Defence mechanisms

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A defence mechanism is the act or technique of coping mechanisms that reduce anxiety generated by threats from unacceptable or negative impulses.[1] Defence mechanisms, which are unconscious, are not to be confused with conscious coping strategies.[2] Sigmund Freud was one of the first proponents of this construct.[3]

Defence mechanisms may result in healthy or unhealthy consequences depending on the circumstances and frequency the mechanism is used.[4] In Freudian psychoanalytic theory, defence mechanisms are psychological strategies brought into play by the unconscious mind[5] to manipulate, deny, or distort reality in order to defend against feelings of anxiety and unacceptable impulses to maintain one's self schema.[6] These processes that manipulate, deny, or distort reality may include the following: repression, or the burying of a painful feeling or thought from one's awareness even though it may resurface in a symbolic form;[4] identification, incorporating an object or thought into oneself;[7] and rationalization, the justification of one's behavior and motivations by substituting "good" acceptable reasons for the motivations.[4][8] Generally, repression is considered the basis for other defense mechanisms.[4]

Healthy persons normally use different defences throughout life. An ego defence mechanism becomes pathological only when its persistent use leads to maladaptive behaviour such that the physical or mental health of the individual is adversely affected. The purpose of ego defence mechanisms is to protect the mind/self/ego from anxiety and/or social sanctions and/or to provide a refuge from a situation with which one cannot currently cope.[9] One resource used to evaluate these mechanisms is the Defense Style Questionnaire (DSQ-40).[10][11]

Defense mechanisms are distinct from coping strategies in that the former are largely unconscious mechanisms which are activated in times of anxiety, stress and distress without any choice or conscious intentionality, while the latter are conscious strategies that are chosen in calm emotional states. Coping thus involves flexibility and defenses are more rigid, distort logistics, are unstoppable and their goal is to reduce anxiety not to solve the source of the anxiety.

Structural model: Id, ego, and superego[edit]

The concept of id impulses comes from Sigmund Freud’s structural model. According to this theory, id impulses are based on the pleasure principle: instant gratification of one's own desires and needs. Sigmund Freud believed that the id represents biological instinctual impulses in humans, such as aggression (Thanatos or the Death instinct) and sexuality (Eros or the Life instinct).

For example, when the id impulses (e.g. desire to have sexual relations with a stranger) conflict with the superego (e.g. belief in societal conventions of not having sex with unknown persons), unsatisfied feelings of anxiousness or feelings of anxiety come to the surface. To reduce these negative feelings, the ego might use defence mechanisms (conscious or unconscious blockage of the id impulses).

Freud believed that conflicts between these two structures resulted in conflicts associated with psychosexual stages.

The iceberg metaphor is often used to explain the psyche's parts in relation to one another.

Definitions of individual psyche structures[edit]

Freud proposed three structures of the psyche or personality:

Primary and secondary processes[edit]

In the ego, there are two ongoing processes. First there is the unconscious primary process, where the thoughts are not organised in a coherent way, the feelings can shift, contradictions are not in conflict or are just not perceived that way, and condensations arise. There is no logic and no time line. Lust is important for this process. By contrast, there is the conscious secondary process, where strong boundaries are set and thoughts must be organised in a coherent way. Most conscious thoughts originate here.

The reality principle[edit]

Id impulses are not appropriate in civilised society, so there is societal pressure to modify the pleasure principle in favour of the reality principle; that is, the requirements of the external world.

Formation of the superego[edit]

The superego forms as the child grows and learns parental and social standards. The superego consists of two structures: the conscience, which stores information about what is "bad" and what has been punished, and the ego ideal, which stores information about what is "good" and what one "should" do or be.

The ego's use of defence mechanisms[edit]

When anxiety becomes overwhelming, it is the ego's place to protect the person by employing defence mechanisms. Guilt, embarrassment and shame often accompany anxiety. In the first definitive book on defence mechanisms, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence (1936),[12] Anna Freud introduced the concept of signal anxiety; she stated that it was "not directly a conflicted instinctual tension but a signal occurring in the ego of an anticipated instinctual tension".[12]

The signaling function of anxiety is thus seen as a crucial one and biologically adapted to warn the organism of danger or a threat to its equilibrium. The anxiety is felt as an increase in bodily or mental tension and the signal that the organism receives in this way allows it the possibility of taking defensive action regarding the perceived danger. Defence mechanisms work by distorting the id impulses into acceptable forms, or by unconscious or conscious blockage of these impulses.[12]

