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together we can change ourself

The defense mechanisms -Freud

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The defense mechanisms

The ego deals with the demands of reality, the id, and the superego as best as it can. But when the anxiety becomes overwhelming, the ego must defend itself. It does so by unconsciously blocking the impulses or distorting them into a more acceptable, less threatening form. The techniques are called the ego defense mechanisms, and Freud, his daughter Anna, and other disciples have discovered quite a few.

Denial involves blocking external events from awareness. If some situation is just too much to handle, the person just refuses to experience it. As you might imagine, this is a primitive and dangerous defense — no one disregards reality and gets away with it for long! It can operate by itself or, more commonly, in combination with other, more subtle mechanisms that support it.
I was once reading while my five year old daughter was watching a cartoon (The Smurfs, I think). She was, as was her habit, quite close to the television, when a commercial came on. Apparently, no-one at the television station was paying much attention, because this was a commercial for a horror movie, complete with bloody knife, hockey mask, and screams of terror. Now I wasn’t able to save my child from this horror, so I did what any good psychologist father would do: I talked about it. I said to her “Boy, that was a scary commercial, wasn’t it?” She said “Huh?” I said “That commercial…it sure was scary wasn’t it?” She said “What commercial?” I said “The commercial that was just on, with the blood and the mask and the screaming…!” She had apparently shut out the whole thing.

Since then, I’ve noticed little kids sort of glazing over when confronted by things they’d rather not be confronted by. I’ve also seen people faint at autopsies, people deny the reality of the death of a loved one, and students fail to pick up their test results. That’s denial.
Anna Freud also mentions denial in fantasy: This is when children, in their imaginations, transform an “evil” father into a loving teddy bear, or a helpless child into a powerful superhero.
Repression, which Anna Freud also called “motivated forgetting,” is just that: not being able to recall a threatening situation, person, or event. This, too, is dangerous, and is a part of most other defenses.

As an adolescent, I developed a rather strong fear of spiders, especially long-legged ones. I didn’t know where it came from, but it was starting to get rather embarrassing by the time I entered college. At college, a counselor helped me to get over it (with a technique called systematic desensitization), but I still had no idea where it came from. Years later, I had a dream, a particularly clear one, that involved getting locked up by my cousin in a shed behind my grandparents’ house when I was very young. The shed was small, dark, and had a dirt floor covered with — you guessed it! — long-legged spiders.

The Freudian understanding of this phobia is pretty simple: I repressed a traumatic event — the shed incident — but seeing spiders aroused the anxiety of the event without arousing the memory.

Other examples abound. Anna Freud provides one that now strikes us as quaint: A young girl, guilty about her rather strong sexual desires, tends to forget her boy-friend’s name, even when trying to introduce him to her relations! Or an alcoholic can’t remember his suicide attempt, claiming he must have “blacked out.” Or a someone almost drowns as a child, but can’t remember the event even when people try to remind him — but he does have this fear of open water!

Note that, to be a true example of a defense, it should function unconsciously. My brother had a fear of dogs as a child, but there was no defense involved: He had been bitten by one, and wanted very badly never to repeat the experience! Usually, it is the irrational fears we call phobias that derive from repression of traumas.

Asceticism, or the renunciation of needs, is one most people haven’t heard of, but it has become relevant again today with the emergence of the disorder called anorexia. Preadolescents, when they feel threatened by their emerging sexual desires, may unconsciously try to protect themselves by denying, not only their sexual desires, but all desires. They get involved in some kind of ascetic (monk-like) lifestyle wherein they renounce their interest in what other people enjoy.

In boys nowadays, there is a great deal of interest in the self-discipline of the martial arts. Fortunately, the martial arts not only don’t hurt you (much), they may actually help you. Unfortunately, girls in our society often develop a great deal of interest in attaining an excessively and artificially thin standard of beauty. In Freudian theory, their denial of their need for food is actually a cover for their denial of their sexual development. Our society conspires with them: After all, what most societies consider a normal figure for a mature woman is in ours considered 20 pounds overweight!

Anna Freud also discusses a milder version of this called restriction of ego. Here, a person loses interest in some aspect of life and focuses it elsewhere, in order to avoid facing reality. A young girl who has been rejected by the object of her affections may turn away from feminine things and become a “sex-less intellectual,” or a boy who is afraid that he may be humiliated on the football team may unaccountably become deeply interested in poetry.

