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.
Defence mechanisms are unconscious coping mechanisms that reduce anxiety generated by threats from unacceptable impulses.
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
Freud proposed three structures of the psyche or personality:
Id: The id is the unconscious reservoir of the libido, the psychic energy that fuels instincts and psychic processes. It is a selfish, childish, pleasure-oriented part of the personality with no ability to delay gratification.
Superego: The superego contains internalised societal and parental standards of "good" and "bad", "right" and "wrong" behaviour. They include conscious appreciations of rules and regulations as well as those incorporated unconsciously.
Ego: The ego acts as a moderator between the pleasure sought by the id and the morals of the superego, seeking compromises to pacify both. It can be viewed as the individual's "sense of time and place".
Primary and secondary processes
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
Id impulses are not appropriate in civilised society, so society presses us to modify the pleasure principle in favour of the reality principle; that is, the requirements of the external world.
Formation of the superego
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
When anxiety becomes too overwhelming, it is then the place of the ego to employ defence mechanisms to protect the individual. Feelings of guilt, embarrassment and shame often accompany the feeling of anxiety. In the first definitive book on defence mechanisms, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence (1936),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".
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.
Theories and classifications
The list of defence mechanisms is huge and there is no theoretical consensus on the number of defence mechanisms. Classifying defence mechanisms according to some of their properties (i.e. 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) and Cramer (1991). The Journal of Personality published a special issue on defence mechanisms (1998).
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.
Robert Plutchik's (1979) theory views defences as derivatives of basic emotions, which in turn relate to particular diagnostic structures. By 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).
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. 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
Vaillant's levels are:
Level I - pathological defences (i.e. psychotic denial, delusional projection)
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 found in dreams and throughout childhood as well.
Conversion: The expression of an intrapsychic conflict as a physical symptom; some examples include blindness, deafness, paralysis, or numbness. This phenomena is sometimes called hysteria.
Denial: Refusal to accept external reality because it is too threatening; arguing against an anxiety-provoking stimulus by stating it doesn't exist; resolution of emotional conflict and reduction of anxiety by refusing to perceive or consciously acknowledge the more unpleasant aspects of external reality.
Distortion: A gross reshaping of external reality to meet internal needs.
Splitting: A primitive defence. Negative and positive impulses are split off and unintegrated.
Extreme projection: The blatant denial of a moral or psychological deficiency, which is perceived as a deficiency in another individual or group.
Superiority Complex: A psychological defence mechanism in which a person's feelings of superiority counter or conceal his or her feelings of inferiority.
Inferiority Complex: A behaviour that is displayed through a lack of self-worth, an increase of doubt and uncertainty, and feeling of not measuring up to society's standards.
These mechanisms are often present in adults. These mechanisms lessen distress and anxiety provoked by threatening people or by 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.
Acting out: Direct expression of an unconscious wish or impulse in action, without conscious awareness of the emotion that drives that expressive behaviour.
Fantasy: Tendency to retreat into fantasy in order to resolve inner and outer conflicts.
Wishful thinking: Making decisions according to what might be pleasing to imagine instead of by appealing to evidence, rationality, or reality
Idealization: Unconsciously choosing to perceive another individual as having more positive qualities than he or she may actually have.
Projection: Projection is a primitive form of paranoia. Projection also reduces anxiety by allowing the expression of the undesirable impulses or desires without becoming consciously aware of them; attributing one's own unacknowledged unacceptable/unwanted thoughts and emotions to another; includes severe prejudice, severe jealousy, hypervigilance to external danger, and "injustice collecting". It is shifting one's unacceptable thoughts, feelings and impulses within oneself onto someone else, such that those same thoughts, feelings, beliefs and motivations are perceived as being possessed by the other.
Somatization: The transformation of negative feelings towards others into negative feelings toward self, pain, illness, and anxiety.
Level 3: Neurotic
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.
Displacement: Defence mechanism that shifts sexual or aggressive impulses to a more acceptable or less threatening target; redirecting emotion to a safer outlet; separation of emotion from its real object and redirection of the intense emotion toward someone or something that is less offensive or threatening in order to avoid dealing directly with what is frightening or threatening. For example, a mother may yell at her child because she is angry with her husband.
Dissociation: Temporary drastic modification of one's personal identity or character to avoid emotional distress; separation or postponement of a feeling that normally would accompany a situation or thought.
Hypochondriasis: An excessive preoccupation or worry about having a serious illness.
Intellectualization: A form of isolation; concentrating on the intellectual components of a situation so as to distance oneself from the associated anxiety-provoking emotions; separation of emotion from ideas; thinking about wishes in formal, affectively bland terms and not acting on them; avoiding unacceptable emotions by focusing on the intellectual aspects (e.g. isolation, rationalization, ritual, undoing, compensation, magical thinking).
