Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence, The

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This work was first published in Vienna in 1936 and in English translation in London the following year, two years before Sigmund Freud's death. The whole of Anna Freud's work was marked by her clearly stated desire to win scientific status for psychoanalysis. With this in mind, she sought to integrate analysis into psychology, to create what she called a "psychoanalytical psychology." At the same time the schoolteaching career that she embarked upon before becoming a psychoanalyst would seem to be the origin of the pedagogical cast of her written work and her practice as a child analyst.

The frame of reference of The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence is Freud's second topography (structural theory). The subject of the book is the defenses developed by the individual ego in order to confront or avoid the conflicts provoked by the id in its relations with the ego and the superego. Anna Freud approaches psychoanalytic technique and theory, along with defensive formations, from the specific perspective of the observation of the ego through the mental conflicts in which it is involved. Thus the ego in its relations with the id and with the outside worldrelations which may be the source of unpleasure or of feelings of fearis analyzed in the light of its avoidance mechanisms (the various forms of negation), in the light of its aggressive or altruistic strategies. Special significance is assigned to the phenomena of puberty and to the defense mechanisms triggered by the re-emergence of sexuality at that time.

Anna Freud considers it the analyst's task, "in relation to the ego, to explore its contents, its boundaries, and its functions, and to trace the history of its dependence on the outside world, the id, and the superego; and, in relation to the id, to give an account of the instincts, i.e. of the id contents, and to follow them through the transformations which they undergo" (p. 5). The fact is that when id derivatives make incursions into consciousness, the ego is prone to "counterattack" by deploying defense mechanisms (p. 7). But while the analyst is aided by the tendency of id derivatives to surface, at the same time no help is to be obtained by analyzing the ego's defenses, for these can be reconstructed only by reference to the effects they produce in the patient's associations. According to Anna Freud, the analysis of resistance to transference and the analysis of the compulsion to repeat need to be refined by analysis of the resistances of the ego. The purpose of these various psychoanalytical procedures is to bring into consciousness the ego's unconscious defenses, which are liable to strengthen the patient's hostility toward the analyst.

Anna Freud subjects the ego's defenses to meticulous scrutiny and inventories their varieties on the basis of Freud's descriptions. The list is as follows: regression, repression, reaction-formation, isolation, undoing, projection, introjection, turning against the self, and reversal into the opposite. To these Anna Freud adds a tenth defense mechanism, namely sublimation or the displacement of instinctual aims.

Anna Freud's work, and in particular the book with which we are here concerned, has directly nourished a line of thinking that might be called a "psychoanalysis of consciousness," and that has achieved its greatest success in the United States thanks to the proponents of ego psychology (Hartmann, Kris, and Loewenstein, 1964); most importantly, however, it has indirectly made possible a psychological use of the findings of Freudian psychoanalysis in a number of areas, among them the field of what is known as "psychoanalytical pedagogy" and that of so-called personality testing.

Elsa Schmid-Kitsikis

See also: Defense; Ego.

Source Citation

Freud, Anna. (1937). The ego and the mechanisms of defence (Cecil Baines, Trans.). London: Hogarth. (Original work published 1936)


Hartmann, Heinz, Kris, Ernst, and Loewenstein, Rudolf M. (1964). Papers on psychoanalytic psychology. New York: International Universities Press.

Moll, Jeanne. (1989). La pédagogie psychanalytique. Origine et histoire. Paris: Dunod.

Sandler, Joseph. (1985). The analysis of defense: the ego and the mechanisms of defense revisited. New York: International Universities Press.