As humans, we are all subject to life circumstances that will, over time and through an accumulation of experiences, elicit us to just about every emotion. In many ways, our ability to feel emotions gives life’s experiences a sparkle that we swear we would not trade for the world. Without the ability to experience emotions, we would not feel the emotions of moments in our lives.  Falling in love, a peaceful pause of the sunshine on our skin, or that pride we feel after we succeed at something we have poured our energy and efforts into would not be the same—would not exist—without our ability to experience emotions. 

If we were all given the option of only ever experiencing emotions like love, peace, pride, fulfillment, I am willing to bet we would accept the temptation offered to more than just a few of us. As humans, we know that is not reality—we know that life is not all sunshine and rainbows. Instead, life gives us beautiful moments mixed with challenging ones that cause us to experience emotions like hurt, betrayal, disappointment, grief, anxiety, and loneliness. For many of us, these emotions are much more challenging to hold space for and accept. They are uncomfortable, undesirable, and we want them gone. Understandable. 

Just like our conscious response to the presence of complex emotions and thoughts, so too makes our unconscious mind. Sometimes, however, our unconscious mind is aware of feelings, thoughts, impulses, and desires that our conscious minds are not. Quick reminder, we are privy to what is going on in our conscious mind, while the workings of the unconscious mind remain outside of our awareness. In classical psychoanalytic theory, this unconscious response is an ego defense (another helpful note: “ego” also means “the self,” particularly the conscious self). The unconscious deploys an ego defense to protect the self from anxiety associated with the presence of anxiety-inducing information, such as unwanted or unacceptable emotions, thoughts, impulses, or desires. 

Ego defense is an umbrella term, meaning there are numerous reaction patterns—or defense mechanisms—that the unconscious can employ to protect the conscious from becoming aware of anxiety-inducing information. The idea of ego defense and defense mechanisms was first proposed by Sigmund Freud, the founding father of psychoanalysis, in 1894. In 1936, Anna Freud, Sigmund Freud’s daughter, further developed and elaborated on the defense mechanisms proposed by her father and added a number of her own. Some of the most commonly known defense mechanisms from Sigmund and Anna Freud’s work are:

  • Denial
    • Denial, possibly the most well-known among the defense mechanisms, refers to when someone unconsciously excludes unwanted thoughts, feelings, desires, or events from conscious awareness. It is a refusal to acknowledge reality is too painful to perceive. 
    • Some examples of denial include refusing to acknowledge the existence of financial troubles, a loved one’s terminal illness, an unhealthy relationship with drugs or alcohol, or the occurrence of a traumatic event. 
  • Sublimation
    • Sublimation is the unconscious transformation of unacceptable emotions, thoughts, impulses, or desires into socially acceptable modes of expression. Not only does sublimation provide the opportunity for a satisfactory release of impulses or urges, but it also protects individuals from experiencing the anxiety that would be associated with being consciously aware of the original drive.
    • For example, someone who experiences an extreme level of anger and desire to be physically aggressive may become a professional boxer to express unacceptable impulses and urges in a socially acceptable way.
  • Displacement
    • Displacement is the unconscious shift of emotional tension from the source of said tension onto another person or thing. This shift occurs when directing one’s emotional stress towards the original object that caused it would be physically or psychologically threatening. A new, less scary person or object will be chosen as an outlet to discharge the emotional tension safety. For example, a child who is angry at his parents may express his anger by breaking toys or playing violent video games, or a spouse whose boss scolded may come home and pick a fight with their partner.
  • Repression
    • Repression is the unconscious effort to keep anxiety-inducing information or unacceptable desires or impulses out of one’s conscious awareness. However, despite being repressed, the concealed data continues to influence one’s behaviors. Repression and denial can sound very similar, which makes sense because repression is at play in denial. However, denial is twofold in that it first tries to repress information and, when doing so ultimately fails, then attempts to nullify the info.
    • An example of repression is someone subjected to abuse as a child having no recollection of it as an adult.
  • Intellectualization
    • Intellectualization refers to when someone unconsciously uses abstract frameworks or excessive intellectual activity to think about emotional problems or conflicts, allowing them to avoid thinking about stressful, anxiety-inducing aspects of the situation. It is essentially avoiding any uncomfortable emotions by placing one’s sole focus on facts and logic.
    • For example, suppose someone were to lose a grandparent with whom they were very close. In that case, they may turn all of their attention to planning for the wake, funeral, burial, repass, etc., seemingly without experiencing any of the grief one may expect them to.
  • Projection
    • Projection refers to the unconscious process in which one attributes their unacceptable thoughts and feelings to another person or group. In classical psychoanalytic theory, projection allows an individual to avoid acknowledging that such inappropriate thoughts and feelings belong to them. However, modern-day usage of the term does not require the projected thoughts or feelings to be unknown to the individual themself. Instead, to justify an individual’s prejudices or avoid responsibility, projection is used.
    • For example, a cheating spouse may suspect their partner is also unfaithful. In this scenario, projection does not rid the individual of the knowledge that they are engaging in unacceptable behaviors, but it attempts to justify their behavior and avoid responsibility.  
  • Rationalization
    • Rationalization is the unconscious use of seemingly logical reasons to justify unacceptable thoughts, feelings, or behaviors to avoid guilt, criticism from others, or maintain self-respect.
    • For example, being rejected by their crush may begin asserting that they never liked them that much anyway.
  • Regression
    • Regressions are the unconscious reversion to an earlier stage and lower emotional, mental, or behavioral functioning when confronted with overwhelming external or internal conflicts. 
    • For example, a child who has just become an older sibling may begin wetting the bed again, or a teenager transitioning into college may bring their favorite childhood stuffed animal and rely on its presence to fall asleep at night.
  • Reaction formation
    • Reaction formation is the unconscious replacement of unacceptable emotions, thoughts, impulses, or desires with their opposite, more respectable counterparts.
    • For example, an individual who is highly annoyed and angry with one of their friends acts exceptionally friendly and polite.

Source: https://dictionary.apa.org/ 

Since Sigmund and Anna Freud’s first mention of defense mechanisms, many psychoanalysts and researchers have added to the list of ways the unconscious goes about reducing anxiety. Nevertheless, it is essential to note that while defense mechanisms may have a bad reputation, they are not an inherently unhealthy way of coping. Utilizing defense mechanisms to help cope with the stress of everyday life is considered to be expected and typical. However, using any defense mechanism over employing a defense mechanism that requires a significant distortion of reality (e.g., displacement, repression) is considered unhealthy and maladaptive.

Still, uncovering and understanding our use of defense mechanisms can be challenging to do alone. As a result, it may be worth speaking with a mental health professional to gain a better understanding of what may be going on, why, and how to develop healthier habits

if you think you may be overutilizing defense mechanisms and have begun to notice negative impacts on your life.

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