Isolation: Separation of feelings from ideas and events, for example, describing a murder with graphic details with no emotional response.
Rationalization (making excuses): Where a person convinces him or herself that no wrong was done and that all is or was all right through faulty and false reasoning. An indicator of this defence mechanism can be seen socially as the formulation of convenient excuses - making excuses.
Reaction formation: Converting unconscious wishes or impulses that are perceived to be dangerous or unacceptable into their opposites; behaviour that is completely the opposite of what one really wants or feels; taking the opposite belief because the true belief causes anxiety. This defence can work effectively for coping in the short term, but will eventually break down.
Regression: Temporary reversion of the ego to an earlier stage of development rather than handling unacceptable impulses in a more adult way. (ex. Using whining as a method of communicating despite already having acquired the ability to speak with appropriate grammar)
Repression: The process of attempting to repel desires towards pleasurable instincts, caused by a threat of suffering if the desire is satisfied; the desire is moved to the unconscious in the attempt to prevent it from entering consciousness; seemingly unexplainable naivety, memory lapse or lack of awareness of one's own situation and condition; the emotion is conscious, but the idea behind it is absent.
Undoing: A person tries to 'undo' an unhealthy, destructive or otherwise threatening thought by acting out the reverse of unacceptable. Involves symbolically nullifying an unacceptable or guilt provoking thought, idea, or feeling by confession or atonement.
Withdrawal: Withdrawal is a more severe form of defence. It entails removing oneself from events, stimuli, interactions, etc. under the fear of being reminded of painful thoughts and feelings.
Upward and downward social comparisons: A defensive tendency that people use as a means of self-evaluation. These individuals will look to another individual or comparison group who are considered to be worse off in order to dissociate themselves from perceived similarities and to make themselves feel better about their self or personal situation.
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 us to integrate conflicting emotions and thoughts, whilst still remaining effective. Those who use these mechanisms are usually considered virtuous.
Humility: A quality by which a person considering his own defects, has a humble opinion of himself .
Mindfulness: Adopting a particular orientation toward one’s experiences in the present moment, an orientation that is characterised by curiosity, openness, and acceptance.
Acceptance: A person's assent to the reality of a situation, recognizing a process or condition (often a negative or uncomfortable situation) without attempting to change it, protest, or exit. Religions and psychological treatments often suggest the path of acceptance when a situation is both disliked and unchangeable, or when change may be possible only at great cost or risk.
Gratitude: A feeling of thankfulness or appreciation, involves appreciation of a wider range of people and events. People who feel more gratitude are much more likely to have higher levels of happiness, and lower levels of depression and stress. Throughout history, gratitude has been given a central position in religious and philosophical theories.
Altruism: Constructive service to others that brings pleasure and personal satisfaction.
Tolerance: The practice of deliberately allowing or permitting a thing of which one disapproves.
Mercy: Compassionate behavior on the part of those in power.
Forgiveness: Cessation of resentment, indignation or anger as a result of a perceived offence, disagreement, or mistake, or ceasing to demand punishment or restitution.
Humour: Overt expression of ideas and feelings (especially those that are unpleasant to focus on or too terrible to talk about) that gives pleasure to others. The thoughts retain a portion of their innate distress, but they are "skirted round" by witticism, for example Self-deprecation.
Identification: The unconscious modelling of one's self upon another person's character and behaviour.
Introjection: Identifying with some idea or object so deeply that it becomes a part of that person.
Sublimation: Transformation of negative emotions or instincts into positive actions, behaviour, or emotion (e.g., playing a heavy contact sport such as football or rugby can transform aggression into a game).
Thought suppression: The conscious process of pushing thoughts into the preconscious; the conscious decision to delay paying attention to an emotion or need in order to cope with the present reality; making it possible to later access uncomfortable or distressing emotions whilst accepting them.
Emotional self-regulation: The ability to respond to the ongoing demands of experience with the range of emotions in a manner that is socially tolerable.
^ abcFreud, A. (1937). The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence, London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis. (Revised edition: 1966 (US), 1968 (UK))
^Paulhus, D.L., Fridhandler B., & 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. ISBN0-12-134646-3.
^Cramer, P. (1991). The Development of Defense Mechanisms: Theory, Research, and Assessment. New York, Springer-Verlag.
^Special issue on defense mechanisms. Journal of Personality (1998), 66(6)
^Lipot Szondi (1956) Ego Analysis Ch. XIX, translated by Arthur C. Johnston, p.268
^Vaillant, George E. (1977). Adaptation to life. Boston: Little, Brown. ISBN0-316-89520-2.
^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.
^American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
^Carlson, Neil R.. "Chapter 14." Psychology: the science of behaviour. Fourth Canadian Edition ed. Toronto, Ont.: Pearson Education Canada Inc., 2010. 456. Print.