Protective Shield, Breaking through the

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A tear in the protective shield occurs when excitations from the external world reach such a level of intensity that they overflow the protective systems, or when the absence of signal anxiety means that external perceptions are not recognized as dangerous by the psychic apparatus. Breach of the protective shield is thus a trauma whose source may be external or instinctual.

In trauma, the excess of excitations that the ego cannot control and work through results in disorganization of the psychic apparatus. This involves an attack on the boundary between inside and outside, upheaval in the mind's topographies with instinctual flushing, development of anxiety, and discharge actions aimed at bringing psychic tension back down to a tolerable level. Freud explained mental breakdown in terms of anticathexes that limit the tearing of the protective shield. Summoning the energies of all the mental systems, these anticathexes impoverish those systems accordingly and produce a reduction or even paralysis of mental activity.

In Le Penser. Du Moi-peau au Moi-pensant (1994; Thinking: from the skin-ego to the thinking-ego), Didier Anzieu proposed that in the face of the economic disorder resulting from the breach of the protective shield, the response of the psychic apparatus depends upon the prevailing principle of mental functioning. With the principle of constancy, there is automatic discharge into the external world (acting out), the body (pain, affliction of an organ), or the mind (disturbance of a mental function). In the case of the nirvana principle, excitation itself is what is dreaded; decathexis, withdrawal, and sometimes hallucinatory projections occur. On the other hand, the constraint of repetition impels the psyche to seek out, whether in dreams or in reality, situations in which a traumatic flooding of stimuli occurred, in order to repair the trauma. Here, repetition of the painful experience aims to bring about retroactive control over the excitation, aided by the development of the anxiety that was initially lacking. Using the protective-shield effects of the death drive, the self-calming behaviors described by Claude Smadja (1993) and Gérard Szwec (1993) counterinvest a traumatic reality that might emerge from within. It should be noted that these solutions all have in common that they are rapid, economical, and the opposite of thought.

Reference is also made to breach of the protective shield in the etiology of borderline and psychotic pathologies. In these cases, object deprivation and early trauma have interfered with the development of the protective-shield system. Moreover, the overwhelmed, malfunctioning, and intolerant ego is particularly exposed to traumas. According to Donald W. Winnicott (1958), when the mother's holding fails to provide protection to the nursling's immature ego, contact with the external world or the instincts is traumatic. The risk is disintegration of the self.

Josiane Chambrier

See also: Dementia; Helplessness; Mnemic trace/memory trace; Pain; Physical pain/psychical pain; Primal repression; Protective shield; Trauma; War neurosis.


Anzieu, Didier. Le Penser. Du Moi-peau au Moi-pensant. Paris: Dunod, 1994.

Smadja, Claude. (1993).Á propos des procédés autocalmants du Moi. Revue française de psychosomatique 4, 9-26.

Szwec, Gérard. (1993). Les procédés autocalmants par la recherche répétitive de l'excitation. Les galériens volontaires. Revue française de psychosomatique 4, 27-51.

Winnicott, Donald W. (1958). The capacity to be alone. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 39, 416-420.