A Case For Defense Mechanisms
Defense Mechanisms are our inbuilt anxiety management system. Denial, projection, repression, intellectualization, shield us from anxiety and protect our self-esteem.
Imagine your most embarrassing memories were playing in our head 24/7. Imagine you were constantly aware of the fact that everyone you love is going to die (and not in the motivational memento mori sense). Or that you had no way to repress aggressive impulses – life would be unliveable.
Luckily, just like our bodily immune system fights off intruding pathogens, we have a psychological system that unconsciously fights off intruding emotions, fears, memories, or thoughts. And that are our defense mechanisms.
Defense mechanisms are mechanisms we use to distort reality, ourself, or others to make things more bearable. Helping us to lessen anxiety, shield our self-esteem, and fend of other uncomfortable emotions. Basically making life liveable and culture possible.
The term was originally coined by Freud (who loved biological and military jargon). Later his daughter Anna Freud and many more thinkers in the psychodynamic tradition, elaborated on many more.
So, the first thing I want you to note is that defense mechanisms are unconscious but motivated processes. We employ them to protect ourselves from things that feel threatening, it’s not random. Therefore, they are important, they serve a function and are not just something to get rid of.
How Defense Mechanisms Get in the Way Of Personal Development
But while they are certainly useful to keep us functioning in our everyday life, they can get in the way of thriving. Defense mechanisms can become a problem themselves. Especially if they are rigid or mostly primary or immature defenses (and by the end of this article you’ll know exactly what that means).
Because defense mechanisms use distortions, the always involve some form of self-deception. We each have our own understanding of what uncomfortable things we’d rather not know or be true about ourselves. But it’s often precisely those uncomfortable “truths”, emotions, or needs we need to face the most.
In psychotherapy that is obvious. But also if you’re interested in personal development or self-improvement, any change you want to make will bring up anxiety. And what did we learn? Yes, defense mechanisms likely become active to fend off said anxiety. Trying to keep you “safe” but also keeping you stuck.
Therefore, understanding what defense mechanisms are, which ones you use, and most importantly why you use them (what are they supposed to protect you from) opens up the possibility for more self-awareness that is the basic building block for any sort of personal development or self-improvement.
Categorization of Defense Mechanisms
Technically, there is an infinite possibility of what do use to internally and unconsciously defend against something else. We humans are creative. Basically any cognitive, psychological distortion can become a defense mechanisms, multiple emotions can be used to defend against others.
Feeling superior can defend against feeling inferior.
Anger can defend against helplessness.
Suppressing anger can defend against the fear of losing love.
And there is not really any internationally agreed upon full collection and systematisation of defense mechanisms. So what I’ll introduce you to is a selection of defense mechanisms from Nancy McWilliams’ book “Psychoanalytic Diagnosis”.
Generally, defense mechanisms are put into two categories: primary or immature defenses and secondary or mature ones. By the way, if you are a psychology student, a popular exam question is to explain the difference between the two. Primary defenses involve the boundary between self and the outer world and secondary defenses involve internal boundaries.
Primary Defense Mechanisms
The first category of defenses are called, “primary defenses” or also “immature defenses”. That is because these defenses involve the boundary between the self and the outer world. These defenses distort perception so much that (1) people have difficulty perceiving reality correctly. And (2) it is difficult for people to differentiate between what are their own emotions and thoughts and what are other people’s emotions and thoughts. And you’ll see exactly what I mean once we go through a few, so let’s start!
Denial is a defense mechanism that we’re all capable of, especially when facing catastrophic news. This can be a powerful protection against overwhelming things coming our way. It can also prevent people from working through very unpleasant life events. I’m sure you have a person or two in your family or group of acquaintances that whenever you ask how they are doing, they always say “Fine!”. This protects them from feeling everything that comes with whatever they currently deny. But it also robs them of the chance to work though or change what needs to be changed.
