While much of Freud’s work may be unpalatable to the modern psychologist, one enduring notion from Freud is that of ego defense mechanisms. His daughter Anna focused on this notion in her 1936 The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. At this point, it’s hard to find a general psychology text that doesn’t make mention of the various ego defense mechanisms. The general consensus is that these mechanisms are (often unconscious or semi-conscious) means by which the ego attempts to neutralize or ward off threat/frustration, in reconciling the drives of the id (kill, eat, screw) with the directives of the superego (fear, obey, manipulate).

More recent refinements on the model have given rise to a distinction between "defense" and "coping" mechanisms. Defense mechanisms are supposed to be largely unconscious and irrational, and research seems to indicate that they correlate negatively with IQ. Coping mechanisms, by contrast, are supposedly conscious, rational, and correlate positively with IQ. I’ve chosen to ignore this distinction here.

As with many theoretical constructs of psychology, it’s a vain exercise to exclusively define and quantify the ego defense mechanisms. They are simply technical encapsulations of identifiable clusters of behaviors, a model of what seems to occur within the "black box" of the mind, and some characteristics overlap between items. Further, the model does not mark a clear path to "healthy", "rational" coping: the utility of any given mechanism is necessarily situational, possibly appropriate in some instances and often inappropriate in others. While some are clearly more generally immature than others, it may be argued that each has its place in the palette of adjustment strategies. Getting back to the unconscious nature of ego defense: it’s implicit in Freud’s theory of unconscious (unfashionable at times, now coming back into vogue with experimental support) that, while these unconscious/irrational processes are generally undesirable, we all engage them to some degree. Without further ado, then, some of the popularly identified ego defense mechanisms:

  • Aggression. Identified in assault and destruction. Direct aggression targets the source of threat. Indirect aggression shades into the displacement mechanism. In most civilized dealings, whether with objects or people, aggression is an immature reaction, with problematic social implications. Where one’s personal safety is threatened with violence, though, aggression may be the most appropriate and expeditious response.

  • Compensation. Faced with feelings of inadequacy or incompetence in some regard, the subject seeks to excel in some other arena. Of course it’s healthy and positive to want to excel; the compensation response is inappropriate in that it doesn’t truly address the source of frustration. The more pathological manifestations occur when, for example, a mediocre student compensates with a drive to excel at vandalism or theft.

  • Denial. The subject behaves as if the ego threat simply didn’t exist, or the magnitude of the threat is beneath notice. The classic example is the drug addict who won’t acknowledge chemical dependency and attendant risks to health, freedom, and finance; generally, denial involves some measure of self-deception. Closely related to other mechanisms where self-deception is a factor. Habitual denial seems to necessitate a habit of lying. On a related note, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross identifies denial as a normal stage in the process of coping with loss; it is the mark of the subject’s mental health that such denial gives way eventually to acceptance.

  • Displacement. The subject redirects a response (often aggression) from the source of threat to a safer target. The abusive spouse who beats mate and children after a humiliation in the workplace is the classic example, but displacement is also evident in the weekend warrior who works out career stresses on the tennis or basketball court. Since troublesome implications attend direct personal aggression in normal society, punching the wall may be a better-adjusted response than punching the boss. An even more positive expression of displacement shades into sublimation. It was a long-standing theory of psychoanalysis that "transference" (a displacement of esteem away from inappropriate objects, to the analyst, and eventually to the patient’s self) was a necessary part of therapy. Immature Oedipus/Electra-complicated desires for mother/father were thought to mature into healthy adult sexuality by a sort of displacement process.

  • Fantasy. As a habitual escape, or mere replaying of painful events, fantasy is among the immature responses; however, it’s well worth keeping in mind that fantasy, in the form of role-play, is also one of the ways by which children (and even adults) may safely explore strategies for coping with future challenges, and generalize healthy coping strategies.

  • Humor. As with fantasy, humor has such a far-reaching role in emotional (and indeed, even physical) health that we wouldn’t consider trying to completely drive it out of someone – unlike, say, regression. However, it’s not universally appropriate. A pattern of habitual, inappropriate levity (particularly where the subject disrupts structured proceedings such as court or class) can indicate a true disorder in social development. Humor is pathological to the degree that it substitutes for authentic emotional experience.

