Posted by: RealisticRecovery | May 11, 2009

How And Why We Use 19 Common Defense Mechanisms

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How And Why We Use 19 Common Defense Mechanisms
By Marissa Brassfield for

Sigmund Freud popularized human defense mechanisms when he introduced his personality model. Freud said that three aspects of human personality exist: the id, the ego and the superego. The ego deals with reality and present events, attempting to reconcile the conflicting demands of the id and superego. The id seeks to fulfill wants, needs and impulses; the superego seeks to act in an idealistic and moral manner.

When the ego cannot deal with the demands of desires, reality and moral standards, anxiety follows. Freud believed that anxiety was an unpleasant inner state that people sought to avoid, a signal to the ego that things are not right. Defense mechanisms were created to shield the ego from the conflict of the id and superego.

In an attempt to protect ourselves, we employ defense mechanisms, sometimes several times a day.  While modern psychology does not focus on the id, the ego and the superego, it does focus our own instinct to protect ourselves in the face of danger. We are automatically programmed to protect our mind and memory from painful experiences, events and people. Defense mechanisms arise as the body’s own sieve, filtering out an alternate reality in favor of the reality that the mind prefers. What follows are the most common defense mechanisms as Freud saw them, as well as modern psychology’s additions.

Denial is an open rejection of an obvious truth. By simply denying that the problem, affliction or ailment exists, the person does not have to deal with it. The first step in Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, is to accept and acknowledge that the individual has a drinking problem. This first step involves the rejection of denial; most alcoholics do not believe that their drinking is a problem.

Repression is a way that the self filters unwanted feelings and memories from the mind. A person with a history of traumatic relationships may harbor pieces of this pain in her subconscious. Even if these realizations do not come to the forefront of her consciousness, she still stores them internally. Similarly, a person that was abused as a child may not recall these unpleasant memories until forced to talk about her childhood.

Suppression is similar to repression, except this forcing of information out of our awareness is willful. Suppression forces oneself to forget an unpleasant memory, person or event. Someone might intentionally and consciously forget an ex-lover in an act of suppression.

Displacement involves taking one’s feelings on a subject out on another, unrelated subject that is less threatening. This often manifests itself in displaced aggression. Rather than argue with a co-worker, this person goes home and argues with a spouse.

Sublimation involves venting unacceptable impulses in a more acceptable form. For example, someone with a temper problem or extreme anger may take up kickboxing or competitive shooting to release these feelings in a safe way.

Projection involves taking our own unacceptable qualities or feelings and attributing them to other people. Someone who doesn’t like cats might believe that cats don’t like him; this allows him to escape from acknowledging that he doesn’t like cats.

Intellectualization involves thinking about events in a clinical, unfeeling way. Someone who has just been diagnosed with cancer might learn everything she can about the disease to remain calm and distant from this reality.

Rationalization is explaining away an unacceptable behavior in a way that superficially makes sense, but actually avoids the true explanation for the behavior. A child that receives a poor grade on a school test might blame the score on the instructor, not his own lack of preparation.

Regression involves dealing with unpleasant events by reverting to patterns of behavior found earlier in development. For example, an employee who has just been fired may cry or sulk in response, or a traveler who has been bumped from his flight on an airline may throw a tantrum.

Reaction Formation involves adopting opposite feelings, impulses or behavior. Someone adopting a reaction formation defense strategy would treat a spouse or loved one in the same manner in which they’d treat a hated enemy.

Modern Defense Mechanisms
There are several other defense mechanisms that have been exposed since Sigmund Freud studied defense mechanisms. What follows are the most common:

Acting out refers to the act of engaging in actions rather than reflecting upon internal feelings. Someone who acts out may react to a fight by immediately packing up his or her belongings or storming out of the room, as opposed to thinking about the reasons for the argument.

Affiliation is when someone turns to other people for support. This person routinely calls on co-workers, family members and friends to rally behind him. Their support gives this person strength.

Aim inhibition is when someone accepts a modified form of their original goal. Someone with aspirations of Olympic glory might revise his goal to instead become a high school coach once he misses the cut.

Someone with an altruism defense mechanism satisfies internal needs by helping others. These people are often involved in philanthropy, volunteer work or even giving frequent support to a trusted friend.

Compensation involves over achieving in one area to compensate for failures in another. A baseball player with a poor batting average may step up and improve his game defensively.

Humor involves pointing out the funny or ironic aspects of a situation in order to deal with it. These people often employ self-deprecating humor or poke fun at others to cope with inadequacy.

Someone with passive aggression indirectly expresses anger. Rather than vocally expressing displeasure, they may remain quiet. Passive aggressive people have difficulty expressing their feelings, opting instead to let their feelings simmer in silence.

Someone with an undoing defense mechanism engages in behavior to atone or make up for an undesirable behavior. An abusive husband may bring home flowers or take his wife out for a romantic dinner to make up for a fight they had the previous night.

Diffusing Defense Mechanisms
Psychologists agree that to diffuse a defense mechanism, you must first identify the root cause of the behavior, feeling or action. This can often be accomplished by asking is simply, “Why?” By asking why someone feels something, they are forced at some point to identify and say the true reason behind their feelings.

Defense mechanisms evolved to protect ourselves as our egos were just beginning to develop. At that time, we didn’t have enough self-esteem to protect our ego. However, as adults, we know how to respect and take care of ourselves. We don’t need to protect ourselves from threats to our self-esteem and can handle criticism as well as praise.

To put a defense mechanism to rest for good, give yourself a reality check. Take full responsibility for your thoughts and actions, and recognize when you are using a defense mechanism. This increased awareness can actually reduce your use of defense mechanisms. You’ll recognize that you’re using a defense mechanism, and you can stop yourself before the words come out of your mouth.  Being true to yourself and responsible for your actions will also increase your self-esteem and the honesty of your relationships.


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