Defense Mechanisms

Freud believed that the id, the ego, and the superego are in constant conflict. He focused mainly on conflicts concerning sexual and aggressive urges because these urges are most likely to violate societal rules.

Internal conflicts can make a person feel anxious. In Freud’s view, anxiety arises when the ego cannot adequately balance the demands of the id and the superego. The id demands gratification of its impulses, and the superego demands maintenance of its moral standards.

To manage these internal conflicts, people use defense mechanisms.

Defense Mechanisms

Defense mechanisms are the behaviours that protect people from anxiety arising from unacceptable thoughts or feelings.

There are different defense mechanisms, many of which are automatic and unconscious. Some of these defense mechanisms commonly used by individuals are presented below. It may be mentioned here that the individual is generally not aware that he or she is using defense mechanisms at the conscious level.

  • Denial: Refusing to acknowledge something that is obvious to others.

Example: Rashmi has started drinking alcohol which started to affect her relationships and her job. However, she insists that she drinks only to relieve stress and that she does not have an alcohol problem.

  • Displacement: Transferring feelings about a person or event onto someone or something else.

Example: Rohan is angry at his professor for giving him a bad grade. He leaves class and shouts angrily at a passerby who accidentally bumps into him

  • Rationalization: Using incorrect but self serving explanations to justify unacceptable behaviour, thoughts, or feelings.

Example: Shruti jumps a red light while driving. He justifies this by telling to himself that she was already in the intersection when the light changed to red.

  • Projection: Attributing one’s own unacceptable thoughts or feelings to someone else.

Example: Karan gets attracted to women other than his wife and feels bad about it. However he is unable to state anything about it nor he wants to accept such feelings within him. He therefore unconsciously projects these feelings on to his wife saying the she is unfaithful and that she goes with other men and gets attracted to other men etc.

  • Reaction Formation: This refers to behaving in a way that is opposite to behaviour, feelings, or thoughts that are considered unacceptable.

Example: Nisha feels attracted to her boss but does not admit this to herself. Instead, she constantly makes very disparaging comments about the boss, exactly opposite of her feelings of attraction.

  • Repression: Keeping unpleasant thoughts, memories, and feelings shut up in the unconscious.

Example: Ram witnessed his mother being beaten by a goonda on a motor cycle who was trying to snatch away her gold chain. This happened around when he was seven years of ages. He does not remember this incident as of today as an adult. This is so because he has repressed that traumatic incident into the unconscious.

  • Sublimation: Channeling unacceptable thoughts and feelings into socially acceptable behaviour.

Example: Priya deals with her angry feelings toward her family by writing science fiction stories about battles between civilizations which contains a lot of aggression.

  • Regression: Returning to a more immature state of psychological development.

Example: When six-years-old Radhika gets less attention from his parents because of a new baby brother, he suddenly starts to wet his bed at night.

Sigmund Freud (1894, 1896) noted a number of ego defenses which he refers to throughout his written works.
His daughter Anna Freud (1936) developed these ideas and elaborated on them, adding ten of her own. Many psychoanalysts have also added further types of ego defenses.

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