Neurotic Defenses

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Neurotic defenses are procedures developed by the ego which can be considered damaging to mental life. Their function is avoiding the anxiety and guilt caused by inhibitions connected with sexual desires and aggressive tendencies. They reveal the complexity and vicissitudes of the links between affect and representation.

In 1896, Freud demonstrated that defense is the "core" of the neurotic psychic mechanism. This conclusion followed his analysis of the neuro-psychoses of defense (1894a). In this text he linked repression to hysteria, and designated conversion as a defense. Conversion was later placed in the category of symptoms. In his early writings on hysteria, Freud spoke of "abreaction," a kind of hallucinatory reproduction of memories or of emotional release as a means for dissolving conversion symptoms. Later, repression (the "model" of the defenses) came to be considered the essential first line of defense of the obsessive (or phobic) subject.

It was not until 1926 that "isolation" replaced repression as the major mechanism of obsessional neurosis. Freud saw in the obsessional neurosis a separation of representation (image, thought, memory) from the drive and its affect, while this affect, through "displacement" or "transposition," established a link with another representation that pushes the earlier representation, with which it is irreconcilable, into the unconscious, making it inaccessible to memory.

In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), Freud presented regression as a type of defense, to the extent that he considered it as "an effect of a resistance opposing the progress of a thought into consciousness along the normal path" (p. 546), adding that "regression plays a no less important part in the theory of the formation of neurotic symptoms than it does in that of dreams" (p. 548).

In "Repression" (1915d), he resumed his minute analyses of neurotic defenses in connection with the "return of the repressed," whose similarity with the mechanisms of dream work was evident. He focused on the linking of affect and representation through the processes at work in anxiety or (phobic) hysteria, whose proximity with conversion hysteria and obsessional neurosis he emphasized. "Displacement" is the major defense of the phobic neurotic, while for the obsessional neurotic there is "a substitute by displacement, often a displacement on to something small or insignificant" (p. 157). Finally, with conversion hysteria, there is the "belle indiffèrence " (p. 156, [sic]): at the same time as a factor of regression, one also of "condensation." This is because a portion of the repressed representation of the drive has attracted to itself, by condensation, the totality of the cathexis, as well as a tendency for identification.

Other defenses were considered by Freud: projection, a very basic type of defense Freud alluded to throughout his work; delusional jealousy (1922b), which is a defense against homosexuality; the distinction between internal and external, which is a means for the ego to defend itself against that which is experienced as disagreeable (Civilization and Its Discontents, 1930a).

The analysis of defenses has been refined and extended in the work of Helene Deutsch (1926), Otto Fenichel (1932), and Maurice Bouvet (1967-68), among others. For the phobic neurotic, "avoidance" of anxiety, "canceling" and "reaction formation" were added. Sublimation (Freud, 1905, 1910) was finally considered as a separate kind of defense (Hartmann, 1955), since it is the only one that implies a change of the kind of energy.

This refinement of the analysis of defenses has allowed the consideration of neurosis as other than an essentially pathological system. Currently, these defenses are also described in the context of what is called normal-neurotic psychic activity. On the other hand, the study of traumatic neuroses since Freud, including mechanisms of repetition, splitting, and denial, as well as the study of psychic functioning in what have been called borderline processes, have probably contributed to a certain vulgarization of these defensive manifestations, which, nevertheless, remain essential for an understanding of Freudian metapsychology.

Elsa Schmid-Kitsikis

See also: Defense.


Bouvet, Maurice. (1967). Oeuvres psychanalytiques. I, La Relation d'objet: Névrose obsessionelle, dépersonnalisation. Paris: Payot.

. (1968). Oeuvres psychanalytiques. II, Résistance, transfert. Paris: Payot.

Fenichel, Otto. (1953). The Collected Papers of Otto Fenichel. (First and Second Series; H. Fenichel and D. Rapaport, Eds.). New York: Norton.

Freud, Sigmund. (1894a). The neuro-psychoses of defence. SE, 3: 41-61.

. (1915d). Repression. SE, 14: 141-158.