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The Ego Defense Mechanisms are psychological strategies brought into play by individuals, groups and even nations to cope with reality and to maintain self-image.

Healthy persons normally use different defenses throughout life. An ego defense mechanism becomes pathological only when its persistant use leads to maladaptive behavior such that the physical and/or mental health of the individual is adversely affected.

The purpose of the Ego Defense Mechanisms is to protect the mind/self/ego from anxiety, social sanctions or to provide a refuge from a situation with which you cannot currently cope.

Predominate Views of Ego Defense MechanismsEdit

  • Ego Defense Mechanism are almost always pathological - when they prevent the individual from being able to cope with a real threat and obscure his/her ability to perceive reality
  • Ego Defense Mechanism are basicly immature - used in childhood and adolescence, but are generally less often or abandoned by adulthood. Overuse of defense mechanisms prevent the adult from optimal coping with reality and may also lead to socially unacceptable behavior
  • Ego Defense Mechanism are neurotic - common in everyone, but overuse is not optimal for healthy reality coping and leads to problems in relationships and work, and lessens enjoyment life
  • Ego Defense Mechanism can also be mature defense mechanisms - used by emotionally healthy adults, they optimize one's ability to have normal relationships, enjoy work, and to take pleasure in life
  • Ego Defense Mechanism are also necessary. It is not healthy or appropriate to discard all defense mechanisms for otherwise a healthy emotional stability cannot be maintained

Psychoanalytic Origins of Ego Defense TheoryEdit

intro paragraph needed here

Early Theory: The Id, Ego, and SuperegoEdit

The concept of id impulses comes from Sigmund Freud’s structural model. Id impulses are based on the pleasure principle: instant gratification of one’s own desires and needs. Sigmund Freud believed that the id represents biological instinctual impulses in ourselves, which are aggression (Thanatos or the Death instinct) and sexuality (Eros or the Life instinct). For example, when the id impulses (e.g. desire to have sex with a stranger) conflict with the superego (e.g. belief in societal conventions of not having sex with unknown persons), the feelings of anxiety come to the surface. To reduce these negative feelings, defence mechanisms are employed.

Freud also believed that conflicts between these two structures resulted in conflicts associated with psychosexual stages.

[Image:Structural-Iceberg.png|thumb|280px|The iceberg metaphor is often used to explain the psyche's parts in relation to one another.]

Definitions of Individual Psyche Structures

We can summarize the three structures of the psyche or personality as follows:

  • Id: a selfish, primitive, childish, pleasure-oriented part of the personality with no ability to delay gratification
  • Superego: internalized societal and parental standards of "good" and "bad" and "right" and "wrong" behaviour.
  • Ego: the moderator between the id and superego which seeks compromises to pacify both.

Primary and Secondary processesEdit

In the ego, there are two processes going on. First, there is the unconscious primary process, where the thoughts are not organized in a coherent way, the feelings can shift, contradictions are not in conflict or are just not perceived that way, and condensations arise. There is no logic and no time line. Lust is important for this process. By contrast, there is the conscious secondary process, where strong boundaries are set and thoughts must be organized in a coherent way. Most conscious thoughts originate here.

The Reality PrincipleEdit

Id impulses are not appropriate for civilized society, so society presses us to modify the pleasure principle in favor of the reality principle; that is, the requirements of the external world.

Formation of the SuperegoEdit

The superego forms as the child grows and internalizes parental and societal standards. The superego consists of two structures: the conscience, which stores information about what is "bad" and what has been punished and the ego ideal, which stores information about what is "good" and what one "should" do or be. (Interestingly, the Freudian conscience became cognitive-behavioral therapist Albert Ellis' focus.)

Anna Freud: The Ego's Use of Defense MechanismsEdit

When anxiety becomes too overwhelming it is then the place of the ego to employ defence mechanisms to protect the individual. Feelings of guilt, embarrassment and shame often accompany the feeling of anxiety. In the first definitive book on defence mechanisms, Ego and mechanisms of defense (1936), Anna Freud introduced the concept of signal anxiety; she stated that it was ‘not directly a conflicted instinctual tension but a signal occurring in the ego of an anticipated instinctual tension’. The signalling function of anxiety is thus seen as a crucial one and biologically adapted to warn the organism of danger or a threat to its equilibrium. The anxiety is felt as an increase in bodily or mental tension and the signal that the organism receives in this way allows it the possibility of taking defencive action towards the perceived danger. Defense mechanisms work by distorting the id impulses into acceptable forms, or by unconscious blockage of these impulses.

