Defense mechanisms are part of our daily life, even if we are unaware of their existence. In reality, they are not a rational strategy for dealing with problems and conflicts, they are rather a sort of "trump card" that our unconscious uses to secure us from an alleged danger. Sometimes they can be providential, other times they can prevent us from growing, leading us to develop maladaptive behaviors that are the basis for the subsequent appearance of mental disorders.
What are the defense mechanisms?
In 1894 Freud was the first to use the term "defense mechanisms", referring to them as "defensive formations for dealing with ideas and affects that are painful and unbearable". In practice, he conceived them as an ego strategy to protect itself from the dangers it imagines.
Later, in 1936, Anna Freud outlined these mechanisms more precisely and described in detail how they work. His definition of defense mechanisms indicates that these are psychological strategies used unconsciously to protect us from anxiety that comes from unacceptable thoughts or feelings.
In summary, the defense mechanisms are:
• Unconscious and involuntary, they operate under the radar of our consciousness
• They mitigate the anguish and anxiety that can generate cognitive dissonance
• They can be adaptive and creative, but they can also be pathological
How do the ego defense mechanisms work?
Defense mechanisms are activated to protect us from the anxiety or guilt that arise when we feel psychologically threatened. They operate on a subconscious level to avoid unpleasant sensations, cognitive dissonance and, generally, inner conflicts.
The functioning of the defense mechanisms is based on dissociation or divalence, to establish a safety distance between what we consider good and bad. In this way they "eliminate" the source of tension, insecurity or anxiety.
This strategy allows us to adapt to certain needs, but it doesn't actually solve the underlying problem, it keeps the conflict latent. Indeed, although memories or problems are banished from our conscious memory, they continue to influence and exert pressure on our behavior from the unconscious.
When we create a defense mechanism it is as if we are working at half capacity because the capacity for action of our ego is limited, since it cannot deal with the disturbing situation.
Obviously, when the defense mechanism disappears, the anxiety returns and can be so intense as to generate psychotic states, although fortunately in everyday life these cases are rather unusual, because usually the defense mechanism disappears when our "ego Is ready to face the conflict.
Therefore, defense mechanisms are a kind of natural protection against situations that we are not psychologically prepared to handle. But if we resort to them frequently, we could end up suffering from various mental disorders as they do not represent an adaptive strategy for dealing with reality. Projection can give way to delusional projection, negation to psychotic negation and the distortion of reality to psychotic distortion.
7 primitive defense mechanisms
Defense mechanisms can have a primitive character or, on the contrary, be very elaborate. The more primitive the mechanism, the more effective it will be in the short term to deal with the situation because it usually hides it completely. But it is also very ineffective in the long run as it does not allow you to process the resources needed to deal with the situation.
Indeed, primitive defense mechanisms are more typical of children or people who do not have sufficient psychological resources to deal with problems. When adults are unfamiliar with techniques for coping with stress or traumatic events, they often resort to primitive defense mechanisms.
1. Denial. It consists in refuting reality or certain facts because they are too painful, so the person acts as if the fact did not happen or did not exist. It is considered one of the most primitive defense mechanisms because it is characteristic of childhood. But it is also one of the most common and we often use it in everyday life, for example, when we do not want to accept an addition, the loss of a loved one or a trauma and we act as if the problem does not exist.
2. Regression. It is when we reactivate behaviors from earlier stages in life. It occurs when a problem overwhelms us and we are forced to look back for solutions that have been useful to us in the past but are not congruent in the current stage of our development. The problem is that looking back also activates all our fears and anxieties, so this defense mechanism often manifests itself in a destructive way. An example is that of the adult who, when faced with a problem at work, refuses to go and closes himself in his room (typically adolescent behavior).
3. Action. It is extreme behavior that allows us to express thoughts or feelings that we would not otherwise be able to express. For example, instead of saying "I'm angry with you," the person activating this defense mechanism may punch the table or slam the door. This behavior helps her release tension, without directing it to the real cause. The act expresses desire in a symbolic and distorted way. The problem is that this way of dealing with reality often leads to self-harm, because the person discharges negative thoughts or feelings onto himself.
4. Dissociation. This primitive defense mechanism causes the person to lose track of time or self, leading to the loss of habitual memories and thought patterns. When this mechanism is activated, the person takes a psychological distance from what is happening, as if it were not happening to him, in this way he protects himself. It is a common mechanism in people who have experienced childhood abuse or who have not been able to defend themselves from aggression. The problem is that these people so often resort to dissociation that they tend to develop an image that is disconnected from themselves and the world, which does not flow naturally, as it does for the rest of the people.
5. Compartmentalization. This defense mechanism is a less intense expression of dissociation, in which parts of the person separate from consciousness, so that consciousness ends up behaving as if it had blocks of separate values. In practice, we create separate compartments for systems of values and beliefs that are different and opposed to each other, so that they do not generate cognitive dissonance or undermine our identity. An example would be a person who sometimes behaves honestly, but in other circumstances has no difficulty in cheating or lying. By compartmentalizing both behaviors, the person is immune to cognitive dissonance.
