What are Defense Mechanisms

In Freudian psychology, ego defense mechanisms are strategies through which the ego manages the inherent conflict between the id and superego. The id is impulsive, childish and pleasure seeking while the superego is normative and moralistic. Defense mechanisms are tactics/strategies that the ego uses to cope with anxieties that arise from this conflict. Individuals also use them to maintain their self-image.

Defense mechanisms are not necessarily maladaptive or inappropriate. In some cases, they are positive and socially acceptable reactions to impulses that we have.All ego defensive mechanisms are habitual or unconscious and seek to affect reality in some way. Usually, they represent attempts to transform, distort or falsify reality (or perceptions at least). There is also a fine distinction between defense mechanisms and coping mechanisms. Coping mechanisms are characterized as conscious and rational, whereas defense mechanisms are irrational and subliminal.

Freudian psychologists consider ego defense mechanisms as natural responses to various forms of anxiety. These anxieties could be reality anxiety (often a fear of something physical), neurotic anxiety (an unconscious fear that arises from the need to restrict the id) and moral anxiety (fear of breaking social and moral codes). Psychologists typically classify defense mechanisms according to the anxieties that they address. Freudian psychology perceives this phenomenon as a tension-reducing tactic.

There exist several types of defense mechanisms. George Vaillant’s classification of defense mechanism breaks the plethora of these into four levels:

i) Psychotic defenses
ii) Immature defenses
iii) Neurotic defenses
iv) Mature defenses

Psychotic defenses are harmful, maladaptive mechanisms that can affect the development of an individual and lead to deeper psychological issues. These include psychotic delusions and psychotic projection. Attributing a deviant act to an improbable cause is an instance of psychotic defense.

Read also: What is Intellectualization – another Defense Mechanism

Immature defenses are those that we used in childhood and which some individuals continue to use through adolescence and adulthood. Tantrums, fantasies and projection are common forms of this second level of defense mechanisms. Playing the ‘blame game’ is a classic example of an immature defense.

Neurotic defenses are used by adults and represent ways of preventing the impulses and desires of the id from surfacing or being revealed. Tactics include intellectualization, justification, repression and displacement. Persons who attribute problems that they are experiencing to external stimuli or other persons use this level of defense.

Mature defenses are positive ways of managing the conflict between the id and superego. The primary tactic here is sublimation- the transformation of socially unacceptable impulses and desires of the id into highly desirable (even noble) actions. Altruism, humor and suppression are other common methods of reducing psychological tension that arises through the id/superego conflict. An example of this is someone engaging in sporting activities to reduce sexual tension.

Individuals use several types and instances of ego defenses mechanisms in their daily lives. These are merely ways in which they respond to anxieties, impulses or threats that arise from the id. Defense mechanisms are triggered by fears, desires and perceived threats. Whether they have positive or negative effects depends on their frequency, context and their root cause.