Defense mechanisms are unconscious mechanisms aimed at reducing anxiety that arises from three different scenarios:
- When the id impulses are in conflict with each other;
- When the id impulses conflict with superego values and beliefs;
- When an external threat is posed to the ego.
For example, when the id impulses (e.g. desire to have sex with a stranger) conflict with the superego (e.g. belief in societal conventions of not having sex with unknown persons), then the feelings of anxiety come to the surface. To reduce these negative feelings, defense mechanisms are employed.
The concept of the biological id impulses comes from Sigmund Freud’s structural model. Id impulses are based on the pleasure principle: instant gratification of one’s own desires and needs. Sigmund Freud believed that id represents the instinctual impulses in ourselves, which are aggression, and sexual. The sexual drive is our drive to live, to thrive and to grow. The aggression drive is our drive for safety and protection of our lives. Those two impulse drives are the motivating factors of our actions.
In the ego, there are two processes going on. First, there is the unconscious primary process, where the thoughts are not organized 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 the important motive for this process. On the contrary, there is the conscious secondary process, to which strong boundaries are set, and in which the thoughts must be organized in a coherent way. More cognitions arise here.
The impulses from the id cannot be focused on the satisfaction, they must respect the reality of the world and the superego. The superego represents the learned (in the process of growing up) and internalized set of values and ethics, which gives individual the sense of what is right and what is wrong to do, feel and think.
When the anxiety becomes too overwhelming it is then the place of the ego to employ defense mechanisms to protect the individual. Feelings of guilt, embarrassment and shame often accompany the feeling of anxiety. Anna Freud describes in her book Ego and mechanisms of defense (1936) the concept of signal anxiety; she states that it is ‘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 towards the perceived danger. Defense mechanisms work by distorting the id impulses into acceptable forms, or by unconscious blockage of these impulses.
Defense mechanisms are helpful and, if used in a proper manner, are healthy. However, if misused, the defense mechanisms may also be unhealthy. The maladaptive use of defense mechanisms can occur in a variety of cases, e.g. when they become automatic and prevent individuals from realizing their true feelings and thoughts. Also, a maladaptive use of defense mechanisms is when they are being employed in a continuous way that disrupts reality-testing. Denial and paranoid projection are considered to be psychotic in its nature, as their repeated use can cause people to lose touch with the real world and their surroundings and consequently isolate themselves from it and dwell in a ‘created’ world of their own design. For example, addicts are known to misuse such defense mechanisms as denial. Defense mechanisms can also be harmful if:
- There are too few defenses which can be employed in coping with threats;
- There is too much superego activity, which causes the use of too many defenses.
Sigmund Freud was the first person to develop the concept of defense mechanisms, however it was his daughter Anna Freud who clarified and conceptualized it. She has described ten different defense mechanisms:
- Denial. An ego defense mechanism that operates unconsciously to resolve emotional conflict, and to reduce anxiety by refusing to perceive the more unpleasant aspects of external reality;
- Displacement. An unconscious defense mechanism, whereby the mind redirects emotion from a ‘dangerous’ object to a ‘safe’ object. In psychoanalytic theory, displacement is a defense mechanism that shifts sexual or aggressive impulses to a more acceptable or less threatening target; redirecting emotion to a safer outlet;
- Intellectualization (isolation). Concentrating on the intellectual components of the situations as to distance oneself from the anxiety provoking emotions associated with these situations;
- Projection. Attributing to others, one’s own unacceptable or unwanted thoughts or/and emotions. Projection reduces anxiety in the way that it allows the expression of the impulse or desire without letting the ego recognize it;
- Rationalization. The process of constructing a logical justification for a decision that was originally arrived at through a different mental process;
- Reaction formation. The converting of unconscious wishes or impulses that are perceived to be dangerous into their opposites;
- Regression. The reversion to an earlier stage of development in the face of unacceptable impulses;
- Repression. The process of pulling thoughts into the unconscious and preventing painful or dangerous thoughts from entering consciousness;
- Sublimation. The refocusing of psychic energy (which Sigmund Freud believed was limited) away from negative outlets to more positive outlets. These drives which cannot find an outlet are rechanneled. In Freud’s classic theory, erotic energy is only allowed limited expression due to repression, and much of the remainder of a given group’s erotic energy is used to develop its culture and civilization. Freud considered this defense mechanism the most productive compared to the others that he identified. Sublimation is the process of transforming libido into ‘social useful’ achievements, mainly art. Psychoanalysts often refer to sublimation as the only truly successful defense mechanism;
- Suppression. The conscious process of pushing thoughts into the preconscious.