Defense Mechanisms

views updated May 17 2018

Defense Mechanisms

Definition and identification

The nature of defense mechanisms


The concept of defense mechanisms was originally proposed by Freud to explain the origins of socially handicapping symptoms, such as unreasonable fears or unjustified anger. Freud pictured symptoms as “derivatives,” or indirect expressions, of impulses that cannot be expressed directly because they are incompatible either with other impulses or with one’s moral standards. The blocking of expression elicits the unpleasant experience of anxiety, which varies with the strength of the impulses and tends to increase progressively until the conflict is resolved. Defenses represent predilections for particular distortions of unacceptable impulses. Torn between his impulse to hurt his father and his guilt, a son may project his anger to someone else. The boy is consequently relieved of both guilt and anxiety. If he displaces his anger to a safer target, he develops irrational angers at the scapegoat and is again saved from the discomfort of guilt and anxiety, If he represses the anger, he forgets about it; if he isolates it, he is aware of the idea that he wants to hurt someone but does not experience the feeling. He can also cancel the results of previous aggression by employing defenses like undoing, reparation, and reversal, the meanings of which are conveyed by the terms themselves.

What was first a clinical construct proved to be so fruitful in clarifying a large variety of social phenomena, both normal and abnormal, that it can be regarded as one of the most revolutionary influences on twentieth-century thought. Freud himself employed the construct in discussing such different topics as the content of art, the meaning of dreams, slips of the tongue, sources of prejudice, psychotherapists’ errors, universal myths, the appeal of humor, religious ritual, and the child’s view of his world. His papers on such topics have provided the foundations for numerous professional specialties in the arts and humanities as well as in medicine and the social sciences. It is difficult to picture what the novel, the play, or the painting of the twentieth century would be like if creative artists had not been exposed to the concepts of conflict, unconscious motives, and defensive distortions.

The ubiquitous interest in defenses is a tribute to their usefulness in explaining otherwise incomprehensible behavior in terms of the resolution of conflict, particularly internal conflict from which the person cannot escape. The clinician typically observes patients torn between moral standards and either sexual or aggressive impulses. The antagonistic forces are intense and have approximately the same strength. The conflict often develops a stable equilibrium characterized by protracted indecision and mounting anxiety. The inclination to forego either impulse tends to strengthen that impulse, by emphasizing the impending frustration, and to weaken the antagonist, which seems less important once it can be gratified. Anxiety may become so great that it interferes with the objective appraisal of events. At such times one can resort to the defenses, which permit resolutions without awareness of the nature of the choice or even of the conflict.

Definition and identification

In the more than half a century since the concept of defense was proposed, it has been subjected to considerable scrutiny both by partisan clinician and rigorous experimenter. People who study defenses empirically are immediately faced with a paradox. To conduct research on a mechanism, they have to be clear about ways of identifying it.

The attempt to attain clarity often makes the average investigator skeptical about the widespread enthusiasm for the concept, an enthusiasm buttressed more by faith in clinical observation than by a substantial body of experimental data or even by a theoretical system. What is available is a group of loosely defined descriptive labels. There is little agreement either about the definition of the mechanism or about the ways in which it affects perception. The label has been applied to such different phenomena as scotoma to visual details, the inability to report material whose recall is manifested indirectly, and the reinterpretation of events.

Critics often object to the “explaining” of forgetting by the invoking of the mechanism of repression, a practice they correctly label as a reification of the term. Postman (1953) makes another cogent criticism when he objects to the presumed assumption of a “Judas eye, scanning incoming concepts in order to decide what shall be permitted in consciousness” and apparently acting as a trigger that releases mechanisms employed to distort the unacceptable concepts. [SeePerception, article Onunconscious perception.]

In the face of such phenomena as multiple personality, “forgotten” material that can be recovered under special conditions like hypnosis, and motivated errors in judgment, most skeptics concede that Freud was asking legitimate questions and that the perceptual system must often be split into subsystems, some of which are not accessible to awareness. But there is considerable disagreement about ways of describing such phenomena, and sympathetic critics often plead for hypotheses that are phrased in the language of the social scientist.