2. Omnipotent Control
Feeling that we have control over what happens in our life can be important to feel a sense of self-efficacy and competence. It’s not hard to imagine how the defense mechanism of omnipotent control protects against anxiety and shields our self-esteem. However, the high that some people get from “predicting a lucky outcome” or getting their way can also turn into manipulation of others and power-hungry reckless behaviour, in extreme cases taking on psychopathic traits.
When we talk about omnipotent control as a defense mechanism, we can draw a connection to the American Dream and the feeling of guilt. American culture in particular has a feeling of omnipotence to it. The sense that “anything is possible, you can become anything you want”. If ultimately this nice but unrealistic fantasy meets the reality of not “making it”, managing the guilt that comes with it can be tricky. That’s when you see either people retreating into their own chamber of guilt and shame. Or they find scapegoats that protects the sense of omnipotent control.
3. Extreme Idealization and Devaluation
Just like one can protect oneself by believing in having omnipotent control themselves, we can defend against uncomfortable emotions by believing someone else has omnipotent control. In children you can see that when they believe dad is the hero who will always protect them. As we grow up, however, we realize that our parents are not perfect after all. That there is death, illness or other dangers.
Still idealizing others is something we all do – especially when we depend on someone. Our new crush, a new form of treatment we rely on, a politician that we think is capable of making it all better. But in extreme cases we idealize to free us from having to deal with shame or acknowledging out own imperfections. By being part of that new things, owning that new item we elevate ourselves as well. Because now we’re on the right side. But we also lose our ability to think critically and need to devalue everything else. Other opinions, people, assets, and especially everything and everyone that tries to voice criticism that the idealized person or thing might not be that perfect and ideal after all. You can see this happening on Twitter every day.
McWilliams defines projection as wrongly perceiving something that is internal to come from something external. When something we feel or think is not in line with our ideal self, or it’s uncomfortable, maybe even threatening – we have to expel it, push it away. We use projection to externalize something that we cannot bare to be a part of ourselves. For example when we cannot accept that we have envious feelings, we perceive the other person to be envious of us. When we don’t want to acknowledge feeling angry, it makes us see others as being angry towards us.
5. Projective Identification
Projective Identification is one of the trickiest defense mechanisms to understand. It is projection but with a twist.
When we cannot accept that we feeling angry, we may start seeing others as being angry towards us. This is projection. To turn this into projective identification, you can imagine what happens when we tell someone they’re angry too many times “You look angry. Why do you talk with that tone. Don’t say you’re not angry”- they’ll likely actually become angry!
Projective Identification is a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy for the projection. We make others feel what we don’t want to feel – and then have them act on it.
Whatever cannot be felt or said can instead be turned unconsciously into physical symptoms. Of course you have to rule out actual physical causes. But it’s easy to imagine that missing an exam because of a headache can be somatization to protect yourself from failure or get rid of the anxiety you have about the test. Somatization can happen as a response to being overworked as well. People may be unable to voice that it’s getting too much or dare to change the situation.
Secondary Defense Mechanisms
The secondary or “mature defenses” involve internal boundaries. They don’t confuse what is mine and what is the other’s but they distort inner processes. And you’ll see exactly what I mean once we start going through a few, so let’s start!
Repression is probably the first defense mechanisms that was extensively studied. Freud defined repression as motivated forgetting or ignoring. Whe repress either the total experience, the emotions attached to the experience, or the wishes associated with the experience.
You might see that there is a certain similarity between denial and repression. The reason that repression is the more mature defense mechanism is that in order to repress something you have to on some maybe unconscious level first acknowledge that it’s there and that it is uncomfortable. While in denial you don’t even acknowledge it on any level.
So something that you’d rather not feel or be true gets repressed into unconsciousness and outside of your conscious awareness.
2. Isolation of Affect and Compartmentalization
Isolation of affect is a defense mechanism that separates feeling from cognition. McWilliams describes this as a helpful mechanism for example for surgeons who need to separate their own feelings of stress or revulsion when cutting open their patients. Or police investigators who have to isolate their own emotions about a case as to not impair the investigation. The life of people whose primary defense is isolation show an overvaluation of intellect and thinking. Their life can miss color and aliveness that emotions would bring into it.
