Teaching Psychology – Defense Mechanisms

Freud is often thought of by people who don’t know much about his theories as being a guy who came up with a lot of crazy ideas about people fancying their mothers, and who perhaps seemed a little sex obsessed. This is maybe not entirely unfair, and it’s fair to say that a lot of his theories did focus on sex – and that his Oedipus complex ideas were perhaps a little on the quirky side.

However that said, Freud still had a lot of good ideas too and it is often overlooked that without him, we would never have had any concept of an ‘unconscious’ mind – something we now largely take for ranted and think of as playing a huge part in our lives and in our psychology (note: despite popular belief Freud never described an ‘unconscious’ mind which is actually a term mistakenly invented subsequently. For Freud we are either conscious of something, or unconscious of it). At the same time, much of the understanding brought by Freud’s psychodynamic view of this unconscious is now used in forensic psychology often successfully to determine the motives behind criminals’ actions and even predict their future behaviour. He might not have always been on the mark, but some of Freud’s work was undisputed genius, lest we forget it.

His other great discovery, and one which we now also use as part of our every day lexicon and part of our general knowledge of psychology, is that of the ‘Defense Mechanisms’ which he viewed us as all employing unconsciously.

To understand the concept of the defense mechanisms – more fully ‘ego defense mechanisms’ – we need to first understand the concept of the ID, ego and superego. Here the ego is the part of us that is largely conscious – the part we consider to be our ‘personality’. The ID on the other hand is the repressed part of our personality (repressed as in submerged in our unconscious), which holds all of our deep dark desires and all of our impulses. For example the ID houses our sex drive and our hunger and is like the ‘spoiled child’ of our brain that sometimes wants that which is socially unacceptable. In a biological view of the brain, these would be our evolutionary drives which are housed in our brain stem – often referred to as the ‘reptilian’ brain. Finally, the superego is a sort of management system which has been bread into us by social norms and expectations in order to prevent us from acting socially unacceptable and creating controversy. If the ID is the naughty child, the super ego is the strict teacher. The ego is the rough balance of these two parts of our mind, largely unaware of all these processes. Sometimes however you can be almost aware of these processes – for example when you argue with yourself about whether you should eat another chocolate cake, or when you have an impulse to shout out inappropriately at an event but manage to suppress the urge. Many psychological disorders can be explained in psychodynamic theory as coming from an imbalance in these parts of the brain – turret’s for example being a lack of superego, whereas OCD might be an overactive superego.

The theory that Freud has, is that much of what think and feel would be damaging to our ego or our psyche. For example if we had an inappropriate sexual urge, then this could be damaging to our sense of self and our psyche. The superego then uses multiple methods to hide these from our conscious mind. At the same time some memories can also prove to be damaging – such as a memory of being raped or of seeing someone die – and so these too are hidden by the superego. This is where the ‘ego defense mechanisms’ come in, and regardless of how you feel about all the rest of his theories they can certainly be seen in action when you observe people’s behaviour.

Understanding the defense mechanisms then can really help you to better understand the behaviour and motivations of both yourself and of others. Being able to identify the defense mechanisms in action in the people you know is not only fun, but also allows you deeper insight into their psyche allowing you to benefit from understanding their psyche perhaps even better than them in some cases. Here we will look at some of the examples of ego defense mechanisms, and how to spot them.

Repression: Repression is the most obvious example of a defense mechanism and the one that most people are most familiar with. The central concept here is that our superego sometimes simply forces us to forget the things that could otherwise do harm to our psyche. This is something which is witnessed many times in cases of rape and other atrocities. However there is a lot of controversy surrounding the use of hypnosis to try and uncover cases of repression, as often this can create bogus results and end in wrongful imprisonment.

However sometimes it’s also possible to notice ourselves ‘trying to forget’ things, or trying to at least recreate our own histories for the sake of our ego – tweaking little elements of things that happened. Normally if someone is repressing something they will dance around and avoid the topic, so see if you can’t spot instances of this happening.

Reaction formation: Reaction formation is a very interesting concept, wherein a person tries to ‘prove’ that they aren’t a certain way or that they aren’t a certain thing by acting the complete opposite way in a very blatant manner. For example someone who was gay, but who wasn’t ready for their ego to come to terms with this fact, might become very heterosexual in their actions, and in extreme cases might even go to lengths to becoming vocally ‘anti gay’. It is thought for example that some of Hitler’s extreme reactions towards Jews could have been a result of his discovering he had Jewish blood.

Over compensation: Over compensation is another defense mechanism that we encounter in popular culture often and that has become a household term. Essentially over compensation is when we ‘make up’ for something we perceive to be lacking by going overboard in other areas. The most famous examples of this are when those with flashy sports cars or a large collection of guns are said to be overcompensating for a small penis. Sometimes there is truth in this, other times there is not. More often overcompensation might take the form of something more subtle and to an extent we all attempt to improve in areas where we are skilful in order to make up for the areas where we are not. If you see someone who is seems to be trying very hard then, perhaps this is a form of overcompensation.

Catharsis: Catharsis is the venting of emotions. For example screaming into the air because you’re frustrated or punching a punching bag to relieve stress at work. You can’t relieve this stress in the way you would like to (perhaps by punching the boss) so this is the safest way for you to deal with those strong emotions. Interestingly this has resulted in a whole school of psychological treatment in itself in the form of ‘Primal Scream Therapy’, which is when you shout at the top of your voice as a way to let go of your anxieties. This was the subject of the song ‘Shout’ by Tears for Fears.

Projection: Projection is when you accuse another individual or a group of your own thoughts, feelings or short comings. You might for example shout at someone for being forgetful, when really you are annoyed at your own disorganisation. This way you are dealing with the emotion without having to admit to it. A great come back to any argument is ‘stop projecting’.

Displacement: Displacement is when you take the negative feelings about someone or something and move them onto someone else or something else. This might mean that you have negative feelings towards someone who you feel you shouldn’t – perhaps a family member, or against yourself. You might then accuse a friend who has nothing to do with the situation of acting in this way, or just shout at them for no reason. It could also be thought of as a form of displacement when you punch the punching bag as a form of catharsis, especially if you imagine the face of the person you are really angry at at the time…

Intellectualisation: Intellectualisation is the act of trying to distance yourself from the emotion of an event or thought by trying to coldly analyse it. Here you are dealing with a situation without dealing with the emotions – thinking it through without ever engaging in it. You might then think through all of the aspects of a situation and a good solution, without getting upset or angry.

Fantasy: Fantasy can be used as a defense mechanism when we retreat into a fantasy world in order to escape from reality. This is something we all do, but it’s more highly common in younger children who have more active imaginations. If they are having a hard time at school for example, then they might convince themselves that they are in fact spies, or have superpowers like Superman, and this can help them to deal with the situation.

Rationalisation: Rationalisation is similar to intellectualisation, except that it is not always logical. Here you ‘make excuses’ – accurate or not – for a situation, emotion or behaviour. For example, if you walked passed someone and they laughed at you you might be tempted to think that they thought you were ugly or stupid. However the superego would use the defense mechanism here of rationalisation in order to protect our self esteem, and we might therefore explain the behaviour as coincidence – they were laughing at something else, or of ignorance on their part.

This is really only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to defense mechanisms, and Freud and others have described many more as playing important parts in our psychological makeup and in protecting our egos and our confidence. There are also many others that we likely use on a day to day basis, but which do not have official names and which have not been observed in the same way.

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