What are ego defense mechanisms?
Ego defense mechanisms are complex, largely unconscious mental processes that protect people from becoming overwhelmed by strong emotions. Defense mechanisms protect the mind and nervous system just as the immune system protects the body, and they are essential for healthy functioning and adaptation. However, when they are used maladaptively, psychiatric symptoms can develop and result in psychopathology.
At birth, only rudimentary defenses are in place, so infants require substantial protection from external sources (caretakers) to prevent them from becoming overwhelmed by internal and environmental stresses. Over the course of childhood and continuing into adulthood, increasingly complex defense mechanisms develop and are added to an individual’s defense repertoire. As a result, each individual forms a personal defense system from which to automatically draw when emotions threaten to become too stressful. Some defenses work better in certain situations than others, so optimal adaptation in life is related to having more mature defenses, as well as flexibility in using them.
The phenomenon of defense mechanisms was not recognized until it was identified in the last decade of the 1800s by Sigmund Freud , the Austrian founder of psychoanalysis. Freud described defense mechanisms as discrete processes for managing emotion and instincts, but for more than twenty years, he interchangeably used the general term “defense” and the term for one specific defense mechanism, “repression,” which resulted in considerable confusion among his readers. In 1936, Freud clarified that there were many defensive operations used by the ego and referred to a book his daughter, Anna Freud, a famous psychoanalyst in her own right, had just written, entitled Das Ich und die Abwehrmechanismen (1936; The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, 1937). Building on this work, other researchers have since described additional defense mechanisms and have elucidated their roles as adaptive processes.
In his seminal work, Sigmund Freud focused primarily on defense mechanisms in their role of protecting the ego from anxiety resulting from internal conflicts. A conflict is caused when two or more equally powerful influences cannot be satisfied at the same time. It is resolved when one of the influences prevails, but this often leads to frustration because one or more of the other goals is thwarted. Most internal conflicts involve the interactions of the id, ego, and superego. For example, one may have a strong id impulse to overeat, but one’s superego may exert an equally powerful influence to remain thin. Thus, the sight of food may cause one to feel anxious without knowing why, because this conflict may be buried in the unconscious.
Conflicts may be either conscious or unconscious; according to Freud, all conflicts are accompanied by anxiety. Anxiety is an unpleasant emotional response that signals impending danger. It is anticipation of danger to be experienced in the future. Only the ego can feel anxiety, and this anxiety can be unbearable. It can occur in the absence of any objective external threat; even when a real threat exists, the emotional reaction is often much greater than warranted. For example, speaking in front of an audience is, in the real sense, not dangerous, but it can cause extreme anxiety in some people. Frequently, the threat that causes anxiety is unconscious, and the person may not be aware of the source.
Anxiety is a signal to take action, so it is both adaptive and self-regulating. That is, when faced with anxiety, the ego automatically attempts to reduce it, which at the same time should reduce the potential danger. In this regard, fear and anxiety are similar. For example, if a person is attacked, the person can fight the attacker or run away. In both cases, the danger will be removed and the fear will subside. Since one of the main functions of the ego is to maintain survival, its typical response is to take actions that will protect itself and the organism. The ego responds in a defensive manner to all types of anxiety, no matter what their source. In the example above, the mode of reducing fear is overt—that is, it is easily observable whether the person fights or runs away. In other situations, the actions taken by the ego to protect itself are said to be covert, which means they are not directly observable. These covert actions of protecting the ego from anxiety are called ego defense mechanisms. According to Freud, they operate at an unconscious level.
Freud was especially interested in the process of repression, which begins when the ego fully separates itself from the id but probably does not become fully operational until the phallic psychosexual stage of development. In repression, the ego blocks or diverts any ideas, thoughts, feelings, or urges that it finds unacceptable or anxiety producing. For example, a person might have a desire to have sex with his or her boss or teacher, but if this wish is totally unacceptable to the superego, it can be repressed into the unconscious. Allowing this wish to become conscious would result in punishment from the person’s superego in the form of guilt, anxiety, or shame. To avoid this psychological response, the ego prevents the idea from ever becoming conscious. Although there is no memory of this impulse, it is never destroyed; in fact, it maintains all of its energy, remaining immediately under the level of awareness with the potential to surface at any time. Because of this, the person may feel ill at ease or anxious but has no awareness concerning the origin of this distress. Furthermore, the repressed energy continues to seek expression, and it often escapes in a disguised form.
