Ego Defense Mechanisms

Anxiety, incivility, and intolerance seem to be rampant these days. In addition to being a threat to our physical health, Covid 19 is undermining our mental health as it creates the perfect storm for impairing positive human relationships. The following article explores this idea from a psychological perspective.

The ego is the I, the self of any person. It is the part that is in contact with the external world, e.g. living with Covid 19. Defense mechanisms are the ego’s unconscious psychological responses designed to protect the individual from what feels threatening and things they don’t want to think about.  

These unconscious psychological responses were originally theorized by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud as a means for the ego to protect itself. A lengthy list of defense mechanisms is well documented in psychological literature. These defense mechanisms can be both adaptive and maladaptive, although they are most often the latter.

We cannot change what we do not consciously know or understand. Therefore, if we are using defense mechanisms in a maladaptive way, it can be helpful to gain more understanding about it, reflect on our behaviour and make positive changes to positively reinforce important relationships.

It is self-awareness, self-regulation and self-compassion that allows each of us to be the best version of ourselves. This is who most of us truly want to be. We want to live authentically, and we want to feel fully satisfied in the critical relationships in our lives. 

I’ve included two reflective questions at the end of this article in case you feel moved to examine your behaviour and perhaps muse a bit about that of others close to you. The best way to do that would be through a compassionate lens.

Here are a few examples of defense mechanisms you may have engaged in yourself and/or witnessed in close relationships. A note of caution: It’s probably best not to confront the “others” in your life about defense mechanisms you may have witnessed them using, outside of a counselling room (smile).

Denial

Denial is probably one of the best-known ego defense mechanisms. It involves an individual’s refusal to admit or recognize that they have a problem. People living with drug or alcohol addiction typically use this defense mechanism.

Another example of denial is individuals refusing to acknowledge or admit to Trauma they have experienced. When a person has not healed from pain or suffering, that unresolved burden is carried forward into their life and their relationships.

In an adaptive way, denial can function to avoid dealing with stress or painful emotions. In the short term, denial may have a useful purpose by allowing for time to adjust, accept or adapt to the change. Over the long term, however, denial tends to lead to relationship difficulties. 

Displacement

Displacement involves taking out one’s frustrations, feelings, and impulses on other people or objects that are less threatening. Displaced aggression is a common example of this defense mechanism.

In a work setting, rather than risking the negative consequences of discussing an unwelcome increased workload assigned by your manager, frustration may be displaced onto a colleague or a direct report. Another common example is the person who has had a difficult day at work and then goes home and takes it out on their spouse, children, or pets, who pose no threat. 

Most of us have witnessed displacement in action. From life experience, I also believe displacement is common when a person is suffering from intense discomfort or pain. Their ego may be telling them they have to be tough or grin and bear it; but they simply cannot, so displacement onto their caregiver becomes the maladaptive response.

Projection

Projection involves taking one’s feelings or unacceptable qualities and ascribing them to other people. Examples include:

Having a strong dislike for someone but instead you hold the belief they do not like you.
A father regularly criticizes his daughter for interrupting him while he's talking, when in fact, father regularly interrupts his daughter.
A person who feels insecure about their professional competences who regularly mocks others about their lack of ability.

Projection works to reduce anxiety in the person by allowing the expression of the impulse in a way that the ego cannot recognize.

Repression

Repression is the unconscious blocking of unpleasant emotions, impulses, memories, and thoughts from the conscious mind, making these things no longer accessible to the person’s consciousness. The purpose of this defense mechanism is to try to minimize feelings of guilt, shame, and anxiety.

Compensation

Compensation refers to an individual’s attempt to make up for what they consider to be their flaws or shortcomings or for dissatisfaction in one area of their lives. These flaws or shortcomings may be real or imaginary; psychological or physical.

An example is a young boy at school being teased by others about his slim build. In response, he undertakes an intense exercise program, drinks protein shakes, and is very diligent in his strength training. He puts on a great deal of muscle mass, and his body changes, thus obtaining the desired result. The boy is compensating for what he considers to be a physical flaw through strength training.

Intellectualization

This defense mechanism involves excessive overthinking or overanalyzing, which serves to distance the person from her emotions. Rather than exploring the situation fully, and how it may be impacting herself emotionally, she will focus only on the intellectual component. 

An example is someone who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness and immerses themselves in learning everything about the disease to avoid feeling the actual distress and perhaps fear of the actual situation. 

Reflection Questions:

Consider which defense mechanism(s) you use the most often, why you may be doing that and what you might choose to do differently?
Reflect on the defense mechanisms you have witnessed in others and how it has left you feeling about the relationship. 

Take good care of yourselves,  

Love Kathleen

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