Freud described defense mechanisms as the ego’s (personal identity) unconscious attempt to minimize anxiety in response to conflict occurring between the id (instinctive impulses) and the superego (self-critical conscience) and identified a core group of eight mechanisms:
Denial: Refusing to accept real events because they are unpleasant.
e.g. Susan won't acknowledge she has substance abuse issues despite not being able to go a day without a drink.
Displacement: Transferring inappropriate behaviors into a venue that evokes less distress.
e.g. Mark is angry at his boss but does not express it. Instead, he waits until he gets home and vents his anger onto his wife and children.
Projection: Attributing what is perceived as unacceptable desires and behaviors to others.
e.g. Barbara accuses her husband of cheating on her because she has been cheating on him for years.
Rationalization: Creating false excuses for one’s perceived failures or unacceptable behaviors.
e.g. George justifies cheating on the exam by identifying that everyone else cheated.
Reaction Formation: Perceiving one’s true feelings to be socially unacceptable so acts in opposition to those feelings in what is usually an exaggerated performance.
e.g. Kim ‘hero-worships’ her father despite him being physically abusive towards her.
Regression: Relying on coping mechanisms from a less mature stage of development.
e.g. After 10 year old Sally’s newborn brother came home, she began to suck her thumb.
Repression: Suppressing painful memories and thoughts.
e.g. Patrick is unable to remember the details of how his father drowned despite being present when it happened.
Sublimation: Redirecting socially unacceptable desires into more acceptable channels.
e.g. Richard’s anger towards the drunk driver who killed his brother is taken out on his opponents when he plays football.
Beyond the construct of id, ego, and superego, I describe defense mechanisms as psychological reflexes that become activated when the individual is ‘triggered’ by a stimulus in the environment that has touched in on an anxiety-provoking memory. The ‘trigger’ occurs as a result of whatever is happening being in resonance with a cellular memory of a moment in time that would have been threatening and overwhelming to the physical and/or emotional body. As a result, the adrenals become activated and the nervous system becomes dysregulated resulting in the defense mechanisms becoming activated in an attempt to minimize the anxiety response.
Without realizing it, we have all unconsciously developed an array of well-honed defense mechanisms over the years to help us navigate and cope with uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking situations. The following is my list of defense mechanisms that are present every day in the sessions I facilitate for my clients. They include but are not limited to:
Idealizing or Devaluing others through comparison in order to regulate one's own self-esteem
Altruism allows for vicariously gratifying experiences which includes fulfilling the needs of others to the detriment of the self.
Humor expresses feelings overtly without having to experience personal discomfort. Sarcasm is a common expression of this defense mechanism and is used to distance oneself from one's own anger.
Passive aggressive expressions of anger towards others through passivity and turning against the self through failure, procrastination, resentment and martyrdom.
Controlling people and events in order to minimize anxiety.
Intellectualization focuses primarily on external reality in order to avoid intimacy with self and others through expressions of feelings.
What is most important to understand is that when we are expressing through these defense mechanisms we are attempting to get our physical and emotional needs met in an extremely distorted and unhealthy manner that is a direct reflection of our own distorted self-image. This distorted self-image creates an internal conflict which has us in a chronic state of tension. By relying on these unconscious defense mechanisms to deflect what it is we are unable to accept about ourselves and alleviate the anxiety associated with this inner tension; we have only managed to minimize our discomfort until the next uncomfortable situation arises.
Consequently, these defense mechanisms continue to inform dysfunctional behavioral and relationship patterns that reinforce our distorted self-image and become the stumbling blocks that prevent us from experiencing the quality of life we truly desire. Therapy can provide an opportunity to increase our awareness around what is preventing us from having our preferred experience by learning what our defense mechanisms are and how to eliminate them.
The key to eliminating them is to engage in a process of learning how to love and accept ourselves. In doing so, we integrate those aspects of ourselves that we have rejected; that we hide from others out of fear and shame. By integrating our wounded aspects we heal our distorted self-image and from this place of wholeness and authenticity there is no longer the need to defend ourselves.