The most important disguised forms of repressed material are neurotic symptoms. According to Freud, repressed energy must be released if the organism is to remain healthy. As the ego puts more and more effort into repressing unacceptable drives, it becomes weaker; sooner or later, something has to give in. Symptoms serve as a compromise, because they allow the repressed ideas to be expressed indirectly in a disguised form without arousing anxiety. The symptoms may be either psychological or physical. Physical symptoms are sometimes called conversion reactions because the energy associated with the original repressed idea is converted into physical symptoms such as paralysis or even blindness, which are attributable to psychological causes rather than any real organic impairment. Thus, Freud delineated the manner in which repression can become maladaptive and result in psychopathology, a conceptualization that was extremely innovative for its time.
Freud hit on the notion of repression when he noticed that his patients were resisting his attempts to help them. In this sense, repression is intimately linked to resistance. According to Freud, when he was using hypnosis to treat his patients, this resistance was hidden; however, as soon as the technique of free association replaced hypnosis, resistance was clearly evident, and psychoanalysis was born.
Freud’s concept of repression (which he first called “defense”) appeared in print in 1894. At that time, most of his patients were women who were suffering from an emotional disorder that was then called hysteria. Freud believed that hysteria was caused primarily by the repression of sexual impulses and that it could be cured by means of a “talking” therapy. At the time, it was a giant leap for psychology, because the prevailing viewpoint of the nineteenth century was that emotional disorders were caused by organic or physical factors. Freud’s theory emphasized a psychological cause and cure for emotional disorders, opening a new area of exploration and setting the stage for clinical psychology and psychiatry.
Freud wrote about various defense mechanisms in a number of his works, but his daughter, Anna Freud, is credited with bringing them all together in her book The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. In it, she describes the original nine defense mechanisms—repression, regression, undoing, isolation, turning against self, reaction formation, reversal, projection, and introjection—and also adds sublimation and displacement. Over the years, other defense mechanisms, such as denial, rationalization, identification, intellectualization, and idealization, were added. New knowledge was added as well, including the importance of defense with regard to other emotions, such as anger, and the differences between defenses due to the ages at which they first develop, as seen in Joseph Sandler and Anna Freud’s book The Analysis of Defense: The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense Revisited (1985).
In 1977, George E. Vaillant, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard University, published Adaptation to Life, a landmark study on the mental health and adaptation of a highly select group of male college graduates over a thirty-five-year period of adulthood. In his book, Vaillant documents important shifts in defensive styles during adult development, and he also demonstrates that individual differences in the types of defenses used were dramatically related to variance between the best and worst outcomes, especially with regard to measures of social, occupational, and psychological adjustment. Vaillant believed that there were innumerable defenses, but he selected eighteen of what he thought were the most salient mechanisms and organized them into four levels according to their hypothesized maturity and importance with regard to the development of psychopathology:
•Level 1: Psychotic Mechanisms (delusional projection, denial of external reality, and distortion)
•Level 2: Immature Mechanisms (projection, schizoid fantasy or withdrawal, hypochondriasis, passive-aggressive behavior, and acting out)
•Level 3: Neurotic Defenses (intellectualization, repression, displacement, reaction formation, dissociation)
•Level 4: Mature Mechanisms (altruism, humor, suppression, anticipation, sublimation)
Level 1 defenses were noted as common in childhood prior to age five, in dreams of healthy individuals at all ages, and in psychotic types of psychopathology. Level 2 mechanisms were common in healthy children between the ages of three and fifteen and in some types of adult psychopathology, such as severe depression and personality disorders. Level 3 defenses were deemed common in healthy people of all ages after the age of three, in mastering acute adult stress, and in neurotic disorders. Level 4 defenses were listed as common in healthy individuals from age twelve on.
