The Wisdom of Defense Mechanisms

Managing the internal weather: The concept of psychological defenses

Posted Feb 21, 2018

“A fever is a coping response, not a sign of illness.” 

George Vaillant

Like all living systems, we human beings have evolved multiple mechanisms for defending against threats to our survival and physical integrity. The immune system is one example; blood clotting another; the fight-or-flight mechanism embedded in our nervous system yet another. It, therefore, is intuitive to assume that similar defensive mechanisms have evolved in human beings to protect and promote the integrity of our psychological architecture—our sense of self, identity, and esteem.

Working at the turn of the 20th century, Sigmund Freud was first to describe a psychological defense system as part of the human psychic architecture. To understand Freud’s notion of ‘defense mechanisms,’ a quick primer on Freudian theory is in order. For Freud, the human personality emerged from the interplay of three psychic structures: id, ego, and superego. The id is the source of life energy (libido). The newborn is all id, wishing only to embrace sensory pleasure and reject painful, unpleasant stimuli. The problem is that ids lack a capacity for self-preservation or considered judgment. Thus, a person who’s all id is unlikely to survive and incapable of cooperating with others. My id sees your iPhone, covets it, and grabs it. You are not pleased, and we have conflict—which is a problem because we are herd animals by nature, relying on tight, coherently organized groups in order to survive.

Later in childhood, the ego develops. The ego, akin to our sense of self, seeks to manage id impulses while avoiding self-destruction. When my id covets your iPhone, my ego plots to grab it when you’re not looking. This is an improvement as it avoids open conflict; alas problems remain since we can still not trust each other. A lack of trust makes high-level group cooperation difficult.

Further along the line, a superego develops, constituting our moral compass, the right vs. wrong distinctions received from the group via our parents. Now you can go take care of business knowing that I won’t take your iPhone because my superego reminds me that it’s wrong to steal. The influence of the superego thus serves to moderate our id (impulsiveness) and ego (selfishness) in service of shoring up the cooperative social project—civilization—upon which our individual lives depend.

As you can see, this system involves inherent tension, as the ego tries to serve three rival masters: the id, seeking immediate sensual gratification, the superego, dictating moral propriety, and the conditions of reality, which often put obstacles or temptations in front of us that we can’t ignore or wish away.

Sometimes, the powerful id impulses agitate and threaten to overtake the ego, disorganize our sense of self, and shatter our integrity. This agitation creates anxiety. To counter it, the ego deploys unconscious defense mechanisms, all of which involve some measure of reality distortion in the service of anxiety reduction.

Freud discussed several such defense mechanisms including denial (a refusal to acknowledge threatening facts: “he ain’t dead, he’s just asleep”), reaction formation (acting in opposite way of one’s true feeling: I’m insecure about my masculinity so I behave in an exaggeratedly macho way), displacement (pointing impulses toward a nonthreatening target: I’m mad at my boss so I kick my cat), and sublimation (channeling destructive impulses toward socially approved ends: I have strong aggressive impulses, so I become a football player).

In a testament to the intuitive appeal and potential utility of the idea of psychological defenses, multiple post-Freudian theorists and researchers, each working within his or her own—at times adversarial—explanatory systems, have converged quite independently around versions of the same concept.

For example, having studied with Freud for a while before feuding bitterly with him, Alfred Adler soon diverged to establish his own school of thought in psychology. Adler’s theory countered Freud on many counts, yet he too came up with a version of defense mechanisms, which he called ‘safeguarding strategies.’

For Adler, our most fundamental motivation is to overcome our initial inferiority. In healthy individuals, this journey is framed within our innate communal orientation, which Adler called, ‘social interest’—the need to belong, and to cooperate with others. Certain childhood circumstances, however, may cause a child to elect an unhealthy lifestyle, by which she tries to overcome her sense of inferiority without regard for the social interest. For Adler, people who choose mistaken lifestyles know that they are manipulative and useless socially and are afraid to be found out. Thus they deploy safeguarding strategies, such as aggression (“you messed me up; my failure is your fault”), distancing (“I’ll get to it tomorrow”), excuses (“if only I were not so unlucky, I would have succeeded”), and depreciation (“you’re nothing without me”), to protect against loss of esteem.

In the late 1930s another of Freud’s disciples who later distanced herself from him, Karen Horney, provided her own elegant version of the defensive maneuver. For Horney, dealing with others poses an inherent problem for us to solve. In particular, neglectful, abusive, or merely indifferent parents create an early problem for their children by provoking anger and anxiety. To defend against the pain of dealing with others, the children may choose one of three common strategies: they may learn to dominate others, to please others, or to avoid them.  

The well-known concept of ‘cognitive dissonance,’ proposed in the 1950s by the social psychologist Leon Festinger, also amounts to a description of a stealthy psychological defensive maneuver. According to Festinger, we strive to find harmony between our actions and attitudes. A lack of agreement between the two leads to a feeling of tension—a dissonance—which we are then motivated to relieve by either changing the attitude to fit the action or vice versa. So a smoker who reads the research on lung cancer will feel compelled to either quit smoking or dismiss the science, thus defending against internal conflict.

In the late 1950s, the influential American humanist psychologist Carl Rogers, working within his own framework, also incorporated the concept of defense into his theorizing. For Rogers, a failure to follow one’s authentic inner voice leads to incongruity between the real and ideal self—between your genuine experience of who you are and the socially influenced construction of who you think you should be. This gap causes anxiety, and to deal with it, we use two defenses: denial and perceptual distortion. “The process of defense … consists of the selective perception or distortion of the experience and/or the denial to awareness of the experience or some portion thereof...”

