We often have to face with difficult situations which can cause unbearable anxiety, fear, pain and internal tense. In these critical situations our self-defense and response mechanisms get activated which basic roles are maintaining the integrity of our personality and to avoid mental breakdowns or catastrophe. I’m giving you a short introduction about important psychological processes of defense mechanism.
According to Sigmund Freud (establisher of psychoanalytic school) our personality is made up of three main parts (id, ego, superego) which working mutually together defines the complex human behaviour. 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. Ancient and subconscious part which includes all of the inherited and instinctive mental elements. It reflects the internal world of subjective experience.
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”, the reality. Follows the idea of reality.
Superego: The superego contains internalized societal and parental standards of “good” and “bad”, “right” and “wrong” behaviour, which is made by parental socialization. They include conscious appreciations of rules and regulations as well as those incorporated unconsciously.
Freud dissociated three different types of anxiety:
- Reality anxiety: made by fear from the possible danger of outside world.
- Neurotic anxiety: subconscious fear of losing control on instincts and doing something which is going to be punished.
- Moral anxiety: appears when we are willing to break a learnt (introjected) moral norm.
The anxiety warns the person that something bad is going to happen this internal tense is a sign to the ego, if the necessary steps won’t be done, it can cause dangerous consequences.
In the case of anxiety the ego can react on two ways. On the one hand the ego can focus on to try to cope with the danger and on the other hand the ego is not able to release the anxiety which can “grow” until it’s becoming traumatic. This is when our defense mechanisms start to work. Our defense mechanisms come into being during the personality development, that’s why they are different. There are primitive and mature types. Two things are the same in every each level of them, they work mainly subconsciously and to release the anxiety they reshape, distort and twist the reality.
Types of defense mechanisms
Repression: unconscious process when a feeling is hidden and forced from the consciousness to the unconscious because it is seen as socially unacceptable. This process check the impulses of the id to be expressed and supersedes too painful or too frightful memories. This is completely different from the suppression which is about thoughts and that process in conscious.
Denial: when the person completely deny the unbearable (seems like) situation or condition. For instance if an important person passed away but his/her family member can’t accept the fact acts like this person is still alive.
Projection: in this process the person projects his/her own unacceptable impulses to another person. For instance if a boy hates his father but this negative feeling is unacceptable for him, so he projects his hate onto his father, stating that his father hates him. In this way the distorted hostile feelings become bearably expressible for the child. Projection decreases the anxiety like replacing the great danger with a less important one and in the meantime provides possibility for the person to express and feel own negative impulses as a defense.
Reaction formation: acting the opposite way that the unconscious instructs a person to behave. Like when love steps into the place of hate which is completely different than real love because it’s often exaggerated and obsessive.
Rationalization: Convincing oneself that no wrong has been done and that all is or was all right through faulty and false reasoning. An indicator of this defense mechanism can be seen socially as the formulation of convenient excuses.
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.
Regression: falling back into an early state of mental/physical development seen as “less demanding and safer”
Undoing: a person tries to ‘undo’ an unhealthy, destructive or otherwise threatening thought by acting out the reverse of the unacceptable. Involves symbolically nullifying an unacceptable or guilt provoking thought, idea, or feeling by confession or atonement.
Displacement: defense 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 parent may yell at their child because they are angry with their spouse.
Sublimation: transformation of unhelpful emotions or instincts into healthy actions, behaviors, or emotions, for example, doing sport can transform aggression into a game.
We all use defense mechanisms temporarily or permanently. We can have preferred defense mechanisms but not always beneficial if we get stuck in one of the process permanently. These mechanisms have defense functions but also the reality distorting processes require a lot of energy and saddle the dynamic of our social relationships. In a long term they can cause serious mental or physical illnesses.
Mature defense mechanism
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 optimize success in human society and relationships. The use of these defenses enhances pleasure and feelings of control. These defenses help to integrate conflicting emotions and thoughts, whilst still remaining effective.
Acceptance: a person’s assent to the reality of a situation, recognizing a process or condition (often a difficult or uncomfortable situation) without attempting to change it, protest, or exit.
Courage: the mental ability and willingness to confront conflicts, fear, pain, danger, uncertainty, despair, obstacles, vicissitudes or intimidation. Physical courage often extends lives, while moral courage preserves the ideals of justice and fairness.
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. Emotional self-regulation refers to the processes people use to modify the type, intensity, duration, or expression of various emotions.
Emotional self-sufficiency: not being dependent on the validation (approval or disapproval) of others.
Forgiveness: cessation of resentment, indignation or anger as a result of a perceived offence, disagreement, or mistake, or ceasing to demand retribution or restitution.
Gratitude: a feeling of thankfulness or appreciation involving appreciation of a wide range of people and events. Gratitude is likely to bring higher levels of happiness, and lower levels of depression and stress.
Humility: a mechanism by which a person, considering their own defects, has a humble self-opinion. Humility is intelligent self-respect which keeps one from thinking too highly or too meanly of oneself.
Identification: the unconscious modelling of one’s self upon another person’s character and behaviour.
Moderation: the process of eliminating or lessening extremes and staying within reasonable limits. It necessitates self-restraint which is imposed by oneself on one’s own feelings, desires etc.
Patience: enduring difficult circumstances (delay, provocation, criticism, attack etc.) for some time before responding negatively.
Respect: willingness to show consideration or appreciation. Respect can be a specific feeling of regard for the actual qualities of a person or feeling being and also specific actions and conduct representative of that esteem.
Tolerance: The practice of deliberately allowing or permitting a thing of which one disapproves.
Source: Charles S. Carver & Michael F. Scheier: Personalistic Psychology