With regard to the study participants, Vaillant found that as adolescents, they were twice as likely to use immature defenses as mature ones, but by middle life, they were four times as likely to use mature defenses rather than immature ones. This developmental shift was not equally obtained by everyone, however. Rather, the thirty men with the best outcomes (termed “generative”) had virtually stopped using immature mechanisms by midlife, with roughly equal use of neurotic and mature defenses. The men with the worst outcomes (termed “perpetual boys”), on the other hand, failed to show any significant shift in defenses after adolescence. Thus, Vaillant demonstrated that ego development, including maturation of defense mechanisms, was distinct from physical maturation as well as from cognitive or intellectual development and that the level of defense maturation was directly related to life adjustment.
Vaillant was especially struck by the importance of suppression as an adaptive defense mechanism. He defined suppression as the conscious or subconscious decision to deliberately postpone attending to conscious conflicts or impulses without avoiding them. This mechanism allows individuals to effectively cope with stress when it is optimal to do so. Vaillant delineated the evolution of this defense as beginning with denial before age five, followed by repression from five to adolescence, with suppression emerging during late adolescence and adulthood when defense maturation is optimal.
Thus, Vaillant helped to better delineate the relationship between the healthy and adaptive need for ego defense mechanisms and the psychopathological outcomes that occur when they are used maladaptively. Moreover, he demonstrated that their development over time is part of the maturation process. Unfortunately, this study involved a highly select group of men and no women, so generalizations to the larger population are difficult to make.
In spite of the difficulty with generalization, the body of information regarding defenses underscores the importance of teaching children and adolescents to use increasingly mature mechanisms. Research has shown that this can be done effectively with social and emotional literacy programs, for example, in school classrooms. This application primarily involves prevention and has been growing in use since about 1990.
Applications regarding interventions with individuals showing maladaptive defense use, on the other hand, have been used much longer than prevention. Sigmund Freud developed psychoanalysis at the turn of the twentieth century with this in mind, and other forms of psychotherapy have since evolved that also embrace the importance of defense mechanisms in the development of psychopathology.
One example from psychoanalytic theory provides an illustration of how complex this topic really is. Freud believed that many neurotic symptoms are associated with the sex drive. For example, a man with an unusually strong superego may repress all sexual impulses. Through the process of reaction formation, these impulses may be converted into compulsive hand washing. According to psychoanalytic theory, the symptoms serve as a substitute for the sexual gratification that he is not allowed to obtain in real life. This is an unconscious process, and the man has no idea of the connection between the symptoms and his sex drive. When a person’s behavior is dominated by defense mechanisms, or when symptoms become severe, there may be a need for psychotherapy. The goal of therapy is not to eliminate defense mechanisms but rather to strengthen the ego so that it uses more mature processes and can respond to conflicts in a more adaptive and productive manner.
One of the objectives of psychoanalytic therapy is to uncover repressed material that is responsible for the unconscious conflicts or symptoms, which in turn facilitate the development of suppression. In a sense, people relive their lives in the therapy room so the conflict can be traced to its origin. To help the patient do this, the psychoanalyst uses two major techniques within the important context of the therapeutic relationship. The first is called free association. This involves having the patient talk about anything and everything that enters his or her mind, no matter how trivial or embarrassing it may be. This technique is based on the idea that thoughts and ideas do not enter one’s mind accidentally. There is usually an important reason for their appearance, and eventually thoughts that are related to the conflict are revealed. The second technique is interpretation, which can involve analyzing dreams, actions, feelings of the patient for the analyst, and so on. Freud was especially interested in dreams, the “royal road to the unconscious.” During sleep, ego defense mechanisms are weakened; therefore, many unconscious conflicts or desires may emerge—although still in a disguised form that needs to be interpreted by the therapist.
Although brief interventions can sometimes help people cope better with life’s stresses, therapy usually takes a long time, because maturation is generally a slow and complex process. Repression is especially difficult, because once material is repressed, the ego sets up a counterforce that prevents it from becoming conscious in the future. This counterforce is called resistance. It is responsible for a person unconsciously resisting treatment, as removing the symptoms only serves to return the ego to the original anxiety-producing conflict.
