In psychodynamic theory, a psychological defense mechanism is a technique that is used by a person’s ego to protect them against potential anxieties. Repression, whereby traumatic memories are retained in the unconscious and are not directly accessible via conscious recollection, along with displacement, projection and sublimation, are just a few examples of defense mechanisms.
The concept of the defense mechanism was first proposed by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and was later developed and expanded by others, including his daughter, Anna Freud.
Sigmund Freud described his psychodynamic theory of the mind in a 1923 paper, The Ego and the Id.1 According to his theory, the human psyche is dominated by the competing needs of the id, ego and superego. Tension arising from these competing elements of the mind can lead to anxiety which, if unresolved, can be combatted using defense mechanisms.
The first component of the psyche, known as the id, is prevalent from birth and represents our survival needs (e.g. to feed), along with other instinctive desires, and expects the instant gratification of such needs without regard for any consequences. The id follows the Pleasure Principle - it demands the fulfilment of its desires at no cost.
At the age of around 1 ½ years, a person’s ego develops. Unlike the id, the ego follows the Reality Principle - it takes into consideration the person’s environment and other people and realises it is unrealistic to expect the instant gratification of the demands of the id, and that some of those needs may impact on others. The ego therefore competes against the will of the id and its more unreasonable requirements.
Later, the superego begins to exercise influence over the id and ego. The superego acts as our moral conscience, questioning the morality of a person’s instinctive desires, resulting in feelings of guilt and shame. As such feelings are undesirable and contradict the Pleasure Principle, ongoing tensions occur between the id, ego and superego, with the ego accepting the limitations of social norms on the gratification of the id’s needs. A person regrets experiencing the untamed desires that originate in the id, and feels anxious that these instincts might be allowed to influence their behavior in the future.
Freud identified three types of anxiety that a person may experience as a result of tensions in the psyche:
Reality Anxiety - resulting from a fear of a realistic event taking place, such as not being fed or of getting stuck in an elevator. A fear of the elevator malfunctioning may lead to a person avoiding such a potential situation by taking the stairs instead in order to allay such reality anxiety.
Neurotic Anxiety - anxiety resulting from a fear that the irrational or socially unacceptable impulses of the id might surface, dominating the psyche and resulting in actions that might cause embarrassment and that a person might be punished for. The unreasonable desires of the libido, such as the incestuous instincts of a person with an Oedipus complex, may lead to neurotic anxiety.
Moral Anxiety - anxiety arising from the moral conscience of the super ego. Moral anxiety is experienced when they fear that they may behave in a way that contradicts their ideas of morality or more widely held social norms, as with neurotic anxiety. One’s own internal judgement that an action is immoral can result in moral anxiety.
Instead of living in a state of such constant anxieties, the psyche employs defense mechanisms to cope with the unreasonable demands of, and tensions between, its constituent elements. From an evolutionary perspective, defense mechanisms in some circumstances might be considered an adaptive method of coping with anxieties. However, a persistent need to resort to the use of such mechanisms to cope with anxious feelings can signify an avoidance of the long-term resolution of their underlying causes. The only mechanism that Freud identified as having a primarily productive effect was sublimation, whereby a person redirects their unacceptable libidinal energy towards more acceptable goals.
At a practise in Vienna, Freud conducted the psychoanalysis of many clients and observed the use of defense mechanisms to cope with many sources of anxiety, documenting such mechanisms in a number of case studies. He would use techniques such as regression and free association to locate memories of past traumatic events that a person’s psyche may have uses the mechanism of repression to cope with. For instance, a client referred to as Anna O recalled an old memory of witnessing a dog drink from her glass. Freud believed that her revulsion at the thought of having to drink from the glass led to the memory being repressed, but later manifested as a fear of drinking water, which led Anna to be unable to drink for days at a time.
