Psychoanalysis > Theory

[Defence Mechanisms]

Psychoanalysis describes different defence mechanisms against the development of anxiety related to the libidinal exigencies of the unconscious. These defences describe, on the one hand, the type of mind disorder and, on the other hand, they can be associated to the structuring phases of the psychical apparatus.

Thus there are defences generated by the psychical apparatus before the ego's structuring - such as, for example, repression - and others that practically result from any type of mind operation initiated by the ego, such as the logical explanation of some events.

Sigmund Freud talks about the defence mechanisms in works such as Inhibition, symptom, anxiety (1926) but this theme is taken over - even though not in a systematic manner- by his daughter, Anna.

Here are some defence mechanisms briefly described and followed by short examples:

Denial
It can be explained through the refusal of accepting something that rose or it is happening in the mind. Thus the victims of some family traumatic events can deny these traumas. The well known case of the wife beaten by the husband who refuses to recognize she is beaten. In this case we are not talking about a defense against anxiety but of spearing the narcissist ego.

Repression
Repression is an autonomous mechanism which acts in order to hinder representatives connected to unconscious demands to access the conscience and take a course of action. We sometimes act consciously in this direction and we call this mechanism suppression or condemnation. Freud writes precisely that in the psychoanalytical treatment repression has to be replaced with conviction, meaning with the processing at a conscious level of the conflict with the unconscious demands.

Displacement
It is a frequent mechanism especially known for dreams formation process. Displacement means that an affect is associated with other objects or events that are in a contiguity relationship with the initials ones which triggered it. We generally discover very easily the displacement in day to day life when someone is fighting with his children because he cannot confront a hostile boss. Or the hostility displaced against a neighbor while the actual cause was an unpopular measure of the government or the corruption in the public administration etc.

Sublimation
Through sublimation an unacceptable drive is transformed into a social acceptable one. In sports, for example, we find the sublimation of aggressive demand in the competition or contest.

Projection
It refers to the case when we attribute our own drives or character features to exterior objects. Projection is characterized through an extortionate development of criticism against other people's biases and flaws. Projection comes together with denial.

Intellectualization
It is recognized in mental operations which tend to transform an uncomfortable or painful reality in philosophical contents, for example. Thus a failed exam can turn into a reflection over the life quality or the relativity of success. 

Rationalization
It offers explanations following a logical pattern for some biases or manifestations which make the subject feel embarrassed or uncomfortable. This mechanism can also be used to protect the narcissist ego.

Regression
It refers to going back to the phases of sexual development and previous objects. For example to the oral phase, where the person can develop the feeling of being always hungry or the refusal to eat (anorexia). A student in love with an assistant professor develops anorexia due to the fact that her best friend "steals" her boyfriend (she cannot "swallow" this situation). Or the frequent case of an adult person who is getting divorced in order to marry his "first love" (regression to object).

Reaction-formation
It can be easily explained by transforming a wish in its reverse. For example the desire of having immoral sexual intercourse turns into a cleaning obsession. Or the hostility felt against a person is hidden by some strong friendship proofs.

Turning against one self
A well known mechanism, such as for example, when the wife states loud and clear that her husband is not to blame for his infidelity, that it is her fault as she did not communicate enough with him.

Other mechanisms discovered or defined after Freud:

Acting out - refers to the tendency of acting in an involuntary manner stirred up by a demand disclosed during the analysis, thus confirming what it is actually repressed and denied.

Affiliation - refers to the person's tendency to request other people's help, collaborating willingly with them.

Purpose inhibition - the person accepts an altered form of his initial purpose - it is what we usually call "to go half way".

Altruism - the unconditional dedication for someone else's needs by totally neglecting or denying one's own identical needs. It is the well known case of the neurotic person who asks for the help of the psychoanalyst for another person he feels attached to through compassion and friendship bounds.

Avoiding - the refusal of interacting with conflicting situations or persons.

Compensation - the excessive development of interest and action in a certain domain only to hide the missing of satisfaction in a previous one.

Humor - revealing the funny or comical side of an embarrassing situation.

Passive aggression - the tendency of showing aggressiveness in an indirect manner.

  • Online resources

You may test online your knowledge related to defence mechanisms:
http://psychology.about.com/library/quiz/bl_defense_quiz.htm.

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Sigmund Freud

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