The vagueness of the concept of defense is suggested by Freud’s definition: “… all the techniques of which the ego makes use in the conflicts which potentially lead to neurosis” ([1926] 1936, p. 144). This definition provides little help in discriminating between defense and other reactions that occur during conflict and ignores much of what Freud himself observed about the connections between defenses and normal phenomena, such as creativity, thinking, and humor.

Enumeration and criteria

The mechanisms labeled by Freud include repression, regression, reaction formation, reversal, isolation, undoing, introjection, identification, sublimation, denial, projection, and turning against the self. Many other psychoanalysts have proposed lists of defenses, few of which agree with Freud’s in either content or length. The lack of consensus reflects some basic theoretical disagreements. Melanie Klein (1959), who founded her own psychoanalytic group, was very concerned with splitting and reparation, which are ignored by members of other groups. A more common reason for the lack of consensus is a casualness about definition of which Freud himself was often guilty. Later writers have been even less sensitive to the necessity of clear definition, extending the meaning of defense from a disposition to remotely related phenomena, such as neurotic symptoms; to stylistic trends, like resistance to change; and even to cultural products, like myths, which are neither defenses nor derivatives of impulses.

Anna Freud (1936) provided some useful criteria for definition when she noted that the “ego’s defensive operations” are unconscious and that they repudiate “the claims of instinct” by keeping “ideational representatives of repressed instincts” from becoming conscious and by “creating a transformation” in the associated emotions. She suggested the additional functions of regulating needs by appropriate substitutions, altering the inappropriate strengths of needs, and preventing the recognition of painful events over which there is no control.

Miller and Swanson (1960) propose a group of specific criteria for recognizing defenses. They think that the observer must first identify an event, usually an impulse, that the person in conflict cannot acknowledge because the awareness of it would create objective difficulties or anxiety. The observer identifies the event on the basis of such indirect evidence as the content of dreams, subliminal perception, and unpleasant emotional states, such as excessive anxiety or guilt. Second, he must locate the substitute for the original impulse. The type of defense is inferred from the substitute, particularly the nature of the discrepancy between wish and act. If a son is constantly aggressive and his father responds by being very helpful, he is viewed as reversing his aggressive impulses if he has dreams that symbolize a murder of the son. If the father replaces aggression by fears that the son will be killed in an accident, these are interpreted as projections of the father’s hostile wishes to auto drivers.

The nature of defense mechanisms

Of course the definition of terms is only a prelude to the raising of questions about the nature of defense mechanisms. How do the different defenses operate? Specifically, how does one project? Are there different kinds of projection? How does one repress? Do certain defenses have common characteristics? To what extent are different defenses learned? The literature on defense contains few deliberate attempts to answer such questions but many suggestive contributions.

Attempts at classification

Freud suggested a possible system of classification when he postulated that defenses are specific to particular pathologies: projection to paranoia, repression to conversion hysteria, turning against the self to depression. Such associations occur frequently but they are still not very strong. The same defense may be found in different pathologies; projection contributes to the irrational fear of the phobic, the obsessive’s overconcern with his potential condemnation by others, and the depressive’s feelings that he has lost all status in the eyes of others.

Another basis of classification was proposed by Anna Freud, who classified defenses with reference to eliciting conditions, such as anxiety, impulse, actual danger, forbidden emotion, and the pressure of conscience. Even though a single condition may sometimes elicit a large number of different defenses, there is some validity to the presumed association between the two. Turning against the self seems most appropriate to the distortion of aggressive impulses. Reversal, undoing, and reparation also seem appropriate to conflicts about aggression. Turning against the self seems inapplicable to anxiety, external threat, and sex. It seems more appropriate to think of denying anxiety and external threat or of repressing sexual impulses.