Freud’s daughter, Anna (1895-1982), would later become a prominent figure in the field of psychoanalysis and further developed the theories that her father had initially proposed. In The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense (1936), she expanded upon the range of defense mechanisms that her father had identified, cautioning of the dangers of repression and the way in which it can distort both our recollection of events and our perception of reality for the sake of the convenience of anxiety-avoidance (Freud, 1936).2
More recently, George Vaillant (1934-), a psychiatrist and at Harvard Medical School, distinguished between different types of defense mechanisms. Valliant believed that some defense mechanisms could be detrimental to us in coping with anxieties, whilst others could be used to serve a more productive purpose. He proposed a four-level hierarchy of defense mechanisms, ranging from the least adaptive “psychotic defenses” such as acting out, to more “mature defenses” which can help us to cope more effectively with anxiety, such as sublimation to focus our energies creatively, self-deprecative humor to diffuse a tense situation or demonstrating humility when confronted (Vaillant, 1977).3
Types of Defense Mechanism
Since Sigmund Freud’s first identification of psychological defense mechanisms, the further research that he, his daughter and others have carried out has resulted in many additional mechanisms being described.
The primary mechanism used to defend the ego is repression. The id drives impulses which, if carried out, might be considered unreasonable or socially unacceptable. The ego recognises this as does the moral conscience of the superego, and a person experiences anxiety or guilt at having entertained such feelings. To cope with these impulses, the psyche represses them: they shift from conscious thoughts to the unconscious. Similarly, memories of a traumatic event which cause later anxiety may be repressed and become difficult to recall consciously.
Impulses and memories are not forgotten when they are repressed - they remain in the unconscious and may as Freud believed, emerge symbolically in our dreams or affect our behavior without us realising.
Freud identified repression in the case of five year old Little Hans, whose father reported about him and his fear of horses through letters to the psychoanalyst. Freud believed that the boy was experiencing an Oedipus Complex, competing to be sole focus of affection of his mother and resenting the attention that his father received from her. Little Hans realised that such demands were unreasonable, resulting in his feelings towards his father being repressed.
Freud hypnotised and regressed many clients in an attempt to uncover repressed memories, in the belief that a conscious recognition of them would help a person to overcome problems resulting from the anxiety that they had caused.
Repression may occur in other situations, such as being unable to recall being involved in an accident or other traumatic event, and many other defense mechanisms are used to cope with repressed anxieties.
As we have seen in the case of Little Hans, an Oedipus Complex can leave a person resenting the attention that their father receives from their mother. According to Freud, this can lead to a fear of being castrated by the father to neutralise the threat that they pose to the parent’s relationship. He referred to this as castration anxiety, but in a stable relationship, how can a child resolve these anxious feelings towards their father? Anna Freud suggested that a person may use a defense mechanism known as identifying with the aggressor (Freud, 1936). Identification may lead to a child emulating the posture, mannerisms, language and other behaviors of the person that they feel threatened by, in an attempt to appease them, reducing the possibility of such castration.
Identification may also be observed when a newcomer enters a new social or work group and adopts the practises common to the group in order to gain their acceptance and reduce the potential of rejection.
When a person feels resentful towards, or fearful of, another person, guilt may result and they may feel ashamed of having experienced such feelings towards someone, particularly if they are a family member or loved one. Such feelings may be repressed, but may manifest themselves in other forms, and their initial resentment may be displaced - transferred to another person, animal or object. In the case of Little Hans, anxieties towards the boy’s father may have been displaced and redirected towards horses, whose blinkers led to a resemblance towards his father. Instead of developing a fear of his father, Little Hans experienced a phobia of horses.
The defense mechanism of regression may be used when a person experiences anxiety resulting from the stresses of adulthood. Idealised memories of a simpler life as a child may lead a person to regress and adopt types of behavior that they exhibited at an earlier age. They might act helpless and solicit the generosity of others to care for them. A person may begin thumbsucking again or resort to activities which brought them comfort as a child, such as watching cartoons on television.
Vaillant considered sublimation to be a “mature” defense mechanism, whilst Sigmund Freud believed that, unlike some other mechanisms, it had the potential to impact positively on a person’s life.
When the impulses of a person’s id cannot be satisfied, they may be repressed, but the energy driving such desires remains. Instead of allowing those impulses to resurface, they may refocus their energy on productive, even artistic pursuits. In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), Freud noted that the redirection of energies towards creative pursuits could be attributed to the progress made by human civilization and by people individually. Whilst confined to a hospital at Saint-Rémy, for example, artist Vincent Van Gogh painted some of the works that he is now best known for, such as The Starry Night. Other people may use sublimation by directing passive aggression to less destructive pursuits, such as physical training or running a marathon.