  • Identification. The subject seeks to negate a personal weakness by associating with and/or emulating a perceived power figure. Transactional Analysis theory identifies this in the subject who acts out the behaviors of a powerful parent; L. Ron Hubbard (in Dianetics) used the terminology of "being in another’s valence". Part of the childhood socialization process involves identification with peer groups, and indeed, this is an important element in establishing and maintaining satisfying social relationships throughout life. The mechanism is unhealthy to the degree that the subject fails to differentiate positive and negative aspects of the role-model's character. Over-identification with even the most positive role-model is unhealthy in that it substitutes for real personal growth.

  • Intellectualization. Close kin to repression. The subject "wraps" uncomfortable emotions in complex, unemotional terms. Not surprisingly, this mechanism has a high positive correlation with IQ. This is a particular pitfall for the amateur psychologist: it’s tempting to substitute wordy, removed "self-analysis" for authentic emotional experience.

  • Projection. Too anxious and fearful of his own weakness to confront it and own it, the subject denies the weakness and ascribes it to a scapegoat. The classic example is the ambivalent homophobe who perceives seductive behavior in the objects of taboo erotic interest. Closely related to identification with a peer group or role-model expressing the same opinion. Couples’ squabbles often evidence this mechanism, where one partner complains of the other’s distance/clinginess/laziness/selfishness/whatever, while to the outside observer, it is the plaintiff that more markedly displays the offending behavior. There is a particular pitfall of recursion in this mechanism; the subject may perceive any criticism as "projection" on the critic’s part. For example, psychologist and tragic maniac Wilhelm Reich was known, in his later years, to condemn as "emotional plague" any challenge to his theory and methods.

  • Rationalization. The subject claims false motives for questionable behavior, or downplays the importance of a threat with false reasoning. The classic example is Aesop's fable of the fox and the sour grapes. "Everybody does it" (steals, cheats, lies, etc.) and "it's for your own good" are common rationalized covers for uncomfortable motives.

  • Reaction Formation. Closely related to projection, the subject displays an exaggerated behavior opposite of their underlying feelings or motives – e.g. the "yes-man" who secretly harbors contempt and a desire to seize power; or the sexual predator reacting against intimacy and esteem anxieties.

  • Regression. Only slightly removed from withdrawal, the subject seemingly abdicates power by retreating to a behavior pattern characteristic of an earlier developmental stage. In fact, "regression" is a coercive grab for power – implicit in the "I can’t do it" assumption is that someone else must take responsibility for dealing with the threat. Examples are usually most evident in children: a toddler breaks toilet training in response to the arrival of a rival infant, or retreats to preverbal tantrum displays when denied a treat. Older children and adults work the same pattern in feigning ignorance or incompetence, or malingering.

  • Repression. Closely related to denial - the subject behaves as if the threat did not exist, or is beneath notice. Whereas denial is usually motivated by intractable external pressures, repression is more characteristic of uncomfortable internal dissonance. "Repressed" is popularly used in the context of sexuality, but the term is often misapplied. Classically, the experience of repression is that of desensitization to the threatening stimulus, so the sexually repressed subject would be numb to sexual urges, rather than the more popular implication of keenly feeling a frustrated sexual hunger.

  • Sublimation. Originally restricted to the process of redirecting libido energy to other creative efforts, the term has evolved to encompass any redirection of impulse (whether positive, value-neutral, or negative, e.g. rage) to a positive effort.

  • Undoing. Attempting to reverse the effects of a negative act or feeling of guilt, by compensating with a good act. A fine example is the step in the Alcoholics Anonymous program involving "making amends". This can be seen as simply righting one’s wrongs, or balancing the wheel of karma, or even an ultimately self-interested act of exorcising one’s nagging regrets. Various A.A. sources note that sometimes it’s better to just leave certain victims alone than stir up more trouble by getting in their faces with mindless amends-making. Here, then, undoing is closely related to compensation and (a positive form of) displacement - if one can’t "undo" directly (e.g. there’s a restraining order preventing contact with an abused spouse), perhaps a displaced contribution to a related charity (e.g. to a shelter for spouse-abuse victims) will suffice. The reverse of "undoing" (righting wrongs) is clearly identifiable as an "offense mechanism": vengeance (wronging wrongs).

