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Defence Mechanisms

You may have heard the term defence mechanism used in popular culture. People often talk about using humour as a defence mechanism. Most of us know what that means when we hear it, but what does the term defence mechanism mean in the field of psychology? First, we will establish the meaning of the term defence mechanism.Then, we will look at defence…

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Defence Mechanisms

Defence Mechanisms

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Defense Mechanisms, Sensitivity warning concerning topics discussed, Vaia

You may have heard the term defence mechanism used in popular culture. People often talk about using humour as a defence mechanism. Most of us know what that means when we hear it, but what does the term defence mechanism mean in the field of psychology?

  • First, we will establish the meaning of the term defence mechanism.
  • Then, we will look at defence mechanisms in psychology.
  • We will look at the different types of defence mechanisms in psychology.
  • Next, we will discuss Freud’s Stages of Psychosexual Development and defence mechanisms.
  • Finally, we will work through an example of defence mechanisms in the psychosexual stages.

In Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, the ego employs defence mechanisms to cope with the conflicting demands of the other two parts of the personality: the id and the superego.

The three components of our personality in psychodynamic terms are also known as the psyche, and each works together.

Defence Mechanism: Meaning

In the field of psychology, the term defence mechanism has a specific meaning and several specific examples.

Defence mechanisms are psychological tactics of the unconscious that protect us from fear and unpleasant or overwhelming thoughts and feelings, such as coping with trauma and difficult situations.

We use several types of defence mechanisms to navigate through life’s unpleasantness and difficulties.

Defence Mechanisms in Psychology

Sigmund Freud first mentioned the concept of defence mechanisms in his 1894 essay, ‘The Neuro-Psychoses of Defence’. Freudian psychoanalysis theory defines them as internal drives that emanate from our minds when facing conflict situations.

The ego regulates conflicting demands between the id and the superego through a defence mechanism. However, this process involves distorting reality to cope with these situations. Relying on specific mechanisms too often can lead to unhealthy and undesirable psychological problems.

Ego defence mechanisms are natural and normal. However, if used frequently, the person may develop neuroses such as anxiety, phobias, compulsions, or hysteria.

Types of Defence Mechanisms in Psychology

A defence mechanism is a distortion of reality, and it extends to many levels. Freud gave us a basic six: denial, repression, displacement, sublimation, regression, and projection.

Denial occurs when the conscious mind confronts an imposed stressful memory, such as a traumatic or painful memory.

Denial is the refusal to accept reality.

Denial is considered a narcissistic and immature defence because its functioning rejects reality.

A wife refuses to see that her husband is no longer interested in sharing his life with her and that it is time for her to divorce him.

Repression is considered a fear defence because even though the feelings are not exposed, they create fear.

Repression happens when a traumatic memory is forced outside of conscious awareness into the subconscious, i.e., forgetting it.

A child has no memory of an event where his father verbally abused him.

Displacement is also considered a defence mechanism against anxiety.

Displacement occurs when we have a certain feeling about someone and cannot express it, so we transfer it to another person or even animals or objects.

The ego does not know how to resolve the uncertainty between the id and the superego, thus transferring the energy to a more acceptable target.

A teen might say, “My mother was angry at my father and started yelling at me for no reason.”

Unlike denial and the repression of reality, sublimation accepts reality.

Sublimation is more like repression, but instead of destructively repressing overwhelming feelings, it transforms the feelings into constructive channels for behaviour, emotion, or action.

Sublimation channels unacceptable impulsive behaviour into constructive behaviour that is acceptable. It is considered a healthy and mature defence.

You are angry with your mother, and instead of starting a heated argument, you decide to go outside and exercise to channel the anger into something else.

Regression is a form of refuge. The person reverts to a moment in the past when they felt safe.

Regression happens when the ego regresses to earlier stages of development in response to a stressful situation.

You miss your curfew and come home late. Your parents decide to take away your driving privileges for a week, and you stomp and pout like you did as a child.

Projection was a notion proposed by Anna Freud.

Projection happens when we see our undesirable qualities in other people.

Projection involves the thoughts, feelings and motives that we project into someone else.

You just simply don’t like Greg from work. You’ve never argued or had a conflict, so you’re a little self-conscious about your feelings of dislike towards him. You solve this problem by telling yourself that it’s him that does not like you. You project your feelings onto him and feel justified in not liking him.

Psychosexual Stages and Defence Mechanisms

Freud gave us one of the first comprehensive models of personality development. His is a theory of psychosexual development.

The psychosexual stages of development is a five-stage developmental theory created by Sigmund Freud that centres on sexual themes and fixations.

In each stage, there is a challenge or conflict to overcome. If the conflict is resolved, we move to the next stage. If it is not, we can become fixated on a particular stage of development. Each stage corresponds to a particular erogenous zone of the body. These are areas of high sensitivity or arousal.

StageErogenous ZoneAgeConflictPotential Fixation
OralMouthBirth to 12 monthsWeaningOrally fixated behaviours like smoking and excessive eating or drinking.
AnalAnus, bowels, bladder1 to 3 yearsPotty trainingAnal-retentive personality
PhallicGenitalia - Particularly the Penis3 to 6 yearsAttraction and resentmentPenis envy
Latent6 years to pubertySublimation and channelling of sexual impulses into industrious behaviour.General immaturity of character
GenitalGenitaliaPuberty to end of lifeSuccessful sexual and personal relationships and a place in the community.Sexual perversions

In each stage, the ego mediates between the functioning of the drives of the id and superego. In early life experiences, the ego helps the child build a perception of security that makes him feel in control of himself and the overwhelming circumstances around him.

