Introduction (Psychology and Mental Health)
The concept of defense mechanisms was originally proposed in the early twentieth century by Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, who described them as ways to protect a person from experiencing overwhelming anxiety by keeping unacceptable impulses and thoughts from coming into conscious awareness. Anxiety is an unpleasant state of emotional distress signaling impending danger and is quite difficult to tolerate. According to Freud, anxiety is experienced when there is internal conflict or conflict between the self and external reality. Defense mechanisms distort reality, allowing people to feel less anxious.
Repression was considered by Freud to be the primary defense mechanism, operating unconsciously by pushing down anxiety-provoking ideas and wishes, thus blocking them from awareness. This process requires a constant use of psychic energy to prohibit these dangerous ideas from reaching the conscious level and is normal except when used to an extreme degree.
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Common Defense Mechanisms (Psychology and Mental Health)
In 1946, Anna Freud expanded on her father’s work in this area and elaborated on specific defense mechanisms that may be used by the ego to minimize anxiety. In addition to repression, the ego may use other defense mechanisms such as denial, reaction formation, projection, introjection, displacement, or sublimation.
Denial is characterized by a refusal to believe in the reality of an event as an attempt to cope with an external threat. For example, a person may deny a spouse’s illicit affair despite clear evidence or signs of its occurrence. Denial also operates when someone refuses to acknowledge addiction or a serious medical condition. This defense can be used adaptively when it helps a person remain positive in a situation in which there is no possibility of remedy, as in a fatal illness.
Reaction formation is used when a person deals with anxiety-laden feelings by repressing those feelings and consciously emphasizing the opposite. It can often be detected when a response or behavior is overdone and disproportionate to the context. For example, an individual may display exaggerated love and affection to conceal feelings of intense hatred or dislike.
Another important defense mechanism is the use of projection. Unacceptable anxiety-provoking feelings, impulses, and desires are conveniently attributed to someone else. Often, projection allows a person to not acknowledge an undesirable aspect of...
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Defenses and Object Relations Theory (Psychology and Mental Health)
Object relations theory further develops Freud’s ideas, emphasizing the importance of the inner world and its impact on relationships with objects (others). Melanie Klein, considered by many to be the most influential object relations theorist, expanded on Freud’s instinct theory and stressed the importance of human contact and the relational aspect of early infantile development. Patterns of relating to others are developed in childhood and recur throughout life.
Based on her observations of young children, Klein proposed that defense mechanisms start in infancy, helping the infant cope with feelings of anxiety associated with this period of extreme vulnerability and helplessness. Introjection is the process of incorporating or taking in good and bad external objects. Good (gratifying) objects are introjected to protect against anxiety by providing a good aspect of the self. Bad (frustrating) objects are taken in as a way to gain control and to maintain the positive perception of the needed other. Projection refers to the process of getting rid of good and bad internal objects. Destructive impulses are projected outside, allowing the infant to seemingly get rid of persecutory bad feelings and maintain a sense of inner goodness. Good internal feelings can also be projected, allowing the infant to attribute goodness to others. Splitting keeps the bad and the good apart and initially helps the infant to...
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Sources for Further Study (Psychology and Mental Health)
Feist, Jess, and Gregory J. Feist. Theories of Personality. 7th ed. Boston: McGraw Hill Higher Education, 2009. Provides a good overview of Freud’s theory and defense mechanisms and of object relations theory.
Flanagan, Laura M. “Object Relations Theory.” In Inside Out and Outside In, edited by Joan Berzoff, Laura M. Flanagan, and Patricia Hertz. Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, 1996. Clear, thorough explanation of object relations theory, including discussion of defense mechanisms with attention given to contemporary multicultural contexts.
Freud, Anna. The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. New York: International University Press, 1974. Considered the classic treatise of the study of defense mechanisms in the field of ego psychology. Although the language is fairly technical, this book provides a comprehensive description and systematization of defense mechanisms.
Klein, Melanie, and Joan Riviere. Love, Hate, and Reparation. New York: W. W. Norton, 1964. Exceptional explanation of unconscious anxieties and defenses from an object relations perspective. Written in clear, everyday language for the layperson.
Roth, Priscilla. “The Paranoid-Schizoid Position.” In Kleinian Theory: A Contemporary Perspective, edited by Catalina Bronstein. Philadelphia: Whurr, 2001. Excellent elucidation of the defensive processes of splitting and...
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Defense Mechanisms (Encyclopedia of Psychology)
Unconscious strategies for avoiding or reducing threatening feelings, such as fear and anxiety.
The concept of the defense mechanism originated with Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and was later elaborated by other psychodynamically oriented theorists, notably his daughter Anna Freud (1895-1982). Defense mechanisms allow negative feelings to be lessened without an alteration of the situation that is producing them, often by distorting the reality of that situation in some way. While they can help in coping with stress, they pose a danger because the reduction of stress can be so appealing that the defenses are maintained and become habitual. They can also be harmful if they become a person's primary mode of responding to problems. In children, excessive dependence on defense mechanisms may produce social isolation and distortion of reality and hamper the ability to engage in and learn from new experiences.
