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Defense Mechanisms

Unconscious strategies for avoiding or reducing threatening feelings, such as fear and anxiety.

The concept of the defense mechanism originated with Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and was later elaborated by other psychodynamically oriented theorists, notably his daughter Anna Freud (1895-1982). Defense mechanisms allow negative feelings to be lessened without an alteration of the situation that is producing them, often by distorting the reality of that situation in some way. While they can help in coping with stress, they pose a danger because the reduction of stress can be so appealing that the defenses are maintained and become habitual. They can also be harmful if they become a person's primary mode of responding to problems. In children, excessive dependence on defense mechanisms may produce social isolation and distortion of reality and hamper the ability to engage in and learn from new experiences.

Defense mechanisms include denial, repression, suppression, projection, displacement, reaction formation, regression, fixation, identification, introjection, rationalization, isolation, sublimation, compensation, and humor. Denial and repression both distort reality by keeping things hidden from consciousness. In the case of denial, an unpleasant reality is ignored, and a realistic interpretation of potentially threatening events is replaced by a benign but inaccurate one. Either feelings or events (or both) may be denied. In very young children, a degree of denial is normal. One way of coping with the relative powerlessness of childhood is for young children to sometimes act as if they can change reality by refusing to acknowledge it, thereby ascribing magical powers to their thoughts and wishes. For example, a child who is told that her parents are divorcing may deny that it is happening or deny that she is upset about it. Denial has been shown to be effective in reducing the arousal caused by a threatening situation. In life-threatening or other extreme situations, denial can temporarily be useful in helping people cope, but in the long term painful feelings and events must be acknowledged in order to avoid further psychological and emotional problems. Related to denial is avoidance, which involves avoiding situations that are expected to elicit unwanted emotions and impulses.

In repression, painful feelings are conscious initially and then forgotten. However, they are stored in the unconscious, from which, under certain circumstances, they can be retrieved (a phenomenon Freud called "the return of the repressed"). Repression can range from momentary memory lapses to forgetting the details of a catastrophic event, such as a murder or an earthquake. Complete amnesia can even occur in cases where a person has experienced something very painful. The Oedipus complex by which Sigmund Freud explained the acquisition of gender identity relies on a child's repression of incestuous desires toward the parent of the opposite sex and feelings of rivalry toward the parent of the same sex. Other situations may also occasion the repression of hostile feelings toward a loved one (especially a parent). Possibly the most extreme is child abuse, the memory of which may remain repressed long into adulthood, sometimes being deliberately retrieved in therapy through hypnosis and other techniques.

A third defense mechanism, related to denial and repression, is suppression, by which unpleasant feelings are suppressed through a conscious decision not to think about them. Suppression differs from repression and denial in that the undesirable feelings are available but deliberately ignored (unlike repression and denial, where the person is completely unaware of these feelings). Suppression generally works by replacing unpleasant thoughts with others that do not produce stress. This may be done instinctively, or it may be done deliberately in a therapeutic context. Cognitive behavior therapy in particular makes use of this technique to help people combat negative thought patterns that produce maladaptive emotions and behavior. For example, a child may be instructed to block feelings of fear by thinking about a pleasant experience, such as a party, an academic achievement, or a victory in a sporting event. Suppression is considered one of the more mature and healthy defense mechanisms.

Projection and displacement allow a person to acknowledge anxiety-producing feelings but transfer them to either another source or another object. In projection, the undesirable feelings are attributed to another person or persons. An angry person believes others are angry at her; a person who is critical of others believes they are critical of him. Very young children are especially prone to projection because of their egocentric orientation, which blurs the boundary between themselves and others, making it easier to also blur the distinction between their feelings and those of others.

Displacement is a defense by which an impulse perceived as dangerous is displaced, either through redirection toward a different object or replacement by another impulse. In the first type, known as object displacement, anger or another emotion is initially felt toward a person against whom it is unsafe to express it (in children, for example, toward a parent). Displacement functions as a means by which the impulse can still be expressed—allowing a catharsis of the original emotion—but toward a safer target, such as a sibling, peer, or even a toy. In the second type of displacement, known as drive displacement, the object of the emotion remains the same but the emotion itself is replaced by a less threatening one.