  • Withdrawal. Beyond regression lies this most extreme of defense mechanisms. Depression sufferers are particularly prone to withdrawal – it’s almost a hallmark of the disorder. The subject "retreats into a shell", "gives up", or more technically, ceases efforts to constructively cope with the threat. Indeed, the subject may engage in acts of self-limitation, "burning bridges", right up to suicide. While it may be argued that withdrawal is never exactly appropriate, it’s certainly understandable in the terminally ill, the death camp inmate, etc.

    "Defense Mechanisms and Unconscious Causes of Fear - Psychological Self-Help" (http://mentalhelp.net/psyhelp/chap5/chap5i.htm, http://mentalhelp.net/psyhelp/chap5/chap5j.htm ), ©1995-2000 Mental Help Net & CMHC Systems.

    Foundations of Psychology, W. Edgar Vinacke, ©1968 Litton Educational Publishing, Inc.

    Psychology: An Introduction, 6th Ed., Jerome Kagan & Julius Segal, ©1988 Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.

    Psychology: Perspectives on Behavior, Peter D. Spear, Steven D. Penrod, & Timothy B. Baker, ©1988 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

  • After reading all of E2's nodes on Sigmund Freud I realized that Freud's defense mechanisms were lacking. His defense mechanisms were a big part of his levels of consciousness with the id, ego and superego.

    In Freud's theory, a defense mechanism is a process that distorts reality to prevent the individual from being overwhelmed by anxiety. Defense mechanisms are used by the ego to protect itself from the anxiety that may be caused by id impulses, particularly those of sex and aggression. The ego may also use them to relieve the anxiety caused by unpleasant personal experiences and unacceptable personal characteristics.
    These are Freud's defense mechanisms:

    The banishment of threatening thoughts, feelings, and memories into the unconscious mind.

    Freud suggested that our dreams represented these repressed thoughts from our unconscious.

    The refusal to admit a particular aspect of reality relevant to oneself.

    Many people with hemineglect (damage to the right hemisphere causing the neglect of one side of the body's existence, usually occurring to the left side) often deny the fact that they have a left arm. They refuse to believe they are neglecting one side of their body.

    The displaying of immature behaviors that have relieved anxiety in the past.

    A 10-year-old boy may repond to school pressures by sucking his thumb or engaging in baby talk. An adult may respond to job frustrations by crying or throwing temper tantrums.

    The providing of socially acceptable reasons for one's inappropriate behavior.

    A student whose semester grades include one D and four F's may blme the four F's on studying too much for the course in which he received a D.

    The reduction of anxiety by reacting to emotional situations in a detached, unemotional way.

    Instead of reacting to the death of a loved one by crying, they may react by saying, "Everyone must die sometime." Intellectualization is also associated with upward mobility.

    The expression of feelings toward a person less threatening than the true target of those feelings.

    A worker who hates his boss, but fears criticizing him, may instead, constantly criticize his wife.

    The attribution of one's undesirable feelings to others.

    There are two kinds of projections:
    The first, classic kind, when we project an undesirable impulse onto an unfavorable person. Date rapists may use projection to excuse their behavior by claiming that their victims were sexually provocative. Thus, the "bad woman" got what she was asking for.
    The second, we project our undesirable impulse which we admit having onto a favorable person. That is, we tell ourselves, "If I share this undesirable feeling with this admirable person, I shouldn't feel so anxious about it."

    Reaction Formation
    The tendency to act in a manner opposite to one's true feelings.

    An SO who engages in a much more loving manner than usually before breaking up is engaging in reaction formation. S/he feels that if they treat the other person better, they will feel less guilt about rejecting them.

    The development of a talent as a response to a personal deficiency.

    Perhaps Napolean compensated his shortness by becoming a conquerer.

    The expression of sexual or aggressive impulses through indirect, socially acceptable outlets.

    This, according to Freud is the most successful defense mechanism. The sex drive may be sumblimated through creative activities, such as painting, ballet, or composing music. And the aggressive drive may be sublimated through sports such as football, lacrosse, or field hockey.

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