Understanding Your Ego and Defenses?

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. Moments of falling in love, a peaceful pause as we feel sunshine on our skin after a long winter, or that pride we feel in ourselves after we succeed at something that 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 more than just a few of us would be tempted by the offer. But, as humans, we know that is not reality—we know that life is not all sunshine and rainbows. Rather, life gives us beautiful moments mixed with really difficult ones—ones that cause us to experience emotions like hurt, betrayal, disappointment, grief, anxiety, and loneliness. For many of us, these emotions are much more difficult to accept and hold space for. They are uncomfortable, undesirable, and we want them gone. Understandable.

Just like our conscious responds to the presence of difficult emotions and thoughts, so too does our unconscious mind. Sometimes, however, our unconscious mind is aware of emotions, thoughts, impulses, and desires that our conscious minds are not. As a quick reminder, we are always 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 known as an ego defense (another helpful note: “ego” also means “the self”, particularly the conscious self). An ego defense is deployed by the unconscious in an effort 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 actually an umbrella term, meaning there are numerous reaction patterns—or defense mechanisms—that the unconscious can employ in an effort 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 a reality 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 as a way to express unacceptable impulses and urges in a socially acceptable way.
  • Displacement
    • Displacement is the unconscious shift of emotional tension from the original source of said tension onto another person or thing. This shift occurs when directing one’s emotional tension towards the original object that caused it would be physically or psychologically threatening. In an effort to discharge the emotional tension safety, a new, less threating person or thing will be chosen as an outlet.
    • 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 who was scolded by their boss at work 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 information being concealed 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 information.
    • An example of repression is someone who was 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, if someone were to lose a grandparent with whom they were very close with, 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 own unacceptable thoughts and feelings to another person or group. In classical psychoanalytic theory, projection allows an individual to avoid acknowledging that such unacceptable thoughts and feelings actually 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. Rather, it is now thought that projection is used to justify an individual’s own prejudices or avoid responsibility.
    • For example, a cheating spouse may suspect their partner is also being unfaithful. In this scenario, projection does not rid the individual of the knowledge that they themselves are engaging in unacceptable behaviors, but it is an attempt 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 feelings of guilt, criticism from others, or to maintain self-respect.
    • For example, someone who is rejected by their crush may begin asserting that they never liked them that much anyways.
  • Regression
    • Regressions is the unconscious reversion to an earlier stage and lower stage of 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 acceptable counterparts.
    • For example, an individual who is highly annoyed and angry with one of their friends acts exceptionally friendly and polite towards them.

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 important to note that while defense mechanism may have a bad reputation, they are not an inherently unhealthy way of coping. In fact, utilizing defense mechanisms to help cope with the stress of everyday life is considered to be normal and common. However, using any defense mechanism in excess or a employing a defense mechanism that requires significant distortion of reality (e.g.: displacement, repression) is considered to be unhealthy and maladaptive.

Still, uncovering and understanding our own use of defense mechanisms can be difficult to do alone. If you think you may be overutilizing defense mechanisms and have begun to notice negative impacts on your life as a result, it may be worth speaking with a mental health professional who can help you gain a better understanding what may be going on, why, and how to develop healthier habits.

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