From Adaption to PathologyEdit

Defense mechanisms are used by all adults to adapt to life. The issue is determining when a defense mechanism cross over from adaptive to pathological in nature. Mental illness is a dysfunctional demonstration of an individual's pathological maladaptive response to life events.

An ego defense mechanism becomes pathological when

  • the defense mechanism becomes rigid, inflexible, and exclusive in its implementation
  • the motivation for using the particular defense mechanism is oriented more in the past than in the needs demonstrated in present or future reality
  • the defense mechanism being used severely distorts the triggering conditions
  • the defense mechanism being used leads to significant problems in relationships, functioning and enjoyment
  • the use of the defense mechanism impedes or distorts the expression of emotions and feelings, rather than rechanneling them effectively

The use of immature defenses is related to

  • poor adjustment as an adult
  • higher divorce rates and more marital problems
  • poor ability to create and maintain friendships
  • higher likelihood of mental illness
  • poorer work attendance, more sick days taken
  • poorer health generally

reference to research detailed in book, Adaptation to Life

Categorization of Defense MechanismsEdit

Level 1 Defense MechanismsEdit

The mechanisms on this level, when predominating, almost always are severely pathological. These three defenses, in conjunction, permit one to effectively rearrange external reality and eliminate the need to cope with reality. The pathological users of these mechanisms frequently appear crazy or insane to others. These are the "psychotic" defenses, common in overt psychosis. However, they are found in dreams and throughout childhood as healthy mechanism.

They include:


  • Description - refusal to accept external reality because it is too threatening; arguing against an anxiety provoking stimuli by stating it doesn't exist; resolution of emotional conflict and reduce anxiety by refusing to perceive or counsciously acknowledge the more unpleasant aspects of external reality.
  • Example - There are examples of denial being adaptive (for example, it might be adaptive for a person who is dying to have some denial)


  • Description - a gross reshaping of external reality to meet internal needs
  • Example -

Delusional Projection

  • Description - grossly frank delusions about external reality, usually of a persecutory nature
  • Example -

Level 2 Defense MechanismsEdit

These mechanisms are often present in adults and more commonly present in adolescence. These mechanism lessen distress and anxiety provoked by threatening people or by uncomfortale reality. People who excessively use such defenses are seen as socially undesirable in that they are immature, difficult to deal with and seriously out of touch with reality. These are the so-called "immature" defenses and overuse almost always lead to serious problems in a person's ability to cope effectively. These defenses are often seen in severe depression, personality disorders. In adolescence, the occurence of all of these defenses is normal.

They include:


  • Description - tendency to retreat into fantasy in order to resolve inner and outer conflicts
  • Example - (EXAMPLE)


  • Description - Projection is a primitive form of paranoia. Projection alo reduces anxiety by allowing the expression of the undesirable impulses or desires without becoming consciously aware of them; attributing one's own unacknowledged unacceptable/unwanted thoughts and emotions to another; includes severe prejudice, severe jealousy, hypervigilance to external danger, and "injustice collecting". It is shifting one's unacceptable thoughts, feelings and impulses within oneself onto someone else, such that those same thoughts, feelings, beliefs and motivations as percieved as being possessed by the other.
  • Examples -


  • Descripton - the transformation of negative feelings towards others into negative feelings toward self, pain, illness and anxiety
  • Example -

Passive Agression

  • Description - aggression towards others expressed indirectly or passively
  • Examples -

Acting Out

  • Description - direct expression of an unconscious wish or impulse without conscious awareness of the emotion that drives that expressive behavior
  • Example -

Level 3 Defense MechanismsEdit

These mechanisms are considered neurotic, but fairly common in adults. Such defenses have short-term advantages in coping, but can often cause long-term problems in relationships, work and in enjoying life when used as one's primary style of coping with the world.

They include:


  • Description - defense mechanism that shifts sexual or aggressive impulses to a more acceptable or less threatening target; redirecting emotion to a safer outlet; separation of emotion from its real object and redirection of the intense emotion toward someone or something that is less offensive or threatening in order to avoid dealing directly with what is frightening or threatening
  • Example - taking out impulses on a less threatening target, as to

slam a door rather that verbally or physically assaulting someone


  • Description - temporary drastic modification of one's personal identity or character to avoid emotional distress; separation or postponement of a feeling that normally would accompany a situation or thought.
  • Example -


