Defense Mechanisms

Defense mechanisms are unconscious strategies used in personality to avoid or reduce threatening feelings, such as anger or anxiety.

The concept of defense mechanisms began with Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) and was later elaborated by other theorists, including his daughter Anna Freud (1895–1982). Defense mechanisms work to minimize difficult feelings without actually changing the situation that produced them. Defense mechanisms are the mind's way of distorting reality so that reality feels bearable. Although defense mechanisms help people cope with stress, they also can create psychological problems. Reducing stress can become so appealing that defenses become habitual. Avoiding problems, denying they exist, and acting in ways opposite to how a person feels are all common defenses. Defenses become harmful when they become a person's primary mode of responding to problems. When young children depend excessively on defense mechanisms, they can end up socially isolated and actually distort reality. Without the ability to remain open and curious about the world, children cannot 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. All these defenses exist on a spectrum, from most primitive to most evolved. Avoiding a problem that exists, such as an unpaid bill, is much more childish than admitting a problem exists but sublimating anxiety over it by working hard. Denial and repression both distort reality by keeping things hidden from consciousness. Using denial, a person ignores an unpleasant reality; a realistic interpretation of potentially threatening events is replaced by a benign but inaccurate one. Feelings, events, or both may be denied.

Very young children use denial often and a degree of denial is normal. One way that children cope with the relative powerlessness of childhood is to sometimes act as if they can change reality by refusing to acknowledge it; they ascribe magical powers to their thoughts and wishes. For example, a child who is told that her parents are divorcing may deny that it is happening or deny that she is upset about it. Denial has been shown to be effective in reducing the fear or pain caused by a threatening situation. In life-threatening or other extreme situations, denial can be temporarily useful to help people cope with emergency or trauma. In the long term, psychologists believe mental health requires that painful feelings and events must be acknowledged. Avoidance is related to denial. Avoidance is a defense that involves avoiding situations that are expected to elicit unwanted emotions and impulses.

Repression is the defense the mind uses to take painful feelings, initially conscious, and bury them.Repressed memories are stored in the unconscious, from which (under certain circumstances) they can be retrieved. Freud called this retrieval “the return of the repressed.” Repression can range from a momentary memory lapse to forgetting the details of a traumatic event, such as a murder or an earthquake. Complete amnesia is rare but can occur in cases where a person has experienced something very painful.The Oedipus complex, Freud's explanation of the acquisition of gender identity, relies on a child's repression of incestuous desires for the oppositesex parent and anger toward the same-sex parent. A multitude of situationsmaycause a child to repress hostile feelings towards a parent. Possibly the most extreme event leading to repression is child abuse, thememory of which can remain repressed long into adulthood.

A third defense mechanism, related to denial and repression, is suppression, in which unpleasant feelings are avoided by a conscious decision not to think about them. Suppression differs from repression and denial because the undesirable feelings are easily available but deliberately ignored. Suppression often works by replacing unpleasant thoughts with others that do not produce stress. This thought replacement may be done instinctively, or it may be done deliberately in a therapeutic context. Cognitive behavior therapy uses the technique of suppression to help people combat negative thought patterns. For example, a child may be instructed to block feelings of fear by thinking about a pleasant experience, a party, an academic achievement, or a winning goal. Suppression is considered one of the more mature and healthy defense mechanisms.

Projection and displacement allow a person to acknowledge anxiety-producing feelings but transfer them to another source or another object. In projection, undesirable feelings inside the self are attributed to some other person or persons. An angry person believes others are angry at her; a person who is critical of others believes they are critical of him. Very young children are prone to projection. Children are naturally egocentric, which allows them to easily blur the boundary between themselves and others; therefore, it is also easy for children to blur the distinction between their feelings and those of others.

Displacement is a defense through which an impulse perceived as dangerous by the self is redirected or replaced by another impulse. In object displacement, anger or another negative emotion is initially felt toward a person against whom it is unsafe to express it; children may feel intense rage toward a parent whom they also love and rely upon for all their needs. Object displacement functions as a means by which the angry impulse can still be expressed but toward a safer target, such as a sibling, peer, pet, or even a toy. In the second type of displacement, known as drive displacement, the object of the emotion, perhaps a parent, remains the same but the emotion itself is replaced by one that is less threatening.

Two defense mechanisms, regression and fixation, are associated with developmental disturbances in children. During regression, a child is confronted with a situation that produces conflict, anxiety, or frustration. He then reverts (regresses) to the behavior of an earlier stage of development, such as bed-wetting, in an attempt to regain a lost sense of safety that characterized that earlier age. In fixation, the child does not lose previously gained developmental ground but refuses to move ahead because developmental progress has come to be associated with anxiety.

Identification, a process which is essential to human development and learning, can also serve as a defense mechanism. Taking on the characteristics of someone else enables a person to express impulses or act out behavior that she sees as taboo for her but acceptable for the person with whom she identifies. Another powerful drive toward identification is fear of losing the person with whom one identifies. A particularly well-known example is identification with an aggressor. Someone who is victimized may instinctively take on the traits of the victimizer to combat feelings of powerlessness. This type of projection occurs when a child who is abused by his parents abuses others in turn. In introjection, which is related to identification, only a particular aspect of someone else's personality is internalized.

Rationalization is an attempt to deny one's true motives (to oneself or others) by using reasons that are highly logical or socially acceptable instead of personal. Typical rationalizations include such statements as “I don't care if I wasn't chosen for the team; I didn't really want to play soccer anyway,” and “ I couldn't get my homework done because I had too many other things to do.” Adolescents, caught between their own strong impulses and adult expectations, are especially prone to rationalizing their behavior. Advanced cognitive development makes many adolescents adept at this strategy.

Like rationalization, isolation is a complicated defense. Isolation necessitates dividing one's experience so that an event becomes separated from the feelings that accompanied it. Isolation can take on aspects of a dissociative disorder. Children may separate parts of their lives and think of themselves as more than one person (for example, a good child and a bad one). By compartmentalizing in this way, children can be relieved of feeling responsible for the actions of the ‘bad child.’

Sublimation is one of the healthiest defense mechanisms. The process of sublimation allows a person to channel energy connected with an unacceptable impulse into one that is socially acceptable. Through sublimation, inappropriate sexual or aggressive impulses can be released in sports, creative pursuits, or other activities. Feelings can also be sublimated into altruistic impulses, from which a person derives the vicarious pleasure of helping others. Other defense mechanisms viewed as both positive and mature include compensation—devoting unusual efforts to achievement in order to overcome feelings of inferiority—and the use of humor as a coping device.

See also Freud, Sigmund; Humor ; Identification with the aggressor ; Stress .



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