Theories and classifications[edit]

The list of defence mechanisms is huge and there is no theoretical consensus on the exact number.[citation needed] Classifying defence mechanisms according to some of their properties (like underlying mechanisms, similarities or connections with personality) has been attempted. Different theorists have different categorizations and conceptualizations of defence mechanisms. Large reviews of theories of defence mechanisms are available from Paulhus, Fridhandler and Hayes (1997)[13] and Cramer (1991).[14] The Journal of Personality published a special issue on defence mechanisms (1998).[15]

In 1936, Anna Freud enumerated the ten defence mechanisms that appear in the works of Sigmund Freud: 1. Repression, 2. Regression, 3. Reaction formation, 4. Isolation, 5. Undoing, 6. Projection, 7. Introjection, 8. Turning against one’s own person, 9. Reversal into the opposite, 10. Sublimation or displacement.[16]

Both Anna Freud and her famous father Sigmund studied defense mechanisms but Anna spent more of her time and research on five main mechanisms: repression, regression, projection, reaction formation, and sublimation. All defence mechanisms are responses to anxiety and how the consciousness and unconscious handle the stress of a social situation.[17]

Otto F. Kernberg (1967) developed a theory of borderline personality organization of which one consequence may be borderline personality disorder. His theory is based on ego psychological object relations theory. Borderline personality organization develops when the child cannot integrate positive and negative mental objects together. Kernberg views the use of primitive defence mechanisms as central to this personality organization. Primitive psychological defences are projection, denial, dissociation or splitting and they are called borderline defence mechanisms. Also, devaluation and projective identification are seen as borderline defences.[18]

In George Eman Vaillant's (1977) categorization, defences form a continuum related to their psychoanalytical developmental level.[19][non-primary source needed] They are classified into pathological, immature, neurotic and "mature" defences.

Robert Plutchik's (1979) theory views defences as derivatives of basic emotions, which in turn relate to particular diagnostic structures. According to his theory, reaction formation relates to joy (and manic features), denial relates to acceptance (and histrionic features), repression to fear (and passivity), regression to surprise (and borderline traits), compensation to sadness (and depression), projection to disgust (and paranoia), displacement to anger (and hostility) and intellectualization to anticipation (and obsessionality).[20]

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) published by the American Psychiatric Association (1994) includes a tentative diagnostic axis for defence mechanisms.[21] This classification is largely based on Vaillant's hierarchical view of defences, but has some modifications. Examples include: denial, fantasy, rationalization, regression, isolation, projection, and displacement.

Vaillant's categorization of defence mechanisms[edit]

The psychiatrist George Eman Vaillant introduced a four-level classification of defence mechanisms:

Level 1: Pathological[edit]

The mechanisms on this level, when predominating, almost always are severely pathological. These six defences, in conjunction, permit one to effectively rearrange external experiences to eliminate the need to cope with reality. The pathological users of these mechanisms frequently appear irrational or insane to others. These are the "psychotic" defences, common in overt psychosis. However, they are normally found in dreams and throughout childhood as well.[22] They include:

Level 2: Immature[edit]

These mechanisms are often present in adults. These mechanisms lessen distress and anxiety produced by threatening people or by an uncomfortable reality. Excessive use of such defences is seen as socially undesirable, in that they are immature, difficult to deal with and seriously out of touch with reality. These are the so-called "immature" defences and overuse almost always leads to serious problems in a person's ability to cope effectively. These defences are often seen in major depression and personality disorders.[22] They include:

Level 3: Neurotic[edit]

These mechanisms are considered neurotic, but fairly common in adults. Such defences have short-term advantages in coping, but can often cause long-term problems in relationships, work and in enjoying life when used as one's primary style of coping with the world.[22] They include:

Level 4: Mature[edit]

