Sigmund Freud (1894, 1896) noted a number of ego defenses which he refers to throughout his written works. His daughter Anna Freud (1936) developed these ideas and elaborated on them, adding ten of her own. Many psychoanalysts have also added further types of ego defenses.
Defense mechanisms are psychological strategies that are unconsciously used to protect a person from anxiety arising from unacceptable thoughts or feelings. According to Freudian theory, defense mechanismss involve a distortion of relaity in wome way so that we are better able to cope with a situation.
In This Article
10 Defense Mechanisms: What Are They and How They Help Us Cope
We use defense mechanisms to protect ourselves from feelings of anxiety or guilt, which arise because we feel threatened, or because our id or superego becomes too demanding.
Defense mechanisms operate at an unconscious level and help ward off unpleasant feelings (i.e., anxiety) or make good things feel better for the individual.
Ego-defense mechanisms are natural and normal. When they get out of proportion (i.e., used with frequency), neuroses develop, such as anxiety states, phobias, obsessions, or hysteria.
Here are a few common defense mechanisms: There are a large number of defense mechanisms; the main ones are summarized below.
Denial is a defense mechanism proposed by Anna Freud which involves a refusal to accept reality, thus blocking external events from awareness.
If a situation is just too much to handle, the person may respond by refusing to perceive it or by denying that it exist.
As you might imagine, this is a primitive and dangerous defense – no one disregards reality and gets away with it for long! It can operate by itself or, more commonly, in combination with other, more subtle mechanisms that support it.
What is an example of denial?
Many people use denial in their everyday lives to avoid dealing with painful feelings or areas of their life they don’t wish to admit.
For example, a husband may refuse to recognize obvious signs of his wife’s infidelity. A student may refuse to recognise their obvious lack of preparedness for an exam!
Repression is an unconscious defense mechanism employed by the ego to keep disturbing or threatening thoughts from becoming conscious.
Repression, which Anna Freud also called “motivated forgetting,” is just that: not being able to recall a threatening situation, person, or event. Thoughts that are often repressed are those that would result in feelings of guilt from the superego.
This is not a very successful defense in the long term since it involves forcing disturbing wishes, ideas or memories into the unconscious, where, although hidden, they will create anxiety.
Repressed memories may appear through subconscious means and in altered forms, such as dreams or slips of the tongue (“Freudian slips“).
What is an example of repression?
For example, in the oedipus complex, aggressive thoughts about the same sex parents are repressed and pushed down into the unconscious.
Projection is a psychological defense mechanism proposed by Anna Freud in which an individual attributes unwanted thoughts, feelings and motives onto another person.
Projection, which Anna Freud also called displacement outward, is almost the complete opposite of turning against the self. It involves the tendency to see your own unacceptable desires in other people.
In other words, the desires are still there, but they”re not your desires anymore.
What is an example of projection?
Thoughts most commonly projected onto another are the ones that would cause guilt such as aggressive and sexual fantasies or thoughts.
For instance, you might hate someone, but your superego tells you that such hatred is unacceptable. You can ‘solve’ the problem by believing that they hate you.
Displacement is the redirection of an impulse (usually aggression) onto a powerless substitute target. The target can be a person or an object that can serve as a symbolic substitute.
Displacement occurs when the Id wants to do something which the Superego does not permit. The Ego thus finds some other way of releasing the psychic energy of the Id. Thus there is a transfer of energy from a repressed object-cathexis to a more acceptable object.
Turning against the self is a very special form of displacement, where the person becomes their own substitute target. It is normally used in reference to hatred, anger, and aggression, rather than more positive impulses, and it is the Freudian explanation for many of our feelings of inferiority, guilt, and depression.
The idea that depression is often the result of the anger we refuse to acknowledge is accepted by many people, Freudians and non-Freudians alike.
What is an example of displacement?
Someone who feels uncomfortable with their sexual desire for a real person may substitute a fetish.
Someone who is frustrated by his or her superiors may go home and kick the dog, beat up a family member, or engage in cross-burnings.
Regression is a defense mechanism proposed by Anna Freud whereby the the ego reverts to an earlier stage of development usually in response to stressful situations.
Regression functions as a form of retreat, enabling a person to psychologically go back in time to a period when the person felt safer.
What is an example of regression?
When we are troubled or frightened, our behaviors often become more childish or primitive.
A child may begin to suck their thumb again or wet the bed when they need to spend some time in the hospital. Teenagers may giggle uncontrollably when introduced into a social situation involving the opposite sex.
Sublimation is similar to displacement, but takes place when we manage to displace our unacceptable emotions into behaviors which are constructive and socially acceptable, rather than destructive activities. Sublimation is one of Anna Freud’s original defense mechanisms.