In the 60s and through the 1970s, the existentialist school of thought in psychology, led by Rollo May, also addressed itself to the notion. While rejecting Freudian ideas as overly deterministic and mechanistic, the existentialists spoke of ways by which people seek to avoid encountering, facing, and shouldering the anxiety stemming from the realization of death. May wrote about the existence in all of us of daimonic forces—those powerful motivations that if left unchecked can overtake and derail our lives, like greed, sexual desire, hunger for power, etc.

To the existentialists, we must face the awareness of these forces head on if we are to be free and live fully and authentically. Alas, many people defend against the burden of freedom by avoiding contact with the full awareness of death. They do so by various means such as dissociation, conformity, or conventionality—following mindlessly the prescribed routes of the herd, or getting over-involved in trivial matters. The incessant, noisy, manufactured, and inconsequential drama of our ‘reality shows,’ to use a contemporary example, serves mainly to distract us from, well, reality.

In the late 1990s Albert Bandura, working within the social-cognitive school of thought, proposed his own version of the concept of defense mechanisms. Bandura argued that we use a set of perceptual and cognitive distortions to exonerate ourselves from our immoral conduct and justify selfish and destructive behavior. These ‘self-exoneration mechanisms’ include displacement of responsibility (“I was just following orders”), devaluing the other (“our enemies are barbarians”), and advantageous comparison (“I stole people’s money, but I didn’t kill anyone”).

More recently, the concept of psychological defenses has been incorporated into the broader scholarly interest in the notion of ‘coping strategies,’ particularly with regard to how people deal with stress, trauma, threats to self-esteem and social status, and life adaptation challenges. 

This makes conceptual sense as both ‘coping strategies’ and ‘defense mechanisms’ are in essence behavioral dispositions involved in self-regulation, adjustment, and adaptation processes. Still, contemporary researchers have attempted to distinguish between them, viewing the former as conscious, intentional, mostly adaptive, and aimed chiefly at external challenges, and the latter as unconscious, unintentional, potentially maladaptive, and aimed chiefly at managing internal discomfort, although the definitional boundaries remain somewhat blurry. 

The old concept of ‘defense mechanisms’ is also now being usefully reframed in the contemporary terms of neuroscience research as a form of ‘emotional regulation.’ Research has suggested that—in line with current conceptualizations of coping and defense mechanisms—emotion regulation efforts operate on a dual track of explicit (conscious attempts to manage emotional experience) and implicit (automatized, non-conscious adaptations to emotional threat or stress) mechanisms, which can be shown to involve distinct brain regions. 

Perhaps the most influential work to date on the importance of defenses to people’s wellbeing has come from Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant, who has taken Freud’s ideas, organized them empirically into distinct categories, and applied them to the longitudinal study of people’s adaptation to life. In Vaillant’s system, defenses are “unconscious homeostatic mechanisms that reduce the disorganizing effects of sudden stress.”

They can be adaptive or even creative, as well as pathological, and while often invisible to their users, to the observer they appear odd and at times annoying.

Defenses in Vaillant’s system are dynamic, and they are organized along a continuum of immature-to-mature. Thus, for example, the immature defense of adolescent acting out (e.g., impulsive shoplifting) may with time gradually evolve into reaction formation (becoming a strict policeman) and finally into mature altruism (becoming a volunteer teacher in the local prison).

Vaillant organized defenses into a four-tiered hierarchy. At the bottom level are the most unhealthy, psychotic defensesdelusional projection, psychotic denial, and psychotic distortion. These involve an attempt to deal with reality by psychologically fleeing from it.

At the second level are immature defensesacting out; passive aggression (such as cutting); dissociation (common after childhood abuse), and projection (paranoid ideas).

The third level is neurotic defenses. Defensive functioning at this level keeps potentially threatening ideas or feelings out of awareness. Examples are displacement, isolation of effect and its opposite, feeling without thinking, and repression. These defenses often manifest as phobias, compulsions, somatizations, and amnesias. In contrast to the lower level defenses, these defenses tend to make those who employ them more uncomfortable than those who observe them.

On the highest level are mature defenses, the use of which tends to increase with age. These defenses serve mainly to amplify gratification and satisfaction by increasing the user’s conscious attentiveness to feelings, ideas, and their consequences. The main defenses at this level are: 

Sublimation: converting nervous energy into constructive projects.

Suppression: keeping the lid on negative emotions so as to prevent them from becoming destructive your pursuit of your goals and values (waiting to express your anger at your spouse until after the dinner party)

Anticipation: investing in preparation and planning as a way to reduce anxiety and stress.

Altruism: deriving satisfaction, perspective, and meaning from employing your resources and talents to help others.

Humor: the ability to see the funny, comical, or ironic aspects of a stressful or potentially upsetting situation.

Vaillant’s work has shown over the past seventy years that defense ‘maturity’ is a distinctive dimension of mental resilience and is predictive of adult health and well-being outcomes.

In other words, people who use mature defenses such as humor, preparation, and altruism are more likely to end up living a good life than those who rely on immature defenses such as denial, projection, dissociation, etc.

In sum, converging theories and lines of evidence from myriad sources attest to the usefulness of the concept of defenses in thinking about the human psyche. From this perspective, it’s not whether you encounter hardship, but how you manage it that wins the game. More specifically, the evidence regarding the usefulness of ‘mature defenses’ amounts to sound advice for life: Adaptive management of life’s challenges involves developing the habits of mind (and behavior) that will allow you to harness your energy toward productive pursuits, control your emotions rather than letting them control you, prepare well for the challenges ahead, be kind and useful to others, and laugh.

In other words: find a hobby, don’t fight with your spouse in front of the guests, help the old lady cross the street, pack a sandwich for the long trip, and read the funnies.

Not a bad good-life formula…