These are commonly found among emotionally healthy adults and are considered mature, even though many have their origins in an immature stage of development. They have been adapted through the years in order to optimise success in human society and relationships. The use of these defences enhances pleasure and feelings of control. These defences help to integrate conflicting emotions and thoughts, whilst still remaining effective. Those who use these mechanisms are usually considered virtuous.[22] Mature defences include:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Schacter, Daniel L. (2011). Psychology Second Edition. 41 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10010: Worth Publishers. pp. 482–483. ISBN 978-1-4292-3719-2. 
  2. ^ Kramer U (October 2009). "Coping and defence mechanisms: What's the difference? - Second act". Psychol Psychother 83 (Pt 2): 207–21. doi:10.1348/147608309X475989. PMID 19883526. [dead link]
  3. ^ "Freud Theories and Concepts (Topics) AROPA. 2013. Retrieved on 05 October 2013
  4. ^ a b c d Utah Psych. "Defense Mechanisms" 2010. Retrieved on 05 October 2013.
  5. ^ Defense Mechanisms at the US National Library of Medicine Medical Subject Headings (MeSH)
  6. ^ "archive of: What is a self-schema?". Retrieved 2013-05-05. 
  7. ^ Chalquist, Craig. "A Glossary of Freudian Terms" 2001. Retrieved on 05 October 2013.
  8. ^ Contributor: GeorgeT. "Top 7 Psychological Defense Mechanisms". Listverse. Retrieved 2013-05-05. 
  9. ^ "defence mechanisms -- Britannica Online Encyclopedia". Retrieved 2008-03-11. 
  10. ^ Ruuttu T, Pelkonen M, Holi M, et al. (February 2006). "Psychometric properties of the defense style questionnaire (DSQ-40) in adolescents". J. Nerv. Ment. Dis. 194 (2): 98–105. doi:10.1097/01.nmd.0000198141.88926.2e. PMID 16477187. 
  11. ^ Hovanesian S, Isakov I, Cervellione KL (2009). "Defense mechanisms and suicide risk in major depression". Arch Suicide Res 13 (1): 74–86. doi:10.1080/13811110802572171. PMID 19123111. 
  12. ^ a b c Freud, A. (1937). The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence, London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis. (Revised edition: 1966 (US), 1968 (UK))
  13. ^ Paulhus, D.L., Fridhandler B., and Hayes S. (1997). Psychological defense: Contemporary theory and research. In Briggs, Stephen; Hogan, Robert Goode; Johnson, John W. (1997). Handbook of personality psychology. Boston: Academic Press. pp. 543–579. ISBN 0-12-134646-3. 
  14. ^ Cramer, P. (1991). The Development of Defense Mechanisms: Theory, Research, and Assessment. New York, Springer-Verlag.
  15. ^ Special issue on defense mechanisms. Journal of Personality (1998), 66(6)
  16. ^ Lipot Szondi (1956) Ego Analysis Ch. XIX, translated by Arthur C. Johnston, p. 268
  17. ^ a b c d e Hock, Roger R. "Reading 30: You're Getting Defensive Again!" Forty Studies That Changed Psychology. 7th ed. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, 2013. 233-38. Print.
  18. ^ Kernberg O (July 1967). "Borderline personality organization". J Am Psychoanal Assoc 15 (3): 641–85. doi:10.1177/000306516701500309. PMID 4861171. 
  19. ^ Vaillant, George E. (1977). Adaptation to life. Boston: Little, Brown. ISBN 0-316-89520-2. 
  20. ^ Plutchik, R., Kellerman, H., & Conte, H. R. (1979). A structural theory of ego defences and emotions. In C. E. Izard (Ed.), Emotions in personality and psychopathology (pp. 229–-257). New York: Plenum Press.
  21. ^ American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
  22. ^ a b c d Vaillant, G. E., Bond, M., & Vaillant, C. O. (1986). An empirically validated hierarchy of defence mechanisms. Archives of General Psychiatry, 73, 786-794. George Eman Valillant
  23. ^ Carlson, Neil R.. "Chapter 14." Psychology: the science of behaviour. Fourth Canadian Edition ed. Toronto, Ont.: Pearson Education Canada Inc., 2010. 456. Print.
  24. ^ McWilliams, Nancy (2011). Psychoanalytic Diagnosis: Understanding Personality Structure in the Clinical Process, Second Edition. New York, NY: The Guilford Press. pp. 60,63,103. ISBN 978-1609184940. 
  25. ^ Vaillant, George Eman (1992). Ego Mechanisms of Defense: A Guide for Clinicians and Researchers. American Psychiatric Publishing. p. 238. ISBN 0-88048-404-7. 
  26. ^ a b Schacter, Gilbert, Wegner (2011)Psychology (2nd Edition), page 483, Worth Publishers
  27. ^ Laplanche pp.390, 392

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