Defence mechanisms are involuntarily psychological and behavioural strategies used by an individual to protect his or her ego from what are supposed to be harmful thoughts and feelings. Many psychologists who do not generally ascribe to psycho-analytic theory do accept the defence mechanism as a valid description of behaviour.
Every person uses defence mechanism, but that seriously disturbed individuals use many more defence mechanisms than healthier individuals. It has been found, too, that the use of defence mechanisms increases in times of stress and conflict.
Some of the main defence mechanisms are as follows:
It means forgetting whatever was once part of our conscious mind, but no longer is, has been repressed; we repress both feelings and situations, thoughts and occasions. Whatever causes us pain or provokes anxiety becomes a likely candidate for repression.
Repression can cause innumerable difficulties in effective functioning. It is in fact a basis for neurosis. It can also cause us to feel generally anxious, depressed, moody, worried, weak, all without our knowing why.
Freud pointed out that all such slips of memory as well as slips of the tongue are signs of unconscious repressed material trying to break through to consciousness. According to Freud, when we make what is commonly called as Freudian slip of the tongue (say, calling a lover by an ex-lover’s name), we can also assume that repression is at work.
Reaction formation is a defence mechanism that is often difficult to recognise. Simply, this mechanism involves acting in a way that is in total contradiction to the way one unconsciously feels. While one is acting in this way, however, one is not aware of one’s unconscious feelings and is, therefore, unable to recognise the mechanism at work.
The mechanism of denial is sometimes confused with repression and reaction formation because of the similarities among the three. Denial, in its most general form, is where the conscious mind denies feelings from within or situations from without that prove threatening to the sense of self, or the ego. Denial often involves repressive and reacting components, but more importantly, denial involves blocking out a portion of the world, denying it, rather than reacting to it or forgetting it.
A husband, for example, may be the last to know that his wife is having an affair with his best friend. Why is he last? Probably because he is blocking out of his perceptual world what is happening right in front of him. Parents are sometimes prone to deny their children’s angry feelings towards them. Sexual feelings especially are often subjected to denial.
Projection is another common defence mechanism. It is the process of attributing to another person, or to an object in the outside world, feelings that emanate from within. A man who feels that no one likes him, for example, may be projecting his own internal feelings of hostility on to all of the people around him.
Projection protects the self by confusing self and other and by attributing to others the unacceptable feeling of self. Projection, even more than repression, can prevent a serious problem in functioning. For instance, very disturbed paranoid individuals tend to project their hostility on to others imagining a conspiracy of forces against them, or against someone else.
It involves shifting or replacement of an object to which a feeling or drive is directed. A woman employed in a personnel firm for e.g. may take out some of the aggression she feels toward her supervisor by displacing it onto her subordinates who are safer objects for her wrath. In general, it involves displacing to a safe object feelings unconsciously held toward a more dangerous or threatening object.
Regression means psychologically “returning”, particularly returning to an earlier stage of emotional or intellectual development. Each of us many times exhibit behaviour that is less mature than the way we normally behave, and that is indicative of our feelings at some particular point in development.
In such instance, it can safely be assumed that we are regressing to some earlier point in development in order to deal with the difficulties we are consciously or unconsciously experiencing in life. When adults behave like children, they are said to be indulging in regression.
It is sometimes considered as an “occupational hazard” of people in psychotherapy. Here, the person understands something intellectually but not emotionally. Manifestations of intellectualisation include:
(a) Describing a person in technical, non- emotional language;
(b) Relating to others through planned, impersonal techniques, rather than through spontaneity and genuine feelings;
(c) Perceiving people in terms of their symptoms and ignoring their personal complexity;
(d) Understanding a friend’s problems in systematic, logical, theoretically oriented perspectives, rather than from the other’s own frame of reference.
Intellectualisation is avoiding the reality of another person, seeing him or her an object instead.
Isolation, like intellectualisation, involves the serving of the affective (emotional) from the cognitive (intellectual) reality, the cutting off of feelings from understanding. With isolation, however, the major emphasis is on perceiving the world as an effectless, emotionless, flat world, where the perceiver feels uninvolved with what is happening, not, as with intellectualisation placing the world within intellectual constructs. When one “distances” oneself from another, refusing to confront and experience the other’s feelings, then one is using the defence mechanism of isolation.
When a person uses rationalisation, he or she develops a pseudo- explanation for one’s actions or attributes, false, more favourable motives to explain one’s behaviour. When a person rationalises his “or her problems, one is defending oneself from one’s real feelings by creating a false situation of motives and casualty. Here individual gives convincing reason but not the real reasons, for e.g. “If I do not get admission in a college of repute of my choice, and then 1 will say that the college is far away or in recent years the standard of college has gone down.”
Introjection and identification, two mechanisms which are often confused with each other, commonly make their presence felt in our important interpersonal relationships. Introjection occurs when one individual’s personality incorporates part of another person. For example, we note how people who have been dating for a long lime tend to become more like each other, which helps them to avoid conflicts between them. This would illustrate the process of introjection at work.
Freud initially used introjection to explain learning of values by a child. A child interjects – takes inside – his parents’ system of values, and they become a part of the child.
Identification is the mechanism whereby an individual confuses his or her own identity with the identity of someone else. With one type, called identification with the aggressor, a person exposed to an aggressive and threatening figure, who makes the person feel endangered, begins to act and feel as aggressively as the threatening person.
One does this, albeit unconsciously, to protect oneself from the presumed dangers of the other person. The victim of a bully, for example, may act just like the bully when in the presence of a weaker person.
Identification, it should be mentioned, serves two important purposes necessary for successful adjustment:
(a) First, it is an integral part of our discovering a meaningful identity in life, especially during our adolescent years, and
(b) It helps us to avoid anxiety and painful situations.