6. Projection. We attribute to another person feelings, desires or motivations that are ours but we do not recognize them as such because we do not want to accept them, since they would damage the image we have of ourselves. By projecting them onto another person, we feel relieved and can maintain a relationship without getting in tension with our "self". For example, a person may get angry with their partner and complain that they are not listening when, in reality, it is he / she who is not listening but does not want to accept it.
7. Reactive training. In this case, the person usually behaves differently from how he thinks and feels under certain circumstances. What it does is exacerbate the positive aspects related to the situation so that they hide the negative ones (which are the ones that generate anxiety and distress). For example, a person who is angry with his boss but is being overly friendly towards him. What really happens is that the person does not feel able to express his dissatisfaction and tries to hide it (even from himself), behaving as if he really felt very satisfied.
What are the most elaborate defense mechanisms?
In addition to the primitive defense mechanisms, there are other more elaborate and mature ones that tend to be much more effective in the long run, although this does not mean that they are an alternative for dealing with problems and conflicts, because they do not solve them but merely postpone them.
1. Repression. In this case, our mind simply removes from consciousness those thoughts, impulses and feelings that are disturbing, that generate guilt or desires that do not correspond to our value system. By denying their existence, we are able to maintain emotional balance and our ego is not forced to struggle with ideas or emotions that, in theory, should not exist because they contradict its way of being. The classic example is the repression of certain sexual impulses because they do not fit the values we presumably profess.
2. Relocation. There is a redirection of an emotion or feeling (usually anger) to a person or object that cannot respond. This defense mechanism is quite peculiar because it is activated when we cannot express what we feel and allows us to relate to that person avoiding the negative characteristics that annoy us. An example is when we get angry with our boss, but since we can't unload the anger on him, we end up arguing with our partner or a pet.
3. Rationalization. The person tries to use logical arguments to explain certain behaviors, wants or needs. It is a kind of denial because in reality these reasons are invalid and with them the person simply tries not to have to face the conflict. An example is when someone is diagnosed with a degenerative or serious illness and, instead of expressing their pain, anger and sadness, they focus on the technical details of a treatment that is not a cure. Through logical explanations, avoid feelings and also avoid facing the situation.
4. Introjection. It is the assimilation of the characteristics of a person, object or animal to our ego. We can only assimilate some characteristics or the object in its entirety, in which case our "I" could be in danger because its true characteristics would be invaded by alien ways of doing and behaving. This defense mechanism is very common in children, when they lose a loved one or their pet and take on some of their habits or ways of behaving. In this way they keep the memory alive and deny what happened. It can also occur in people who feel weak and helpless and take on attitudes and ways of behaving like those they consider strong because they identify with them.
5. Undo the fact. In certain moments, we lose control and do things that we regret, when we do not accept that we have behaved in a certain way we are putting this defense mechanism into practice. Basically, we try to go back and undo a behavior or thought that we consider unacceptable or harmful. For example, after realizing that we have insulted our partner, in the following hours we extol his virtues rather than simply apologize. In this way we believe that we will undo the previous action and that the person will not take into account the comments made.
6. Compensation. It is a mechanism in which we try to compensate for perceived weaknesses by emphasizing the strengths we have in other areas. By focusing on one strength, the person recognizes that he cannot be "perfect" in all areas of life and is able to accept the weakness that was previously shameful. For example, a housewife can compensate for being a poor cook by emphasizing her extraordinary ability to clean and tidy the house. As long as we don't exaggerate our strengths and abilities, this defense mechanism is good because it can help us increase our self-esteem, but we must be careful not to overdo it.
7. Sublimation. This defense mechanism consists in channeling unacceptable impulses, thoughts and emotions towards those we consider most acceptable. Humor, for example, can be a sublimation mechanism. If what we have to say is very strong or unacceptable, we can use humor to express it, so we reduce the emotional intensity of the message. Fantasy is another way sublimation works. For example, instead of responding to a person's attack by defending ourselves, we can turn our backs, but continue to fight the "battle" in our mind. Then, in the imagination, we satisfy our impulses or the desire for revenge.
8. The altruistic surrender. Altruism is the individual concern for the well-being of others, something that has always been considered positive but which, if distorted, can become a defense mechanism, as Anna Freud established, harming both the person and those who want to help. Defensive altruism refers to an altruistic act in which an unconscious selfish motivation exists underneath the conscious altruistic intention. Therefore, it is considered a secondary defense mechanism, the pinnacle of the ego's defense. The key to defensive altruism is to think that we are extremely kind and altruistic when in reality we are acting for purely selfish reasons.
Is it advisable to disable the defense mechanisms?
It is important to keep in mind that it is not always necessary to disable the defense mechanisms. Until they become the main strategy for dealing with reality, they can have a protective function of our mental balance. In fact, the confrontation strategy to deactivate the defense mechanisms could even become dangerous if the person does not have the psychological resources that allow him to adequately face reality.
Therefore, the best way to deactivate the defense mechanisms is to improve our psychological abilities. If we develop a resilient attitude, learn techniques to manage stress, practice radical acceptance and make sure we build a strong ego, we will not need to set these mechanisms in motion because we will not feel constantly threatened and we will be able to cope with the anguish or anxiety that problems and conflicts can generate.