  • Description - a form of isolation; concentrating on the intellectual components of a situations so as to distance oneself from the associated anxiety-provoking emotions; separation of emotion from ideas; thinking about wishes in formal, affectively bland terms and not acting on them; avoiding unacceptable emotions by focusing on the intellectual aspects
  • Example - focusing on the details of an event as opposed to focusing on the emotions it evokes (needs more)

Reaction Formation

  • Description - converting unconscious wishes or impulses that are perceived to be dangerous into their opposites; behavior that is completely the opposite of what one really wants or feels; taking the opposite belief because the true belief causes anxiety. This defense can work effectively for coping in the short term, but will eventually break down.
  • Example - having a bias against a particular race or culture and then embracing that race or culture to the extreme; taking care of someone when what one really wants is to be taken care of; studying to be a pilot to cover-up being afraid to fly


  • Description - process of pulling thoughts into the unconscious and preventing painful or dangerous thoughts from entering consciousness;

seemingly unexplainable naivete, memory lapse or lack of awareness of one's own situation and condition; the emotion is conscious, but the idea behind it is absent


  • Description - transformation of negative emotions or instincts into positive actions, behavior, or emotion; acting out unacceptable impulses in a socially acceptable way; refocusing of psychic energy away from negative outlets to more positive ones; sublimation is the process funneling the unacceptable into social useful achievements. Sublimation is instrumental to developing culture and civilization. Psychoanalysts often refer to sublimation as the only truly successful defense mechanism.
  • Example - diverting the negative within oneself into art, sports, hobbies, or even one's choice of profession; such as diverting aggressive and criminal impulses toward a career as a policeman or becoming a surgeon because of desires to cut human flesh

Level 4 Defense MechanismsEdit

These are commonly found among emotionally healthy adults and are considered the most mature, even though many have their origins in the immature level. However, these have been adapted through the years so as to optimize success in life and relationships. The use of these defenses enhances user pleasure and feelings of mastery. These defenses help the users to integrate conflicting emotions and thoughts while still remaining effective. Persons who use these mechanism are viewed as having virtues.

They include:


  • Description - constructive service to others that brings pleasure and personal satisfaction
  • Examples -


  • Descripton - realistic planning for future discomfort
  • Examples -


  • Description - overt expression of ideas and feelings (especially those that are unpleasant to focus on or too terrible to talk about) that gives pleasure to others. Humor enables someone to call a spade a spade, while "wit" is a form of displacement (see above under Category 3)
  • Examples -


  • Decription - The unconscious modelling of one's self upon another person's character and behavior
  • Example -


  • Description: Identifying with some idea or object so deeply that it becomes a part of that person
  • Example:


  • Description - transformation of negative emotions or instincts into positive actions, behavior, or emotion
  • Example - engagement in arts, sports, hobbies or one's choice of profession


  • Description - the conscious process of pushing thoughts into the preconscious; the conscious decision to delay paying attention to an emotion or need in order to cope with the present reality; able to later access uncomfortable or distressing emotions and accept them
  • Example -

Remaining Unsorted/Unclassified Defense MechanismsEdit

Please help Wikipedia by

Conversion Reaction

  • Description -
  • Example -


  • Description - form of denial in which the object of attention is presented as "all good" while masking one's true negative feelings towards

the other

  • Example -


  • Description: Refocusing of aggression or emotions evoked from an external force onto one's self.
  • Example:


  • Description - the process of constructing a logical justification for a decision that was originally arrived at through a different mental process;

supplying a logical or rational reason as opposed to the real reason

  • Example - stating that "something negative" happened because of "someone else", when actually it was because of something you did or didn't do


  • Description - reversion to an earlier stage of development in the face of unacceptable impulses; returning to a previous stage of development
  • Example - throwing a temper tantrum when you don't get your way; becoming tearful, dependent and needy after a distressing event


  • Descripton - Manifestation of emotional anxiety into physical symptoms
  • Example -


  • Description - Primitive defense mechanism-when a person sees external objects or people as either "all good" or "all bad."
  • Example -


  • Descripton - When a person replaces one feeling or emotion for another
  • Example -


  • Description - A person tries to 'undo' a negative or threatening thought by their corrective actions
  • Example -



  • Fonagy, P. and Target, M. (2003). Psychoanalytic Theories: Perspectives from Developmental Psychopathology. London: Whurr Publishers.
  • Freud, Anna (1937). The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis.
  • "The Complete Guide to Social Work". Independent Study for the ASWB exam
  • Vaillant, George 19__ "Adaptation to Life" ____

Online papers

Outside LinksEdit

[Category:Psychoanalytic theory]]




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