While isolation of affect separates feelings from cognition, the defense mechanism of compartmentalization makes it possible for two contradictory cognitions to exist simultaneously. People can protest against bad labor conditions in sewing factories abroad and buy their clothes at a fast-fashion store. You can find people who publicly condemn harassment and then turn out to be bullies in their private life. Which brings us right to the next defense because if a person is caught compartmentalizing they’ll likely rationalize their way out of it.
3. Rationalization, Intellectualization, Moralization
Rationalization is a defense mechanism that makes a painful outcome less painful by downplaying its significance. It’s good if it allows us to move forward in life with less resentment, or generally trying to see the positive and make the best out of every situation. It can be harmful if we use rationalization to deceive ourselves about our true motifs or wishes. A person who really just wants to look good and be attractive to the opposite sex might justify their diet as a decision for their health. Someone might buy an expensive new gadget and then justify as for why they need it – other than that it was an attempt to increase their self-esteem.
If you step up the defense game from isolation of affect you’d end up in the mechanism of intellectualization. Someone using intellectualization can say that they have feelings about a situation (unlike someone who would isolate emotions) but they do so in such an emotionless way that they’re probably not able to fully feel and express it. On the one hand it’s definitely a strength that someone is able to think rationally in a stressful situation but if this position is rigid, they won’t be able to indulge in life because creativity, sex or jokes don’t give much joy when your intellectualizing.
With intellectualisation someone is looking for a reason that makes sense cognitively as to why they did something. With moralization someone is looking for a reason that makes sense morally. They attach what they did to a moral duty rather than revealing the lower reasons they actually did it for.
Displacement is another well known defense mechanisms. The boss screams at the man, the man screams at his wife, the wife screams at their child, and the child screams at the dog. Displacement means turning your reaction from the person who caused it to someone else because in this case screaming back at the boss would bring too much anxiety. Or instead of being angry at your partner who cheated on your, you’re angry at the person he or she cheated on you with because being angry at your partner would bring up all the anxiety of losing him or her.
5. Reaction Formation
Reaction formation means turning something into the opposite in order to deny ambivalence. What does this mean? It can be difficult to admit to ourselves that we have mixed feelings about people. Sometimes we have loving and hateful feelings about the same person, we might feel grateful and resentful at the same time. The state of ambivalence is actually the most natural position to be in. We all have mixed feelings about pretty much everything and everyone. But instead of integrating those and accepting our ambivalence, we often avoid negative feeling about someone by turning them into only positive feelings. So one colleague might be envious of the other but then give them an overly gracious speech where it’s all about how happy they are for them. And while inhibiting behavior makes sense, people fare best if they are aware of their own emotions and honest to themselves.
Sublimation is considered the Ferrari of defense mechanisms and here I’m going to give the word to Nancy McWilliams because she puts it so perfectly:
“Sublimation was the label Freud (1905) originally gave to the expression of biologically based impulses (which to him included urges to suck, bite, mess, light, copulate, look at others and be looked at by them, inflict injury, endure pain, protect the young, etc.) in a socially valuable form. For example, Freud would have said that a periodontist may be sublimating sadism; a performing artist, exhibitionism; a lawyer, the wish to kill one’s enemies. Instinctual strivings according to him, become influenced by the circumstances of one’s individual childhood; certain drives or conflicts take on special salience and may be creatively directed into useful activities.” – Psychoanalytic Diagnosis, p. 147
So, you take the energy that comes from the lower need and instead of acting against it with, for example with reaction formation, or repress it, you slightly transform it in a way that makes good use of the energy.
I think this gives a very good indication that psychodynamic theory is not about us becoming perfect, flawless humans without any inner conflict, 100% happy all the time. It’s about being self-aware enough that we understand our lower drives, conflicts, selfish needs and see how we can turn them into something or express them in a way that’s a little more useful. That way, given that we’re still flawed, still have unmet needs and inner conflict, we can at least keep those unconscious processes from directing our lives, take back agency and responsibility and increase our own life quality, relationships with other and the relationship with ourselves.