Reaction formation, another defense mechanism, involves behavior that is diametrically opposed to the impulses or feelings that one is repressing. For example, a parent who is repressing feelings of resentment or rejection toward a child may overcompensate by appearing to be lavishly generous and solicitous of the child's welfare. In this type of situation, the child generally senses the true hostility underlying the parent's behavior. A child who is being toilet trained may show an exaggerated sense of fastidiousness to counter conflicts over controlling elimination. The Freudian stage of sexual latency in middle childhood is yet another example of reaction formation: in order to repress their sexual feelings, children at this age evince a strong sense of indifference or even hostility toward the opposite sex. Sometimes a distinction is drawn between feelings that are diametrically opposed to a repressed impulse and the actual behavior that expresses them, with the former called reaction formation and the latter referred to as undoing.

Two defense mechanisms—regression and fixation —are associated with developmental disturbances in children. In regression, a child, confronted with a situation that produces conflict, anxiety, or frustration, reverts to the behavior of an earlier stage of development, such as thumb-sucking or bed-wetting, in an attempt to regain the lost sense of safety that characterized the earlier period. In fixation, the child doesn't lose any previously gained developmental ground but refuses to move ahead because developmental progress has come to be associated with anxiety in some way.

Identification, which is basic to human development and an essential part of the learning process, can also serve as a defense mechanism. Taking on the characteristics of someone else can enable a person to engage in impulses or behavior that she sees as forbidden to her but acceptable for the person with whom she is identifying. Another motive for identification is a fear of losing the person with whom one identifies. One particularly wellknown variety of identification is identification with the aggressor, where someone who is victimized in some way takes on the traits of the victimizer to combat feelings of powerlessness. This type of projection occurs when a child who is abused by his parents abuses others in turn. In some cases, however, this type of projection may occur in response to aggression that is imagined rather than real and create a self-perpetuating cycle by actually eliciting in others the aggression that was only imaginary initially. In introjection, which is related to identification, only a particular aspect of someone else's personality is internalized.

Rationalization, another type of defense mechanism, is an attempt to deny one's true motives (to oneself or others) by using a reason (or rationale) that is more logical or socially acceptable than one's own impulses. Typical rationalizations include such statements as "I don't care if I wasn't chosen for the team; I didn't really want to play soccer anyway" and "I couldn't get my homework done because I had too many other things to do." Adolescents, caught between their own unruly impulses and adult expectations that seem unreasonable, are especially prone to rationalizing their behavior. Their advanced cognitive development makes many adolescents adept at this strategy.

Like rationalization, isolation is a rather complicated defense. It involves compartmentalizing one's experience so that an event becomes separated from the feelings that accompanied it, allowing it to be consciously available without the threat of painful feelings. Isolation can take on aspects of a dissociative disorder, with children separating parts of their lives to the point that they think of themselves as more than one person (for example, a good child and a bad one who only appears under certain circumstances). By compartmentalizing they can be relieved of feeling responsible for the actions of the "bad child."

Sublimation, one of the healthiest defense mechanisms, involves rechanneling the energy connected with an unacceptable impulse into one that is more socially acceptable. In this way, inappropriate sexual or aggressive impulses can be released in sports, creative pursuits, or other activities. Undesired feelings can also be sublimated into altruistic impulses, from which one may derive the vicarious pleasure of helping others. Other defense mechanisms generally viewed in a positive light include compensation —devoting unusual efforts to achievement in order to overcome feelings of inferiority—and the use of humor as a coping device.

Further Reading

Firestone, Robert W., and Joyce Catlett. Psychological Defenses in Everyday Life. New York: Human Sciences Press, 1989.

Freud, Anna. The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. New York: International Universities Press, 1966.

Freud, Sigmund. An Outline of Psychoanalysis. New York: Norton, 1987.

Goleman, Daniel. Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Kenneth John William Craik Biography to Jami (Mulla Nuruddin ʼAbdurrahman ibn-Ahmad Biography