Employing a variety of criteria, Miller and Swanson (1960) propose two families of defense, differentiating them on the bases of complexity, distortion in derivatives, specificity to particular problems, and social effectiveness. The use of defenses in the first family, which is presumed to have developed early, leads to considerable distortion in the interpretation of events; they tend to be applicable to most problems; they are often socially handicapping; they are simple in that they require little previous learning. A defense like denial, for example, only requires that the person close his eyes and conjure up a wishful picture in his imagination. Common to such mechanisms is an obliteration of awareness and many kinds of information associated with it.

The use of defenses in the second family creates only minor distortions in the interpretation of events; they tend to be suited to particular problems; they are conducive to socially acceptable, even rewarded, behavior; they are relatively complex. A defense like projection requires that the person be able to recognize his impulses, that he have an awareness of self, and that he be able to apply a code of values.

Defenses in the second family have in common a displacement or shift on one or more dimensions of the forbidden impulse, such as the objects, affects, actions, agents, and goal states. When a boy who is angry at his father displaces his aggression to another object, he chooses something similar in certain respects to the original object. Sometimes the choice may be very remote as in the classical case of Freud’s little Hans, who shifted his problem from his father to white horses, both being large, light-skinned, and strong and having dark structures around the eyes (glasses and blinders) and a dark area around the mouth (beard and snout).

Projection—an example

Research on the defense mechanisms has proliferated to such an extent as to require that a survey of the literature be restricted to one mechanism. Projection has been chosen because it has been the subject of the most fruitful investigations.

One problem that has plagued investigators is the variety of phenomena that have been labeled as projection. Freud recognized that, in addition to the unconscious attribution of traits, there is also a more “normal” kind of projection in which we “refer the cause of certain sensations to the external world instead of looking for them inside ourselves…” (1912–1913). As a result of his observations of psychotics, Federn (1953) identified still another type in which confusion about the body image leads a person to be uncertain about the location of either acceptable or unacceptable impulses, which might be attributed to self, another person, or some object in the intervening space. The literature contains references to still other phenomena that were called projection. [SeeBody image.]

In designing research, most investigators begin with a conception of ways in which the mechanism affects perception. The commonest conceptions attribute projection to the breakdown in discrimination caused by the loss of ego boundaries, to displacement of unacceptable impulses from self to outside world, to a combination of increased sensitivity to the forbidden impulses in self and other and a denial of the impulses in self, to a diminution of the seriousness of one’s problems by exaggerating them in others, and to displacements on dimensions of the agent of action. Some of these conceptions are compatible with one another; others are not. The version that attributes projection to poor discrimination is consistent with the version that explains it as a displacement of the experienced event from inside to outside the self. But one cannot postulate both an intact body image and a breakdown in its boundaries or explain the distortion as pathological and basic to all cognition.

Depending on their assumptions about the nature of projection, various investigators have become concerned with different problems. Assuming that the mechanism is learned during the child’s struggles with toilet training, a number of investigators have devoted their efforts to studying the associations between anality, projection, and aggression. Others have studied the social implications of the defense by observing its use in different societies. Among the Dobuans (Fortune 1932), whose members are very competitive, poisoning, witchcraft, and other types of treachery are frequent enough, even in relations between close kin, to elicit universal suspicion of one’s fellow man, and the person who does not project his aggression may not survive very long. Projection is also helpful to the Hopi (Goldfrank 1945), who have a highly organized cooperative economic system which could not function even in the presence of mild aggression. They project their anger to evil spirits. Although citizens of both communities favor the same defense, the difference in targets results in one group being homicidal and the other being exceptionally peaceful.

A concern with the social consequences of projection in American society has led a number of social scientists to study the vicious cycle that reinforces the paranoid’s projection of aggression. He initially has little evidence to justify his suspicions, but if his fear leads him to withdraw or to be hostile, others soon begin to shy away. On the second encounter they are more wary, which confirms his suspicions of their intentions and enhances his fear and hostility. Each encounter reinforces the elements in the cycle, which consists of increased alarm and self-protective hostility on his part followed by puzzled retreat and, finally, anger on the part of others.