Isolation (sometimes called intellectualization) involves stripping the emotion from a difficult memory or threatening impulse. A person may, in a very cavalier manner, acknowledge that they had been abused as a child, or may show a purely intellectual curiosity in their newly discovered sexual orientation. Something that should be a big deal is treated as if it were not.
In emergency situations, many people find themselves completely calm and collected until the emergency is over, at which point they fall to pieces. Something tells you that, during the emergency, you can’t afford to fall apart. It is common to find someone totally immersed in the social obligations surrounding the death of a loved one. Doctors and nurses must learn to separate their natural reactions to blood, wounds, needles, and scalpels, and treat the patient, temporarily, as something less than a warm, wonderful human being with friends and family.

Adolescents often go through a stage where they are obsessed with horror movies, perhaps to come to grips with their own fears. Nothing demonstrates isolation more clearly than a theater full of people laughing hysterically while someone is shown being dismembered.
Displacement is the redirection of an impulse onto a substitute target. If the impulse, the desire, is okay with you, but the person you direct that desire towards is too threatening, you can displace to someone or something that can serve as a symbolic substitute.
S
omeone who hates his or her mother may repress that hatred, but direct it instead towards, say, women in general. Someone who has not had the chance to love someone may substitute cats or dogs for human beings. Someone who feels uncomfortable with their sexual desire for a real person may substitute a fetish. Someone who is frustrated by his or her superiors may go home and kick the dog, beat up a family member, or engage in cross-burnings.

Turning against the self is a very special form of displacement, where the person becomes their own substitute target. It is normally used in reference to hatred, anger, and aggression, rather than more positive impulses, and it is the Freudian explanation for many of our feelings of inferiority, guilt, and depression. The idea that depression is often the result of the anger we refuse to acknowledge is accepted by many people, Freudians and non-Freudians alike.

Once upon a time, at a time when I was not feeling my best, my daughter, five years old, spilled an entire glass of chocolate milk in the living room. I lashed out at her verbally, telling her she was clumsy and had to learn to be more careful and how often hadn’t I told her and…well, you know. She stood there stiffly with a sort of smoldering look in her eyes, and, of all things, pounded herself on her own head several times! Obviously, she would rather have pounded my head, but, well, you just don’t do that, do you? Needless to say, I’ve felt guilty ever since.

Projection, which Anna Freud also called displacement outward, is almost the complete opposite of turning against the self. It involves the tendency to see your own unacceptable desires in other people. In other words, the desires are still there, but they’re not your desires anymore. I confess that whenever I hear someone going on and on about how aggressive everybody is, or how perverted they all are, I tend to wonder if this person doesn’t have an aggressive or sexual streak in themselves that they’d rather not acknowledge.

Let me give you a couple of examples: A husband, a good and faithful one, finds himself terribly attracted to the charming and flirtatious lady next door. But rather than acknowledge his own, hardly abnormal, lusts, he becomes increasingly jealous of his wife, constantly worried about her faithfulness, and so on. Or a woman finds herself having vaguely sexual feelings about her girlfriends. Instead of acknowledging those feelings as quite normal, she becomes increasingly concerned with the presence of lesbians in her community.

Altruistic surrender is a form of projection that at first glance looks like its opposite: Here, the person attempts to fulfill his or her own needs vicariously, through other people.
A common example of this is the friend (we’ve all had one) who, while not seeking any relationship himself, is constantly pushing other people into them, and is particularly curious as to “what happened last night” and “how are things going?” The extreme example of altruistic surrender is the person who lives their whole life for and through another.

Reaction formation, which Anna Freud called “believing the opposite,” is changing an unacceptable impulse into its opposite. So a child, angry at his or her mother, may become overly concerned with her and rather dramatically shower her with affection. An abused child may run to the abusing parent. Or someone who can’t accept a homosexual impulse may claim to despise homosexuals.

Perhaps the most common and clearest example of reaction formation is found in children between seven and eleven or so: Most boys will tell you in no uncertain terms how disgusting girls are, and girls will tell you with equal vigor how gross boys are. Adults watching their interactions, however, can tell quite easily what their true feelings are!

Undoing involves “magical” gestures or rituals that are meant to cancel out unpleasant thoughts or feelings after they’ve already occurred. Anna Freud mentions, for example, a boy who would recite the alphabet backwards whenever he had a sexual thought, or turn around and spit whenever meeting another boy who shared his passion for masturbation.

In “normal” people, the undoing is, of course, more conscious, and we might engage in an act of atonement for some behavior, or formally ask for forgiveness. But in some people, the act of atonement isn’t conscious at all. Consider the alcoholic father who, after a year of verbal and perhaps physical abuse, puts on the best and biggest Christmas ever for his kids. When the season is over, and the kids haven’t quite been fooled by his magical gesture, he returns to his bartender with complaints about how ungrateful his family is, and how they drive him to drink.