At first, this serves as a building block of the ego, and later it becomes a flexible defence mechanism that functions throughout life.

Let’s take a look at how defence mechanisms function in a specific stage of development.

Defence Mechanisms: Examples

A form of repression occurs when a child goes through the Oedipus complex during the phallic stage of psychosexual development.

According to Freud, in the phallic stage, a child wrestles with their sexual desires for one parent and resentment toward the other.

In boys, this anxiety can manifest as the Oedipus complex, where the young boy desires the mother and resents the father. The boy develops aggressive ideas about his father, and these feelings are repressed or forced into the subconscious. As a result, the boy struggles with castration anxiety or the fear of punishment for these desires and thoughts.

It is said that Freud’s psychosexual stages come from a male perspective and centre on a heteronormative understanding of attraction and sexual development. This is clear in his concept of penis envy, where young girls are said to experience envy and frustration for lacking a penis. Freud believed that girls retained a certain level of fixation in the phallic stage, since penis envy could not be resolved.

Defence Mechanisms - Key takeaways

  • Freud first mentioned the concept of defence mechanisms in his 1894 essay, ‘The Neuro-Psychoses of Defence’. He proposed that ego defence mechanisms are natural and normal. However, when used frequently, the person may develop neuroses such as anxiety, phobias, compulsions, or hysteria.
  • The ego regulates conflicting demands between the id and the superego through a defence mechanism.
  • Freud gave us a basic six: denial, repression, displacement, sublimation, regression, and projection.
  • Freud’s five psychosexual stages of development are the oral, anal, phallic, latent, and genitalia stage.
  • The Oedipus complex, castration anxiety, and penis envy help children manage the anxiety of the phallic stage of development.

Frequently Asked Questions about Defence Mechanisms

The three main defence mechanisms in psychology are repression, denial and displacement.

Defence mechanisms in psychology are psychological tactics of the unconscious mind that protect us from fear and unpleasant or overwhelming thoughts and feelings, such as coping with trauma and difficult situations.

Freud’s defence mechanisms are internal drives that emanate from our minds when facing conflict situations. The ego employs defence mechanisms to cope with the conflicting demands of the other two personality parts: the id and the superego.

A projection defence mechanism refers to the thoughts, feelings, and motives we project onto someone else. Let us assume that it is a fact that we see our undesirable thoughts and behaviours in other people to confront them in our lives. Unfortunately, the person doing it is usually unaware that they are doing it.

The types of defence mechanisms are:

  1. Denial. 
  2. Repression.
  3. Displacement.
  4. Sublimation.
  5. Regression.
  6. Projection.

Final Defence Mechanisms Quiz

Defence Mechanisms Quiz - Teste dein Wissen

Question

Who first and when wrote about the concept of defence mechanism? 

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Answer

Sigmund Freud first mentioned the concept of defence mechanisms in his 1894 essay, 'The Neuro-Psychoses of Defence'.

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Question

What is the definition of a defense mechanism in psychoanalytic theory?

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Answer

In Freud's psychoanalytic theory, the ego employs defence mechanisms to cope with the conflicting demands of the other two personality parts: the id and the superego.

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How does the ego operate in the defence mechanism?

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Answer

The ego regulates conflicting demands between the id and the superego through a defence mechanism.

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What happens when we rely on defence mechanisms too often?

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Answer

Relying on specific mechanisms too often can lead to unhealthy and undesirable psychological problems.

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Question

Is it normal to have ego-defence mechanisms?



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Answer

Ego defence mechanisms are natural and normal. However, if used frequently, the person may develop neuroses such as anxiety, phobias, compulsions, or hysteria.

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Question

What is the role of the passive mechanisms?

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Answer

The passive mechanism's role is to support conflicted feelings and manage developmental fears. It can also be called a discrete defence mechanism.


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How do defence mechanisms perceive reality?

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Answer

A defence mechanism is a distortion of reality, and it extends to many levels.

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When does the denial defence mechanism occur?

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Answer

It occurs when the conscious mind confronts an imposed stressful memory, such as traumatic or painful memories.

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What is denial?

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Answer

Denial is the refusal to accept reality.

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Is denial a healthy defence mechanism?

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No, it is considered a narcissistic and immature defence because its functioning rejects reality.

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What is an example of denial?

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Answer

A wife refuses to see that her husband is no longer interested in sharing his life with her and that it is time for her to divorce him.

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When does repression happen?

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Answer

Repression happens when a traumatic memory is forced outside of conscious awareness into the subconscious, i.e., forgetting it.

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Question

Can we use the Oedipus complex as an example of repression?

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Answer

Yes. Repression also occurs when a child goes through psychosexual development at the stage of the Oedipus complex. For example, the boy develops aggressive ideas about his father, and these feelings are repressed or forced into the subconscious.

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Question

When does displacement occur?

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Answer

When we have a certain feeling about someone and cannot express it, we transfer it to another person or even animals or objects. Displacement is also considered a defence mechanism against anxiety.

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What happens when someone goes through regression?

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Answer

Regression is a form of refuge. The person reverts to a moment in the past when they felt safe.

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Which of the following is not one of Freud's Psychosexual Stages?

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Answer

Repression.

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In which psychosexual stage does the Oedipus complex occur?

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Answer

Phallic.

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According to Freud, girls remain somewhat fixated in the phallic stage because of the inability to resolve _____________.

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Answer

Penis envy.

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In the psychosexual stages, if conflicts are not resolved, one can end up __________ in a particular stage.

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Answer

Fixated.

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Question

In the phallic stage of Freud’s psychosexual stages, ______________ is the fear of punishment a boy feels.

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Answer

Castration anxiety.

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