Epidemiological research on the incidence of different psychoses provides indirect evidence about the learning of defenses. Paranoid psychoses occur more often in the poorer than in the more affluent areas of large cities (Faris & Dunham 1939). Some investigators reason that the hardships faced by the poor reinforce the tendency to project; others that people with paranoid tendencies are economically handicapped and their downward mobility finally forces them to live in poorer sections. The disagreement has not yet been resolved, but evidence that psychotics in poor areas have not generally drifted there from other sections casts doubt on the latter hypothesis. [SeeParanoid reactions.]

A relatively new field of investigation, which represents a merging of Freudian theory, the sociology of communication, and certain epistemo logical principles, starts with the assumption that projection is an inherent part of all perception. On observing an object, a man organizes his visual sensations into meaningful categories and adds additional meanings and values in terms of the implications of the incident for his condition and his goals. The more concerned he is with what an object is like or how it ought to be, the greater is the likelihood that he will view it within a particular rubric of meanings and that he will impose qualities on it that others may not see.

Projection has a prominent role in many studies of the development of moral standards. It is assumed that the child first resists parental demands, such as those prohibiting attacks on his siblings. He then conforms because of fear. But then, each time he is tempted to misbehave he anticipates how the mother will judge him by projecting to her the feeling he would have if he were in her place. He then identifies with the disapproving mother and gradually comes to inhibit his impulses or to punish himself just as she might have done.

Underlying this type of speculation is the premise that we can never know what is in another person’s mind on the basis of direct experience. We must project what we would feel if we were in his place in order to guess what he is experiencing. After we project, we usually test our resultant impression by comparing it with subsequent events. If these show the impression is wrong, we modify it and test the new one in turn. It is assumed that the paranoid projects no more than anyone else; he differs from other men in the inefficiency with which he tests the veridicality of his projections.

Experimental research on projection has helped to develop the outlines of a potential theory. Studies reveal, for example, that the incorrect attribution to others of unpleasant traits is a function of the situation as much as the predilections of the person. Bramel (1962) threatened his subjects by indicating that their homosexual tendencies were more marked than they had reported in their self-ratings. On obtaining his reports the subjects increased their ratings of the homosexual tendencies of people with whom they had been paired but whom they did not know very well. The more favorable were the original estimates, the greater was the tendency to see others more unfavorably. Posner (1940) asked a group of children to rate the attractiveness of pairs of toys, to give one of the pair to a friend, and then to guess which of the toys the friend would have given the subjects. They usually chose the preferred toy for themselves and projected the selfish choice to the friend. This projection was much less evident in a control group whose members did not have to give away one of the toys before estimating the friends’ choices.

In a study of the contents and targets of projection Zimmer (1955), like a number of investigators, found that subjects project their acceptable personality traits to liked people and unacceptable traits to disliked people. Moreover, the degree of projection is related to conflict about the trait. According to Harvey (1958), people feel positively about raters who agree with their self-rating but deprecate the raters when they disagree. The subjects also show poor recall of the ratings, the distortions increasing with the discrepancies from self-rating up to a critical point.

The results of some studies help to explain the conditions under which people project similar and complementary traits to others. At a party arranged by Murray (1933) preadolescent girls rated a group of pictures before and after a frightening game called “murder.” The maliciousness attributed to the people in the pictures increased markedly following the game. Similar rather than complementary projection was elicited by Bramel, whose study has been described above. A comparison of the two investigations suggests that subjects project complementary traits when they find their own qualities acceptable and similar traits when they dislike their qualities and need to de-emphasize them.

The projection of complementary attributes seems to require a particular cognitive style. Leventhal (1957) divided his subjects into two groups, depending on the number of different concepts they used in describing their friends. The complex perceivers used many concepts and typically reacted to others in terms of differences between them; simple perceivers used few concepts and were more prone to assume likenesses in others.

