In psychoanalytic theory, an often unconscious mental process (such as repression) that makes possible compromise solutions to personal problems or conflicts. The compromise generally involves concealing from oneself internal drives or feelings that threaten to lower self-esteem or provoke anxiety. The term was first used by Sigmund Freud in 1894. The major defense mechanisms are repression, the process by which unacceptable desires or impulses are excluded from consciousness; reaction formation, a mental or emotional response that represents the opposite of what one really feels; projection, the attribution of one's own ideas, feelings, or attitudes (especially blame, guilt, or sense of responsibility) to others; regression, reversion to an earlier mental or behavioral level; denial, the refusal to accept the existence of a painful fact; rationalization, the substitution of rational and creditable motives for the true (but threatening) ones; and sublimation, the diversion of an instinctual desire or impulse from its primitive form to a more socially or culturally acceptable form. Seealso ego; neurosis; psychoanalysis.
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In Freudian psychoanalytic theory, defence mechanisms or defense mechanisms (see -ce/-se) are psychological strategies brought into play by various entities to cope with reality and to maintain self-image. Healthy persons normally use different defences throughout life. An ego defence mechanism becomes pathological only when its persistent use leads to maladaptive behavior such that the physical and/or mental health of the individual is adversely affected. The purpose of the Ego Defence Mechanisms is to protect the mind/self/ego from anxiety, social sanctions or to provide a refuge from a situation with which one cannot currently cope.
They are more accurately referred to as ego defence mechanisms, and can thus be categorized as occurring when the id impulses are in conflict with each other, when the id impulses conflict with super-ego values and beliefs, and when an external threat is posed to the ego.
The term "defence mechanism" is often thought to refer to a definitive singular term for personality traits which arise due to loss or traumatic experiences, but more accurately refers to several types of reactions which were identified during and after daughter Anna Freud's time.
The concept of id impulses comes from Sigmund Freud’s structural model. According to this theory, id impulses are based on the pleasure principle: instant gratification of one’s own desires and needs. Sigmund Freud believed that the id represents biological instinctual impulses in ourselves, such as aggression (Thanatos or the Death instinct) and sexuality (Eros or the Life instinct). For example, when the id impulses (e.g. desire to have sexual relations with a stranger) conflict with the superego (e.g. belief in societal conventions of not having sex with unknown persons), the feelings of anxiety come to the surface. To reduce these negative feelings, the ego might use defence mechanisms.
Freud also believed that conflicts between these two structures resulted in conflicts associated with psychosexual stages.
Freud proposed three structures of the psyche or personality:
In the ego, there are two ongoing processes. First, there is the unconscious primary process, where the thoughts are not organized in a coherent way, the feelings can shift, contradictions are not in conflict or are just not perceived that way, and condensations arise. There is no logic and no time line. Lust is important for this process. By contrast, there is the conscious secondary process, where strong boundaries are set and thoughts must be organized in a coherent way. Most conscious thoughts originate here.
Id impulses are not appropriate for civilized society, so society presses us to modify the pleasure principle in favor of the reality principle; that is, the requirements of the external world.
The superego forms as the child grows and learns parental and social standards. The superego consists of two structures: the conscience, which stores information about what is "bad" and what has been punished and the ego ideal, which stores information about what is "good" and what one "should" do or be. (Interestingly, the Freudian conscience became cognitive-behavioral therapist Albert Ellis' focus)
When anxiety becomes too overwhelming it is then the place of the ego to employ defence mechanisms to protect the individual. Feelings of guilt, embarrassment and shame often accompany the feeling of anxiety. In the first definitive book on defence mechanisms, Ego and mechanisms of defense (1936), Anna Freud introduced the concept of signal anxiety; she stated that it was "not directly a conflicted instinctual tension but a signal occurring in the ego of an anticipated instinctual tension". The signaling function of anxiety is thus seen as a crucial one and biologically adapted to warn the organism of danger or a threat to its equilibrium. The anxiety is felt as an increase in bodily or mental tension and the signal that the organism receives in this way allows it the possibility of taking defensive action towards the perceived danger. Defence mechanisms work by distorting the id impulses into acceptable forms, or by unconscious blockage of these impulses.
These mechanisms are often present in adults and more commonly present in adolescence. These mechanisms lessen distress and anxiety provoked by threatening people or by uncomfortable reality. People who excessively use such defences are seen as socially undesirable in that they are immature, difficult to deal with and seriously out of touch with reality. These are the so-called "immature" defences and overuse almost always lead to serious problems in a person's ability to cope effectively. These defences are often seen in severe depression and personality disorders. In adolescence, the occurrence of all of these defences is normal.
These mechanisms are considered neurotic, but fairly common in adults. Such defences have short-term advantages in coping, but can often cause long-term problems in relationships, work and in enjoying life when used as one's primary style of coping with the world.
Otto Kernberg (1967) has developed a theory of borderline personality organization (which one consequence may be borderline personality disorder). His theory is based on ego psychological object relations theory. Borderline personality organization develops when the child cannot integrate positive and negative mental objects together. Kernberg views the use of primitive defence mechanisms central to this personality organization. Primitive psychological defences are projection, denial, dissociation or splitting, and they are called borderline defence mechanisms. Also devaluation and projective identification are seen as borderline defences.
In George Eman Vaillant's (1977) categorization defences form a continuum regarding to their psychoanalytical developmental level . Levels are:
Robert Plutchik's (1979) theory views defenses as derivatives of basic emotions. Defence mechanisms in his theory are (in order of placement in circumplex model): reaction formation, denial, repression, regression, compensation, projection, displacement, intellectualization.
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) published by American Psychiatric Association (1994) includes tentative diagnostic axis for defence mechanisms . This classification is largely based on Vaillant's hierarchical view of defences, but has some modifications.