Freud in my mind gets something of a bad rap. His obsession with sexuality is something that unfortunately put a lot of people off of his ideas, but it would be a shame to ignore his other contributions. Without the writings of Freud we would never have any concept of an ‘unconscious’ mind, and the field of forensic psychology owes him a great debt of gratitude. I personally read Freud and just ‘tone down’ the word sexuality when it comes up, and I find that the rest tends to still be highly fascinating and often on the mark.
One of the most interesting concepts which Freud puts forth is no doubt his concept of ‘ego defense mechanisms’ which look at how our unconscious superego seeks to protect our psyches from themselves. The idea here is that some of our thoughts are too repulsive for us to handle, and that some of our knowledge and experience is too upsetting and stressful. Thus the brain attempts to protect itself by creating a number of barriers in order to help it deal with the stress and to help you ‘distance’ yourself from it.
Recognizing these ego defense mechanisms is often very easy when speaking to someone who lacks self-awareness, but at the same time it can be very useful for assessing our own motivations and coming to terms with our more deep seated issues. And it’s quite handy as a tool in psychological warfare too when it comes to understanding and recognizing the motivations and feelings of others. Here are some of the more common types.
Repression means just plain burying something so deep in your psyche you appear to have forgotten it. This is the case with the most damaging and distressing of memories usually, and repressed memories will often come out in hypnotherapy and regression – both of which are quite controversial and not always accurate.
Overcompensation is another ego defense mechanism that most of us have heard of and that has made its way into the general lexicon (you see? Freud is a genius!). This basically means that you compensate for a perceived fault or lacking in one area of your life by making up for it over time in another. The most commonly used example is how a man might overcompensate for being poorly endowed by buying a huge Ferrari – but bear in mind that sometimes men do just like Ferraris (and sometimes they’re just overcompensating for their lack of personality…).
Reaction formation means essentially acting the opposite to what it is that is upsetting your superego. So for instance, if you were gay, and hadn’t quite come to terms with that yet, then you might defend your ego from the truth by acting as butch and masculine as you possibly can, and even developing homophobia. Yes – homophobia often is simply caused by men being afraid of being called gay and this can stem from homoerotic thoughts of their own.
Sublimation basically means redirecting that energy somewhere else. So if you’re very stressed and upset, then you might not necessarily admit or even realize the real reason for this, and might instead act out by throwing ourselves into work or by sculpting a beautiful sculpture. Next time someone shows you an incredible work of art they’ve created using only a watermelon and a pen you’ve got to ask them – when was the last time they got any?
This is a much more primal form of ‘venting’. Whereas sublimation can be disguised as a creative pursuit, catharsis is simply the venting of psychic energy which might mean screaming or punching a punching bag.
Denial is plain and simply refusing to admit the truth – even to yourself. It’s an easy way to avoid having to come to terms with something, but it is not of course particularly constructive or helpful as it prevents you from dealing with the matter at hand.
Projecting means that you apply your thoughts and feelings onto another person. If for instance you were jealous of someone, you might protect yourself by accusing someone else of harbouring that jealousy. This might then cause you to offer your sympathy to someone who is completely fine, or may even cause you to become angry or upset with them – after all the feelings are either upsetting or repulsive to you which is why you’re projecting in the first place.
I guess that the act of sublimation also occurs in some homophobic men who are actually repressed gay men who engage in bodybuilding. Because of their homophobia they repress their sexual orientation but by engaging in bodybuilding they sublimate their natural desire and interest for the same sex in a way that is a bit less threatening to them and that can pass off as simply "an interest in sport"…
In the world of bodybuilding there is a particular anxiety regarding homosexuality so sublimation makes sense to me here.