In the example above, once the resistance is overcome, the therapist may determine that the compulsive hand-washing behavior is rooted in an unresolved Oedipus complex. In this case, the man’s sexual attraction to his mother was repressed, and eventually all sexual impulses were treated in the same way. Giving careful consideration to timing, the therapist voices an interpretation, which is the method by which the unconscious meaning of a person’s thoughts, behaviors, or symptoms is divulged. One interpretation is not enough to cure the patient, but a slow process of “working through,” which involves many interpretations and reinterpretations, finally leads to insight. This last step occurs when a person fully understands and accepts the unconscious meaning of his or her thoughts and behaviors; at this point, the symptoms often disappear.
Regression involves reducing anxiety or other strong feelings by attempting to return to an earlier and less stressful stage of development and engaging in the immature behavior or thinking characteristic of that stage. The most basic type of regression is sleep, which occupies most of the time of infants. For example, in response to an anxiety-producing test, a person might sleep through the alarm and thus miss the test (and avoid anxiety). Other examples of regression are a child engaging in thumb sucking when a new sibling is born and an adult engaging in smoking, both of which have their roots in the oral stage of infancy. Regression is one of the first defense mechanisms to emerge, beginning in the first year of life.
Projection is when one first represses one’s own unacceptable or dangerous impulses, attitudes, or behaviors and then assigns them to other persons. For example, a person may blame others for his or her failures. Freud believed that this occurs unconsciously, but some modern psychoanalysts believe that it can occur consciously as well. An example would be a married man with an unconscious desire to have an affair accusing his wife of having done so.
Denial occurs when the ego does not acknowledge anxiety-producing reality. For example, a person may not “see” that his or her marriage is falling apart and may behave as if nothing is wrong; a good student may “forget” that he or she failed a test in school. A form of psychotic denial is the example of a woman who continued to sleep with her husband’s corpse for several days after he had died.
Rationalization occurs when the ego tries to excuse itself logically from blame for unacceptable behaviors. For example, a student declares that he or she failed a test because roommates kept him or her up the night before, or a person gets drunk because he or she had such a “tough day” at the office.
Isolation is the process that separates unpleasant memories from emotions that were once connected to them. In this case, the ideas remain, but only in isolated form. For example, one might vividly remember a childhood situation of being spanked by one’s father but not recall the intense negative feelings one had toward him at that time because such feelings would be painful. This defense mechanism probably begins to emerge in the anal psychosexual stage, but it fully develops between ages three and five.
Introjection is also called identification. It involves modeling or incorporating the qualities of another person, such as one’s parents or teachers. Sometimes people do this with people that they fear; by doing so, the fear associated with them is reduced. Anna Freud calls this “identification with the aggressor.” For example, little boys identify with their fathers to reduce the castration anxiety associated with the Oedipus complex. As a result, boys adopt the social, moral, and cultural values of the father, all of which become incorporated into the superego.
Reaction formation occurs when a person expresses a repressed unconscious impulse by its directly opposite behavior. Hate may be replaced by love, or attraction by repulsion. The original feeling is not lost, but it does not become conscious. For example, a reaction formation to strong sexual impulses may be celibacy, or a parent who unconsciously hates his or her child may “smother” it by being overly protective. Reaction formation is another defense mechanism that is closely related to repression.
Sublimation involves channeling the power of instincts and emotions into scientific or artistic endeavors such as writing books, building cities, doing research, or landing a person on the moon. Freud believed that sublimation was especially important for building culture and society.
Defense mechanisms were initially discovered and studied in terms of their role in psychiatric symptom formation when used maladaptively. Unfortunately, this led many people to believe that defense mechanisms themselves were dysfunctional, which is not true. As Vaillant and others have shown, defenses are necessary for adaptation, survival, and happiness, but some are more effective for different stages of life than others, and maturational shifts in the development of ego defenses can have profound effects on social, emotional, and occupational adjustment.
On the positive side, Freud’s conceptualization of defense mechanisms led directly to his formulation of psychoanalysis, which was the first major personality theory and treatment method in psychology. Virtually all personality theories and treatment methods since then have been directly or indirectly influenced by the notions of defense and resistance. In addition, the concept of defense mechanisms has become an important part of Western language and culture.
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