One of the classic examples of undoing concerns personal hygiene following sex: It is perfectly reasonable to wash up after sex. After all, it can get messy! But if you feel the need to take three or four complete showers using gritty soap — perhaps sex doesn’t quite agree with you.

Introjection, sometimes called identification, involves taking into your own personality characteristics of someone else, because doing so solves some emotional difficulty. For example, a child who is left alone frequently, may in some way try to become “mom” in order to lessen his or her fears. You can sometimes catch them telling their dolls or animals not to be afraid. And we find the older child or teenager imitating his or her favorite star, musician, or sports hero in an effort to establish an identity.

A more unusual example is a woman who lived next to my grandparents. Her husband had died and she began to dress in his clothes, albeit neatly tailored to her figure. She began to take up various of his habits, such as smoking a pipe. Although the neighbors found it strange and referred to her as “the man-woman,” she was not suffering from any confusion about her sexual identity. In fact, she later remarried, retaining to the end her men’s suits and pipe!
I must add here that identification is very important to Freudian theory as the mechanism by which we develop our superegos.

Identification with the aggressor is a version of introjection that focuses on the adoption, not of general or positive traits, but of negative or feared traits. If you are afraid of someone, you can partially conquer that fear by becoming more like them. Two of my daughters, growing up with a particularly moody cat, could often be seen meowing, hissing, spitting, and arching their backs in an effort to keep that cat from springing out of a closet or dark corner and trying to eat their ankles.

A more dramatic example is one called the Stockholm Syndrome. After a hostage crisis in Stockholm, psychologists were surprised to find that the hostages were not only not terribly angry at their captors, but often downright sympathetic. A more recent case involved a young woman named Patty Hearst, of the wealthy and influential Hearst family. She was captured by a very small group of self-proclaimed revolutionaries called the Symbionese Liberation Army. She was kept in closets, raped, and otherwise mistreated. Yet she apparently decided to join them, making little propaganda videos for them and even waving a machine gun around during a bank robbery. When she was later tried, psychologists strongly suggested she was a victim, not a criminal. She was nevertheless convicted of bank robbery and sentenced to 7 years in prison. Her sentence was commuted by President Carter after 2 years.

Regression is a movement back in psychological time when one is faced with stress. When we are troubled or frightened, our behaviors often become more childish or primitive. A child may begin to suck their thumb again or wet the bed when they need to spend some time in the hospital.

Teenagers may giggle uncontrollably when introduced into a social situation involving the opposite sex. A freshman college student may need to bring an old toy from home. A gathering of civilized people may become a violent mob when they are led to believe their livelihoods are at stake. Or an older man, after spending twenty years at a company and now finding himself laid off, may retire to his recliner and become childishly dependent on his wife.

Where do we retreat when faced with stress? To the last time in life when we felt safe and secure, according to Freudian theory.

Rationalization is the cognitive distortion of “the facts” to make an event or an impulse less threatening. We do it often enough on a fairly conscious level when we provide ourselves with excuses. But for many people, with sensitive egos, making excuses comes so easy that they never are truly aware of it. In other words, many of us are quite prepared to believe our lies.

A useful way of understanding the defenses is to see them as a combination of denial or repression with various kinds of rationalizations.

All defenses are, of course, lies, even if we are not conscious of making them. But that doesn’t make them less dangerous — in fact it makes them more so. As your grandma may have told you, “Oh what a tangled web we weave…” Lies breed lies, and take us further and further from the truth, from reality. After a while, the ego can no longer take care of the id’s demands, or pay attention to the superego’s. The anxieties come rushing back, and you break down.
And yet Freud saw defenses as necessary. You can hardly expect a person, especially a child, to take the pain and sorrow of life full on! While some of his followers suggested that all of the defenses could be used positively, Freud himself suggested that there was one positive defense, which he called sublimation.

Sublimation is the transforming of an unacceptable impulse, whether it be sex, anger, fear, or whatever, into a socially acceptable, even productive form. So someone with a great deal of hostility may become a hunter, a butcher, a football player, or a mercenary. Someone suffering from a great deal of anxiety in a confusing world may become an organizer, a businessperson, or a scientist. Someone with powerful sexual desires may become an artist, a photographer, or a novelist, and so on. For Freud, in fact, all positive, creative activities were sublimations, and predominantly of the sex drive.

Written by Bhushan Kulkarni

May 25, 2007 at 7:44 am

Posted in Freud

Tagged with , ,

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