DEFENSE MECHANISM (Ego Defense Mechanism)

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An adjustive reaction, typically habitual and unconscious, employed to protect oneself from anxiety, guilt, or loss of self-esteem.In the course of his development, every individual gradually acquires a set of defensive reactions, dynamisms or, as Karen Horney calls them, “safety devices,” which are automatically called into play when he finds himself in situations that threaten his ego. These reactions serve many purposes. They reduce emotional conflict, protect the self against its own dangerous impulses, alleviate the effects of traumatic experiences, soften failure or disappointment, eliminate clashes between attitudes and reality (“cognitive dissonance”), and in general help the individual maintain his sense of adequacy and personal worth.The theory of defense mechanisms was developed by Sigmund Freud and elaborated by his daughter Anna Freud in her work The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence (1937). The importance of these reactions is now widely recognized by Freudians and non-Freudians alike. Among the most common types are refusal to admit the truth (denial of reality), escape into a satisfying world of fantasy (daydreaming), giving false but socially approved reasons to justify questionable behavior (rationalization), blaming others for personal shortcomings or attributing to others our own unacceptable impulses or desires (projection), excluding painful or dangerous thoughts from consciousness (repression), gaining sympathy or avoiding problems by retreating to infantile behavior (regression), denying faulty impulses by going to the opposite extreme (reaction formation), avoiding hurt through apathy or detachment (emotional insulation), and increasing feelings of worth by identifying with important people or institutions (identification). See these topics, and DISPLACEMENT, UNDOING, INTELLECTU- ALIZATION, SUBLIMATION, SYMPATHISM, COMPENSATION, INTROJECTION, DISSOCIATION, SYMBOLIZATION, SUBSTITUTION, INCORPORATION, IDEALIZATION, and FLIGHT INTO REALITY.Although these mechanisms are based upon normal tendencies and are employed in the interest of adjustment, they cannot be considered an ideal method of coping with the problems of life. It would be far better to face our difficulties directly and deal with them rationally than to erect an artificial system of defense or escape. Such a system is bound to involve a high degree of self-deception and distortion of reality. The person who denies obvious facts is likely to create more problems than he solves, and the individual who habitually rationalizes away his mistakes or blames them on others is not likely to profit from his experience.Moreover, many defense mechanisms interfere with our relationships with other people and in the end aggravate our interpersonal problems. The woman who continually discharges pent-up emotions on innocent scapegoats (displacement) is bound to be disliked and accused of unfairness, and the man who is a pillar of the church on Sunday but a ruthless businessman all the rest of the week (dissociation) can hardly be expected to command the genuine respect of people who get to know him.Most individuals are unaware of their defensive behavior, and have little, if any, realization of the anxiety and “ego threat” that lie behind it. Counselors and psychotherapists usually devote considerable time to bringing these mechanisms into the open since this is an important means of increasing the individual’s insight into himself. However, it is not always easy to distinguish defensive from non-defensive behavior, and, as Rosen and Gregory (1965) point out, “It is as false to call all behavior defensive—e.g. to explain all generosity as a reaction-formation against stinginess, all reasoning as rationalization and all criticisms of others as projection— as it is naive to take all behavior at its face value and overlook its defensive components.” One major mark of defensive behavior is the intensity of the response. The defensive person is over- emphatic and protests too much—he hammers on the table as he denies he is angry.It is also not easy to distinguish between a normal and a pathological use of defenses without examining the total personality. But in general neurotic defenses tend to be more rigid and extreme than normal defenses. One or a small group of defense mechanisms usually predominates and plays a central role in the neurotic individual’s life— for example, the hysteric overuses repression and denial of reality while the obsessive-compulsive constantly resorts to reaction-formation and undoing (performing expiatory acts). And in spite of their intensity, neurotic defenses are less successful than normal defenses in staving off anxiety and banishing unacceptable impulses—for this reason the un conscious forces often express themselves in pathological symptoms such as bodily ailments, insomnia, rituals, anxiety attacks, and phobias.

Cite this page: N., Sam M.S., "DEFENSE MECHANISM (Ego Defense Mechanism)," in PsychologyDictionary.org, November 28, 2018, https://psychologydictionary.org/defense-mechanism-ego-defense-mechanism/ (accessed August 17, 2022).

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