relieved and can maintain a less tensed relationship with our “ego”. For example, a person may get angry with his partner and complain that he doesn’t listen when, in fact, is he/she who’s not listening but doesn’t want to accept it.
7. Reactive training. In this case, the person usually behaves differently than he thinks and feels in certain circumstances. What he does is exacerbating the positive aspects linked to the situation so that these hide the negative ones (which are what generate anxiety and anguish). For example, a person who is upset with his boss, acts excessively friendly with him. What really happens is the person doesn’t feel capable of expressing his dissatisfaction and tries to hide it (even to himself), acting as if he really felt very satisfied.
What are the defense mechanisms more elaborated?
In addition to primitive defense mechanisms, there are others more elaborated and mature that tend to be much more effective in the long term, although this doesn’t mean they are an alternative to deal with problems and conflicts since, basically, they don’t solve them either but just postpone them.
1. Repression. In this case, our mind simply removes from consciousness those thoughts, impulses and feelings that are disturbing, that generate sense of guilt or desires that don’t correspond to our value system. By denying their existence, we manage to maintain an emotional balance and our “ego” is not forced to fight against ideas or emotions that, in theory, shouldn’t exist because contradict its way of being. The classic example is the repression of certain sexual impulses because they don’t fit with the values that we supposedly profess.
2. Displacement. There is a redirection of an emotion or feeling (usually anger) over a person or object that cannot respond. This defense mechanism is quite peculiar since it is activated when we cannot express what we feel and allows us relate to that person avoiding the negative characteristics that bother us. An example is when we get angry with our boss but as we can not release the anger on him, we end up fighting with our partner or a pet.
3. Rationalization. The person tries to resort to logical arguments to explain certain behaviors, desires or needs. It’s a kind of denial because in reality these reasons are not valid and with them the person tries not to have to face the conflict. An example is when someone is diagnosed with a degenerative or severe disease and, instead of expressing his pain, anger and sadness, he focuses on the technical details of a treatment that isn’t really a cure. Through logical explanations, he avoids feelings and avoids facing the situation.
4. Introjection. It’s the assimilation of characteristics of a person, object or animal to our “ego”. We can assimilate only certain characteristics or the object in its entirety, in which case our “ego” could be in danger because its true characteristics would be invaded by ways of doing and behaving alien. This defense mechanism is very common in children, when they lose a beloved person or their pet and assume some of their habits or ways of behaving. In this way, they keep the memory alive and deny what happened. It can also occur in people who feel weak and helpless and assume attitudes and ways of behaving from those they consider strong because they identify with them.
5. Undo what’s done. Sometimes, we lose control and do things that we regret, when we fail to accept that we have behaved in a certain way, we use this defense mechanism. Basically, we try to go back to undo a behavior or thought that we consider unacceptable or harmful. For example, after realizing that we have insulted our partner, we spend the next hour extolling his virtues instead of simply apologizing. By doing this we believe that we will undo the previous action and the person won’t take into account the comments we made.
6. Compensation. It’s a mechanism in which we try to compensate perceived weaknesses by emphasizing the strengths we have in other areas of our life. By focusing on a strength, the person recognizes that he cannot be “good” in all areas of his life and manages to accept that weakness that was previously shameful. For example, a housewife can compensate for the fact that she is a poor cook by emphasizing her ability to clean very well. It’s worth clarifying that as long as we don’t exaggerate our strengths and abilities, this defense mechanism is positive because it can help us to have a better self-esteem and improve the image of ourselves, but we must be careful not to exaggerate.
7. Sublimation. This elaborate defense mechanism consists in channeling unacceptable impulses, thoughts and emotions towards those we consider most acceptable. The sense of humor, for example, can be a mechanism of sublimation. If what we have to say is very strong or unacceptable, we can use humor to express it, as this reduces the affective intensity of the message. Fantasy is another way through which sublimation works. For example, instead of responding to the attack of a person defending ourselves, we can turn our backs, but keeping fighting that “battle” in our mind. Thus, in the imagination, we satisfy our impulses or desire for revenge.
8. Altruistic surrender. Altruism is the individual concern for the well-being of the others, something that has always been considered positive but if distorted, can become a defense mechanism, as Anna Freud stated, harming both the person and who wants to help. Defensive altruism refers to an altruistic act in which there is an unconscious motivation of selfishness below the conscious altruistic intention. Therefore, it’s considered an elaborate defense mechanism, the climax of ego defense. The key to defensive altruism is thinking we’re being extremely kind and altruistic when in reality we’re working for purely selfish reasons.
Is it advisable to deactivate the defense mechanisms?
It’s important to keep in mind that it’s not always necessary to deactivate defense mechanisms. As long as they don’t become the main strategy for dealing with reality, they can have a protective function in our mental balance. In fact, the strategy of confrontation to deactivate the defense mechanisms could even become dangerous if the person doesn’t have the psychological resources that allow him to deal adequately with reality.
Therefore, the best way to deactivate defense mechanisms is to improve our psychological skills. If we develop a resilient attitude, we learn techniques to manage stress, we practice radical acceptance and we make sure to build a strong “ego”, we won’t need to start these mechanisms because we won’t feel continually threatened and we will be able to deal with the anguish or the anxiety that problems and conflicts can generate.
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