Defence Mechanism: What They Are And Why We Use Them

Defence Mechanism: What They Are And Why We Use Them

Defence Mechanism: What They Are And Why We Use Them

In psychoanalytic theory, pioneered by psychologist Sigmund Freud, defence mechanisms refer to the mental processes that we employ to reach compromise solutions for conflicts that our mind is unable to resolve. The term was first used by Freud in 1894, in his paper ‘The Neuro-psychoses of Defence’. It was further expanded upon by Freud’s daughter, Anna Freud, who described 10 major defences.

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The concept of defence mechanisms is based on the theory in psychoanalysis that our mind is composed of three forces, namely — the animalistic id, the idealistic superego, and the realistic ego, which constantly battle each other to dominate our conscious mind. Usually, defence mechanisms are unconscious, and we do not realise we are utilising them to deal with some situations. They usually attempt to conceal our inner drives and wants and help protect us from feelings that threaten to lower our self-esteem or cause anxiety. They help us in protecting ourselves from feelings we don’t want to think about or deal with. Since Anna Freud, psychoanalysts have further observed and described many more defence mechanisms. Here are a few of them:

Common Defense Mechanisms

1. Denial

This is a very commonly occurring Defence Mechanism. It involves people refusing to accept reality or facts. You may block external circumstances or occurrences from your mind if your unconscious perceives that acknowledging them might cause hurt or pain. ‘They’re in denial’ is a very common phrase. People who have lost a loved one often go into denial about their death. A person may keep wearing their school uniform and deny the fact that they have graduated.

2. Repression

In repression, unwanted thoughts or memories are pushed into the unconscious mind to avoid conscious awareness. However, these memories do not disappear completely, they get ‘bottled up’ in the unconscious, and then tend to appear in dreams symbolically or irrationally influence behaviour. Repression as a defence mechanism is often seen in survivors of childhood abuse or trauma.

3. Projection

Sometimes, when we have certain feelings or desires we think are unacceptable, and we cannot act upon them because they might hurt us or the people surrounding us, we try to defend our ego by projecting those desires and behaviours onto other people. A common example is a bully, who constantly makes fun of his peers’ insecurities, might be projecting his issues with self-esteem onto his victim, or when someone feels attracted to a person who is not their spouse might accuse their spouse of cheating on them.

4. Sublimation

This defence mechanism is considered more adaptive compared to others. It involves converting negative anxiety into more positive energy. We sometimes unconsciously channel unacceptable impulses into productive and socially acceptable behaviours. It usually refers to deflecting sexual drives to artistry, religious practices, or academic pursuits.

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5. Regression

This defence mechanism is observed when a person reverts to a behaviour they used to display at an earlier stage of their life. Usually, the high stress and anxiety of adult life and work pushes people to seek comfort by eating meals they used to eat as a kid, or watching old cartoons and series they used to love.

6. Reaction Formation

People who use this defence mechanism recognise their actual feelings and wants, but since they find them unacceptable or negative, they behave or act in a manner that is opposite of their true feelings. An example is when someone is extremely sad about a recent breakup, they might act as if they are fine and never care about it. Or, a man who is insecure about his masculinity, may act overly aggressive.

7. Self-Serving Bias:

This defence mechanism arises out of our need to protect our ego from the criticism of others and ourselves. A person who displays self-serving bias tries to maintain their self-esteem and view themselves in an overly positive light. For example, a student might get a good grade and think to themselves it’s because they are intelligent and put in effort, but on the other hand, they might attribute a bad grade to an unfairly difficult question paper, or an incompetent teacher.

8. Rationalisation:

Some people attempt to explain their undesirable and negative behaviours in rational terms or a logical manner, to avoid accepting the true reasons for it. This allows them to feel comfortable about their behaviours and choices even when their unconscious is aware that it is not right. For example, someone who was rejected by a date might rationalise by telling themselves that they were not attracted to them anyway. Or, a shoplifter might rationalise their theft by saying that they were in dire need and the product is unreasonably high priced so the act is justified.

9. Intellectualisation:

A person who uses this Defence mechanism tries to unconsciously remove all emotion from their responses and tries to only focus on quantitative facts. They try to take a cold, neutral view of the situation. An example is a person, who has worked for a company for more than fifteen years and gets fired. They try to intellectualise the situation by assessing in detail the company’s motives behind taking such an action and come to the conclusion that it was unavoidable. However, this response occurs because the employee does not want to deal with their true feelings of betrayal after having worked for the company for so long.

10. Passive-Aggression:

While utilising this defence mechanism, a person tries to communicate their feelings indirectly. Since overt displays of aggression and anger are considered socially unacceptable and undesirable, people tend to avoid them as much as they can. However, the feelings remain and they are difficult to contain. So they try to express these feelings passively. Some ways in which people passively express that they are upset or angry with another person is by giving them silent treatment, being uncooperative with them, or ignoring them when being spoken to.

11. Fantasy

Fantasy is also a common defence mechanism. When routine life gets too stressful and overwhelming, people tend to use fantasy as a way of escaping reality. They retreat to a safe place within their mind, where the anxieties of the real world cannot reach them. It involves thinking about alternatives to real-life situations that might be unrealistic or very improbable. For example, a person who is suffering from poverty may constantly fantasise about winning the lottery.

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12. Undoing:

Sometimes, when a person acts out on an impulse or desire they later come to regret, they try to protect their ego by attempting to undo the action. It involves trying to make up for thoughts, feelings, or behaviours they are guilty about. For example, if a person hurt their coworker’s feelings, they might try to undo it by apologising or taking up work that was assigned to the coworker to help.

Defence mechanisms are unconscious strategies that people employ to protect themselves from unwanted and unacceptable thoughts, feelings, and desires that cause anxiety. Not all defence mechanisms are inherently bad. Some researchers such as George Valliant have proposed that there are certain immature defences, that may cause harm and are detrimental to your mental health in the long run (such as repression and passive-aggression), and there are other defences that are mature, which help face your anxieties in a more positive way (such as sublimation). However, these defence mechanisms become problematic when they are applied too frequently or for very long.

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