Sublimation for Freud was the cornerstone of civilized life, as arts and science are all sublimated sexuality. (NB. this is a value-laden concept, based on the aspirations of European society at the end of the 1800 century).
What is an example of sublimation?
Many great artists and musicians have had unhappy lives and have used the medium of art of music to express themselves. Sport is another example of putting our emotions (e.g., aggression) into something constructive.
For example, fixation at the oral stage of development may later lead to seeking oral pleasure as an adult through sucking one’s thumb, pen or cigarette. Also, fixation during the anal stage may cause a person to sublimate their desire to handle faeces with an enjoyment of pottery.
Rationalization is a defense mechanism proposed by Anna Freud involving a cognitive distortion of “the facts” to make an event or an impulse less threatening. We do it often enough on a fairly conscious level when we provide ourselves with excuses.
But for many people, with sensitive egos, making excuses comes so easy that they never are truly aware of it. In other words, many of us are quite prepared to believe our lies.
What is an example of rationalization?
When a person finds a situation difficult to accept, they will make up a logical reason why it has happened. For example, a person may explain a natural disaster as “God’s will”.
Reaction formation, which Anna Freud called “believing the opposite,” is a psychological defense mechanism in which a person goes beyond denial and behaves in the opposite way to which he or she thinks or feels.
Conscious behaviors are adopted to overcompensate for the anxiety a person feels regarding their socially unacceptable unconscious thoughts or emotions.
Usually, a reaction formation is marked by exaggerated behavior, such as showiness and compulsiveness.
By using the reaction formation, the id is satisfied while keeping the ego in ignorance of the true motives.
Therapists often observe reaction formation in patients who claim to strongly believe in something and become angry at everyone who disagrees.
What is an example of reaction formation?
Freud claimed that men who are prejudiced against homosexuals are making a defense against their own homosexual feelings by adopting a harsh anti-homosexual attitude which helps convince them of their heterosexuality.
Another example of reaction formation includes the dutiful daughter who loves her mother is reacting to her Oedipus hatred of her mother.
Introjection, sometimes called identification, involves taking into your own personality characteristics of someone else, because doing so solves some emotional difficulty.
Introjection is very important to Freudian theory as the mechanism by which we develop our superegos.
What is an example of introjection?
A child who is left alone frequently, may in some way try to become “mom” in order to lessen his or her fears. You can sometimes catch them telling their dolls or animals not to be afraid. And we find the older child or teenager imitating his or her favorite star, musician, or sports hero in an effort to establish an identity.
Identification with the Aggressor
Identification with the aggressor is a defense mechanism proposed by Sandor Ferenczi and later developed by Anna Freud.
It involves the victim adopting the behavior of a person who is more powerful and hostile towards them.
By internalizing the behavior of the aggressor the “victim” hopes to avoid abuse, as the aggressor may begin to feel an emotional connection with the victim which leads to feelings of empathy.
What is an example of identification with the aggressor?
Identification with the aggressor is a version of introjection that focuses on the adoption, not of general or positive traits, but of negative or feared traits. If you are afraid of someone, you can partially conquer that fear by becoming more like them.
An extreme example of this is the Stockholm Syndrome, where hostages establish an emotional bond with their captor(s) and take on their behaviors.
Patty Hearst was abused by her captors, yet she joined their Symbionese Liberation Army and even took part in one of their bank robberies. At her trial, she was acquitted because she was a victim suffering from Stockholm Syndrome.
Ferenczi, S. (1933). Confusion of tongues between adults and the child (pp. 156-67).
Freud, A. (1937). The Ego and the mechanisms of defense, London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis.
Freud, S. (1894). The neuro-psychoses of defence. SE, 3: 41-61.
Freud, S. (1896). Further remarks on the neuro-psychoses of defense. SE, 3: 157-185.
Freud, S. (1933). New introductory lectures on psychoanalysis. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis. Pp. xi + 240.
Paulhus, D. L., Fridhandler, B., & Hayes, S. (1997). Psychological defense: Contemporary theory and research. In R. Hogan, J. A. Johnson, & S. R. Briggs (Eds.), Handbook of personality psychology (pp. 543-579). http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/B978-012134645-4/50023-8
- Name the Defense Mechanism Activity
- BPS Article on Repression
- Exploring Ferenczi’s Concept of Identification with the Aggressor: Its Role in Trauma, Everyday Life, and the Therapeutic Relationship
- Cramer, P. (2015). Understanding defense mechanisms. Psychodynamic Psychiatry, 43(4), 523-552.
- Freudian Defense Mechanisms and Empirical Findings in Modern Social Psychology: Reaction Formation, Projection, Displacement, Undoing, Isolation, Sublimation, and Denial
- Defense Mechanisms Summary Table