Still another determinant of the contents of projection is its appropriateness to the target. Menzies (1960) reports that nurses project irresponsible impulses to juniors and severe disciplinary attitudes to seniors. The resultant impressions tend to be accurate because they are consistent with the nurses’ roles. The “social defense system” of the nursing service enables the women to “project and reify” relevant elements of their psychic defense systems. Some features of the social system that help to defend nurses against their many anxieties include the splitting of tasks in a manner that prevents intensive contact with any one patient, the denial of the patients’ individuality by such practices as referring to them by number or by diagnostic category rather than by name, the encouragement of ritualistic performance of tasks, and the discouragement of discretion and initiative. Unless a new nurse can restructure her defenses in ways that are congruent with this social defense system, she has considerable difficulties in her professional relationships.

A number of recent papers have been devoted to the hypothesis that people with incompatible defenses have more difficulty getting work done than do people with less incompatible combinations. Cohen (1956) asked his subjects to work together on a task and to judge each other’s interpersonal ability. As anticipated, people inclined to favor projection were more negative and hostile in interacting with one another than when paired with other subjects.

Recent research on the defenses has been dominated by the assumption that the mechanisms represent predilections for particular styles of interpreting one’s environment. This cognitive viewpoint has led investigators to think of defenses as components of a general style of solving emotional problems. It has also concentrated people’s interest on the self as a focus for the kinds of problems that elicit various defenses. Finally, it has prompted investigators to think of the possibility that all defenses, and possibly much of the process of thinking, can be analyzed into certain basic components. Some of these that are common to the defenses listed in the psychoanalytic literature include the tendency to do or think something that is opposite in meaning to the unacceptable event, to obliterate one’s total awareness of a problem, and to displace awareness from one location on a dimension to another. Displacements from inside to outside the body may represent a special instance of oppositeness, other examples of which are reversal and denial of beliefs and undoing and reparation of action. It seems probable that within the next decade, research on defense mechanisms will permit close integration of the concept with theories of cognition and motivation.

Daniel r. miller

[For further general discussion of defense mechanisms, seeAnxiety; Prejudice; Psychoanalysis; and the biographies ofFreudandKlein. More specific treatment may be found inAesthetics; Dreams; Fantasy; Humor; Literature, article onthe psychology of literature; Myth and symbol; Religion.]


Bramel, Dana 1962 A Dissonance Theory Approach to Defensive Projection. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 64:121–129.

Cohen, Arthur R. 1956 Experimental Effects of Ego Defense Preference on Interpersonal Relations. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 52:19–27.

Faris, Robert E. L.; and Dunham, H. W. (1939) 1960 Mental Disorders in Urban Areas: An Ecological Study of Schizophrenia and Other Psychoses. New York: Hafner.

Federn, Paul 1953 Ego Psychology and the Psychoses. New York: Basic Books.

fortune, Reo f. (1932) 1963 Sorcerers of Dobu: The Social Anthropology of the Dobu Islanders of the Western Pacific. Rev. ed. London: Routledge.

Freud, Anna (1936) 1957 The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. New York: International Universities Press. → First published as Das Ich und die Abwehrmechanismen.

Freud, Sigmund (1888–1938) 1959 Collected Papers. 5 vols. Authorized translation under the supervision of Joan Riviere. Vol. 5 edited by James Strachey. International Psycho-analytic Library, Nos. 7–10, 34. New York: Basic Books; London: Hogarth. → Translation of Sammlung kleiner Schriften zur Neurosenlehre and additional papers. A ten-volume paperback edition was published in 1963 by Collier Books. Freud, Sigmund (1912–1913) 1938 Totem and Taboo. London and New York: Penguin.

Freud, Sigmund (1926) 1936 The Problem of Anxiety. New York: Norton. → First published as Hemmung, Symptom und Angst. A British edition was also published in 1936 by Hogarth as Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety. Pages cited in text refer to the American edition.