Defense mechanisms include denial, repression, suppression, projection, displacement, reaction formation, regression, fixation, identification, introjection, rationalization, isolation, sublimation, compensation, and humor. Denial and repression both distort reality by keeping things hidden from consciousness. In the case of denial, an unpleasant reality is ignored, and a realistic...
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Defense Mechanisms (International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis)
Defense mechanisms are psychic processes that are generally attributed to the organized ego. They organize and maintain optimal psychic conditions in a way that helps the subject's ego both to confront and avoid anxiety and psychic disturbance. They are therefore among the attempts to work through psychic conflict but if they are deployed in an excessive or inappropriate way they can compromise psychic growth.
There is no clear distinction in Sigmund Freud's work between a defense and a defense mechanism, (the latter referring to the unconscious processes by which the defense operates). The concept of defense first appeared in his article "The Neuro-Psychoses of Defence" (1894a) and was next discussed in "Further Remarks on the Neuro-Psychoses of Defence" (1896b) and "The Aetiology of Hysteria" (1896c). Finally, in the text entitled "Instincts and their Vicissitudes" (1915c), turning against the self and reversal into the opposite were identified as defense mechanisms, in addition to repression and sublimation.
For Freud, the concept of defense refers to the ego's attempts at psychic transformation in response to representations and affects that are painful, intolerable, or unacceptable.
He abandoned the concept of defense for a period in favor of the concept of repression. He then reintroduced it in "Neurotic Mechanisms in Jealousy, Paranoia and Homosexuality" (1922b ). Freud ascribed a defensive significance to introjection (or identification) and projection by terming them all "neurotic mechanisms." Then in an addendum to Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety (1926d ), he reconsidered this concept in relation to that of repression, suggesting that: "It will be an undoubted advantage, I think, to revert to the old concept of 'defence,' provided we employ it explicitly as a general designation for all the techniques which the ego makes use of in conflicts which may lead to a neurosis, while we retain the word 'repression' for the special method of defense which the line of approach taken by our investigations made us better acquainted with in the first instance" (p. 163). Freud added that: "further investigations may show that there is an intimate connection between special forms of defense and particular illnesses, as, for instance, between repression and hysteria" (p. 164). By this he meant, more specifically, that the ego protects itself against the tendency towards conflict by means of a counter-cathexis. It was this counter-cathexis that came to represent the supreme essence of the defense mechanisms.
This idea was taken up by Heinz Hartmann (1950) in the context of his theory of the autonomous functions of the ego. He argued that once the energy of the counter-cathexis had been withdrawn from the tendency that caused the conflict, it was neutralized. For him, the autonomous processes (organization, cathexis, delay) can be the precursors of defense mechanisms. In general, neurotic defense mechanisms constitute an exaggeration or a distortion of regulating and adaptive mechanisms.
With strong support from the ego-psychology movement in her studies on ego functions, Anna Freud listed and described the ego's defense mechanisms. For her, "every vicissitude to which the instincts are liable has its origin in some ego-activity. Were it not for the intervention of the ego or of those external forces which the ego represents, every instinct would know only one fatehat of gratification" (1937, p. 47). To the nine defense mechanisms that she identified: "regression, repression, reaction-formation, isolation, undoing, projection, introjection, turning against the self and reversal," she suggested that, "we must add a tenth, which pertains rather to the study of the normal than to that of neurosis: sublimation, or displacement of instinctual aims" (p. 47).
Finally, for adherents of the Kleinian school, the defense mechanisms take a different form in a structured ego from the one they assume in a primitive, unstructured ego (or an undifferentiated id-ego). The defenses become modes of mental functioning. For Susan Isaacs (1948), all mental mechanisms are linked to fantasies, such as devouring, absorbing, or rejecting. Melanie Klein herself (1952, 1958) principally identified the following primitive defenses: splitting, idealization, projective identification and manic defenses.
The terms "defense" and "defense mechanism" are still used interchangeably today, which suggests a degree of confusion between a descriptive approach to the concept of defense and an approach based on the analysis of psychic adaptations from an economic viewpoint.
See also: Defense.
Benassy, Maurice. (1969). Le moi et ses mécanismes de défense:ude théorique. In La théorie psychanalytique. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
Freud, Anna. (1936). The ego and the mechanisms of defence. New York: International Universities Press.
Freud, Sigmund. (1926d ). Inhibitions, symptoms and anxiety. SE, 20: 75-172.
Hartmann, Heinz. (1950). Comments on the psychoanalytic theory of the ego. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 5, 74-96.
Isaacs, Susan. (1952). On the nature and function of phantasy. In M. Klein, P. Heimann, S. Isaacs and J. Riviere (Eds.), Developments in psycho-analysis (p. 67-121). (Reprinted from International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 29 (1948), 73-97.)
Klein, Melanie. (1952). Some theoretical conclusions regarding the emotional life of the infant. In Envy and gratitude and other works, 1946-1963 (pp. 61-93). London: Hogarth, 1975.
. (1958). On the development of mental functioning. In Envy and gratitude and other works, 1946-1963. (pp. 236-246). London: Hogarth, 1975.