Our brains work in amazing and sometimes seemingly mysterious ways. We’ve all heard terms such as they’re just “being defensive”, “in denial”, or “trying to rationalise their behaviour”. And many of us have caught ourselves behaving or responding in ways that may seem strange or uncharacteristic on reflection. But why do we turn to these behaviours? What purpose do some of these irrational responses serve?
According to psychoanalytic theory, these types of responses – known as defence mechanisms – are strategies adapted by our minds. They are designed to protect us against unwanted, undesirable, or unpleasant thoughts, which would ultimately affect us and create anxiety.
As covered in our blog on The Unconscious Mind, our minds are comprised of three components: the id, the ego, and the superego. The id: basic biological urges such as hunger, thirst, and sexual impulses. Operates unconsciously and drives us to seek out these primal needs.
The ego and superego: balance the id and its impulsive drives.
The conscious ego aims to satisfy the id’s urges. In socially acceptable, rational, and safe ways.
The superego’s goal (conscious or unconscious): solutions developed by the ego align with personal morals and ethics, and one’s own internalised set of rules and core values.
However, sometimes the demands of the id can begin to overpower the ego. To prevent these impulsive urges from entering the conscious mind (which may be unacceptable and personally threatening, and thus provoke an anxiety response) the ego deploys defence mechanisms in order to avoid experiencing this anxiety.
Different forms of defence mechanisms
Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, conceptualised the three levels of the mind and how they interact in the first place. Later his daughter, Anna Freud, expanded on his works and described ten primary defence mechanisms. We tend to employ these to protect us against anxiety.
Response to an anxiety-provoking stressor. Individual retreats to behavioural patterns previously used in earlier stages of their developmental cycle.
Example: A man approaching retirement. He avoids anxiety associated with ageing by resorting to behaviours aimed at making himself feel younger. He comes back to those he used to partake in during his teenage years. Such as driving fast cars, dating younger women, and spending excessive time drinking at bars.
Additionally, Sigmund Freud proposed that – per his theory on psychosexual stages of development – people can become fixated (stuck) in a particular stage. For example, individuals fixated on the oral stage of development may respond to stressors with oral-based activities, such as eating or smoking.
Pushing unpleasant, anxiety-inducing thoughts and feelings. From personal experience out of the conscious mind into the unconscious.
Example: An individual who experienced abuse during childhood. They develop an unconscious defensive mindset that makes it difficult for them to form and maintain stable, healthy relationships in adulthood. Thereby avoiding the negative, anxiety-inducing experiences associated with close interpersonal relationships.
3. Reaction Formation.
To block the anxiety resulting from unpleasant or unacceptable impulses, an individual responds with an opposite behavioural response to the id’s desire.
Example: A wife has begun to experience sexual desires outside her marriage. This is an unacceptable desire of the id that conflicts with the ego and superego (thus creating anxiety). She blocks these feelings by a reaction involving an increase in devotion and romantic attention towards her husband.
Attempts to isolate a chain of thoughts that may trigger anxiety. By not talking or thinking about a particular topic or experience, the individual protects themselves from experiencing anxiety.
Example: A person talking to work colleagues about their weekend suddenly remembers an upsetting argument they had with their boyfriend on Saturday. They pause and awkwardly change conversation topics.
The ego is calmed by compensation and correction of a particular situation that resulted from one’s own wrongdoing.
Example: You take a joke too far and hurt your friend’s feelings. That’s why you insist on shouting them lunch and being especially nice to them in an effort to correct your bad behaviour and ‘undoing’ the harm caused.
Taking one’s own unacceptable qualities, feelings, or desires and projecting them onto others. Thus externalising an (unacceptable) internal feeling to avoid anxiety.
Example: A husband has unfaithful desires and subsequently becomes jealous and suspicious of his wife’s fidelity. He now believes she is having an affair despite a lack of evidence. In convincing himself of her infidelity, the husband effectively allays his own anxiety by making his unfaithful feelings justifiable. Because, in his altered reality, this would constitute a mutual transgression. A one-sided romantic transgression would be threatening and thus projection defends against the anxiety that this would cause.
When one internalises the ideas, beliefs, or expectations of others.
Example: Adopting the political and religious stances of your romantic partner irrespective of truth or reality, to avoid the resulting anxiety from a clash in moral values.
8. Turning against the self.
The redirection of negative emotions towards others, unto themselves.
Example: A child with abusive parents thinks that they deserve the punishment and views abuse as ‘discipline’ for their own good. This view is a better alternative (for attachment purposes) than believing their parents are, in fact, wrong and behaving abusively – an unacceptable thought that our unconscious tries to defend against.
Switching from one behaviour to another to balance the ego. Such as activating and magnifying normally passive behaviours or traits.
Example: A usually needy or dependent person may revert to polar opposite behaviours. Thus making attempts to dominate, or control another person’s dependency on them.
Converting unacceptable thoughts or impulses into socially and morally responsible activities or behaviours.
Example: A person experiencing extreme aggression decides to pursue competitive mixed martial arts.
These are brief descriptions and examples of how common defence mechanisms may manifest. The first thing to remember is that there are many additional defence mechanisms. These have been studied since Anna Freud’s original works and hence are not covered here. Additionally, there are many more ways that each of the below defence mechanisms can present in life beyond the examples provided.
To sum up, the use of defence mechanisms is a common response in people. Some defence mechanisms such as sublimation, are healthy, adaptive ways of responding to stressors. However, defence mechanisms can become dangerous or even harmful. That happens when they interfere with or impede daily functioning, important relationships, and quality of life.
Are you struggling with aspects of impulse control?
Do you need help understanding some of your behaviours?
Or do you simply want to talk confidentially about some of the thoughts or feelings you may be experiencing?
Please feel free to contact us and connect with one of our experienced psychologists. For more information and insight into psychotherapy watch our videocasts on YouTube.
Freud, A. (2019). The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence. Routledge. doi: 10.4324/9780429481550
Cramer, P. (2001). The unconscious status of defense mechanisms. American Psychologist, 56(9), 762–763. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.56.9.762
Cramer, P. (2015). Understanding Defense Mechanisms. Psychodynamic Psychiatry, 43(4), 523-552. doi: 10.1521/pdps.2015.43.4.523