Goldfrank, Esther S. 1945 Socialization, Personality, and the Structure of Pueblo Society. American Anthropologist New Series 47:516–539.

Harvey, O. J. 1958 Reactions to Negative Information About the Self … Group Psychology Branch, Office of Naval Research, Technical Report No. 8. Washington: The Office.

Klein, Melanie 1948 Contributions to Psycho-analysis: 1921–1945. International Psycho-analytic Library, No. 34. London: Hogarth.

Klein, Melanie 1959 Our Adult World and Its Roots in Infancy. Human Relations 12:291–303.

Leventhal, Howard 1957 Cognitive Processes and Interpersonal Predictions. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 55:176–180.

Menzies, Isabel E. P. 1960 A Case-study in the Functioning of Social Systems as a Defense Against Anxiety. Human Relations 13:95–121.

Miller, Daniel R.; and SWANSON, GUY E. 1960 Inner Conflict and Defense. New York: Holt.

Murray, Henry A. 1933 The Effect of Fear Upon Estimates of Maliciousness of Other Personalities. Journal of Social Psychology 4:310–329.

Posner, B. A. 1940 Selfishness, Guilt Feelings and Social Distance. M.A. thesis, Univ. of Iowa.

Postman, Leo 1953 On the Problem of Perceptual Defense. Psychological Review 60:298–306.

Zimmer, Herbert 1955 The Roles of Conflict and Internalized Demand in Projection. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 50:188–192.

Defense Mechanisms

views updated May 23 2018

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 expressedallowing a catharsis of the original emotionbut 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 mechanismsregression 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 inferiorityand 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.

Defense Mechanisms

views updated May 21 2018


Defense mechanisms are psychic processes that are generally attributed to the organized ego. They organize and maintain optimal psychic conditions in a way that helps the subject's ego both to confront and avoid anxiety and psychic disturbance. They are therefore among the attempts to work through psychic conflict but if they are deployed in an excessive or inappropriate way they can compromise psychic growth.

There is no clear distinction in Sigmund Freud's work between a defense and a defense mechanism, (the latter referring to the unconscious processes by which the defense operates). The concept of defense first appeared in his article "The Neuro-Psychoses of Defence" (1894a) and was next discussed in "Further Remarks on the Neuro-Psychoses of Defence" (1896b) and "The Aetiology of Hysteria" (1896c). Finally, in the text entitled "Instincts and their Vicissitudes" (1915c), turning against the self and reversal into the opposite were identified as defense mechanisms, in addition to repression and sublimation.

For Freud, the concept of defense refers to the ego's attempts at psychic transformation in response to representations and affects that are painful, intolerable, or unacceptable.

He abandoned the concept of defense for a period in favor of the concept of repression. He then reintroduced it in "Neurotic Mechanisms in Jealousy, Paranoia and Homosexuality" (1922b [1921]). Freud ascribed a defensive significance to introjection (or identification) and projection by terming them all "neurotic mechanisms." Then in an addendum to Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety (1926d [1925]), he reconsidered this concept in relation to that of repression, suggesting that: "It will be an undoubted advantage, I think, to revert to the old concept of 'defence,' provided we employ it explicitly as a general designation for all the techniques which the ego makes use of in conflicts which may lead to a neurosis, while we retain the word 'repression' for the special method of defense which the line of approach taken by our investigations made us better acquainted with in the first instance" (p. 163). Freud added that: "further investigations may show that there is an intimate connection between special forms of defense and particular illnesses, as, for instance, between repression and hysteria" (p. 164). By this he meant, more specifically, that the ego protects itself against the tendency towards conflict by means of a counter-cathexis. It was this counter-cathexis that came to represent the supreme essence of the defense mechanisms.

This idea was taken up by Heinz Hartmann (1950) in the context of his theory of the autonomous functions of the ego. He argued that once the energy of the counter-cathexis had been withdrawn from the tendency that caused the conflict, it was neutralized. For him, the autonomous processes (organization, cathexis, delay) can be the precursors of defense mechanisms. In general, neurotic defense mechanisms constitute an exaggeration or a distortion of regulating and adaptive mechanisms.

