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Defense Mechanisms

Psychoanalysis and psychodynamic theory have described the process by which we protect ourselves from awareness of our undesired and feared impulses. Defense mechanisms are our way of distancing ourselves from a full awareness of unpleasant thoughts, feelings and desires.

In psychoanalytic theory, defense mechanisms represent an unconscious mediation by the ego of id impulses which are in conflict with the wishes and needs of the ego and/or superego. By altering and distorting one's awareness of the original impulse, one makes it more tolerable.

However, while defense mechanisms are used in an attempt to protect oneself from unpleasant emotions, they often result in equally harmful problems.  Below are some of the more common defense mechanisms.

Compartmentalization is a process of separating parts of the self from awareness of other parts and behaving as if one had separate sets of values. An example might be an honest person who cheats on their income tax return and keeps their two value systems distinct and unintegrated while remaining unconscious of the cognitive dissonance.

Compensation is a process of psychologically counterbalancing perceived weaknesses by emphasizing strength in other arenas. The "I'm not a fighter, I'm a lover" philosophy can be an example of compensation as can the Napoleonic complex.

Denial is the refusal to accept reality and to act as if a painful event, thought or feeling did not exist. It is considered one of the most primitive of the defense mechanisms because it is characteristic of very early childhood development.

Displacement is the redirecting of thoughts feelings and impulses from an object that gives rise to anxiety to a safer, more acceptable one. Being angry at the boss and kicking the dog can be an example of displacement.

Fantasy, when used as a defense mechanism, is the channeling of unacceptable or unattainable desires into imagination. This can protect ones self esteem as when educational, vocational or social expectations are not being met, one imagines success in these areas and wards off self condemnation.

Intellectualization is the use of a cognitive approach without  the attendant emotions to suppress and attempt to gain mastery over the perceived disorderly and potentially overwhelming impulses. An example might be an individual who when told they had a life threatening disease focuses exclusively on the statistical percentages of recovery and is unable to cope with their fear and sadness.

Projection is the attribution of one's undesired impulses onto another. Thus, an angry spouse accuses their partner of hostility.

Rationalization is the cognitive reframing of ones perceptions to protect the ego in the face of changing realities. Thus, the promotion one wished fervently for and didn't get becomes "a dead end job for brown nosers and yes men".

Reaction Formation is the converting of wishes or impulses that are perceived to be dangerous into their opposites. A woman who is furious at her child and wishes her harm might become overly concerned and protective of the child's health.

Regression is the reversion to an earlier stage of development in the face of unacceptable impulses. For an example an adolescent who is overwhelmed with fear, anger and growing sexual impulses might become clinging and begin thumb sucking or bed wetting.

Repression is the blocking of unacceptable impulses from consciousness.

Sublimation is the channeling of unacceptable impulses into more acceptable outlets.

Undoing is the attempt to take back behavior or thoughts that are unacceptable. An example of undoing would be excessively praising someone after having insulted them.




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