With strong support from the ego-psychology movement in her studies on ego functions, Anna Freud listed and described the ego's defense mechanisms. For her, "every vicissitude to which the instincts are liable has its origin in some ego-activity. Were it not for the intervention of the ego or of those external forces which the ego represents, every instinct would know only one fatethat of gratification" (1937, p. 47). To the nine defense mechanisms that she identified: "regression, repression, reaction-formation, isolation, undoing, projection, introjection, turning against the self and reversal," she suggested that, "we must add a tenth, which pertains rather to the study of the normal than to that of neurosis: sublimation, or displacement of instinctual aims" (p. 47).

Finally, for adherents of the Kleinian school, the defense mechanisms take a different form in a structured ego from the one they assume in a primitive, unstructured ego (or an undifferentiated id-ego). The defenses become modes of mental functioning. For Susan Isaacs (1948), all mental mechanisms are linked to fantasies, such as devouring, absorbing, or rejecting. Melanie Klein herself (1952, 1958) principally identified the following primitive defenses: splitting, idealization, projective identification and manic defenses.

The terms "defense" and "defense mechanism" are still used interchangeably today, which suggests a degree of confusion between a descriptive approach to the concept of defense and an approach based on the analysis of psychic adaptations from an economic viewpoint.

Elsa Schmid-Kitsikis

See also: Defense.


Benassy, Maurice. (1969). Le moi et ses mécanismes de défense:Étude théorique. In La théorie psychanalytique. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Freud, Anna. (1936). The ego and the mechanisms of defence. New York: International Universities Press.

Freud, Sigmund. (1926d [1925]). Inhibitions, symptoms and anxiety. SE, 20: 75-172.

Hartmann, Heinz. (1950). Comments on the psychoanalytic theory of the ego. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 5, 74-96.

Isaacs, Susan. (1952). On the nature and function of phantasy. In M. Klein, P. Heimann, S. Isaacs and J. Riviere (Eds.), Developments in psycho-analysis (p. 67-121). (Reprinted from International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 29 (1948), 73-97.)

Klein, Melanie. (1952). Some theoretical conclusions regarding the emotional life of the infant. In Envy and gratitude and other works, 1946-1963 (pp. 61-93). London: Hogarth, 1975.

. (1958). On the development of mental functioning. In Envy and gratitude and other works, 1946-1963. (pp. 236-246). London: Hogarth, 1975.

Defense Mechanisms

views updated May 29 2018


Defense mechanisms are unconscious strategies used to cope with conflict, anxiety, and disturbing emotions, as well as to maintain social and emotional well-being. The theory of defense mechanisms originated from Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytical work. Children can adaptively employ these defenses to help resolve conflicts that arise at the stages of psychosexual development—the oral, anal, phallic, and genital stages. As children reach milestones in their development, they also learn to master their environment. In this process they are likely to experience anxiety and other negative feelings at various developmental stages. Defense mechanisms are means to manage the anxious, depressive, and angry emotions that can be both normal and abnormal reactions to family, community, school, and peer environments. There are numerous defense mechanisms, including withdrawal, repression, regression, denial, identification, projection, reaction formation, fantasy, and displacement. For example, a child who is having difficulty learning fractions may employ withdrawal and not participate in math class to cope with the frustration and avoid failure. Children commonly use defense mechanisms so that they can competently cope with emotional conflict, fears, stressful environments, abuse, and negative affect.



Burland, J. Alexis. "Current Perspectives on the Treatment of Neuroses in Children and Adolescents." In M. Hossein Etezady ed., The Neurotic Child and Adolescent. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1990.

Mordock, John. "Teaching Children Self-control through Counseling." In Judah Ronch, William Van Ornum, and Nicholas Stillwell eds., The Counseling Sourcebook: A Practical Reference on Contemporary Issues. New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1994.

Rhonda CherieBoyd