Freud’s Defence Mechanisms

Sigmund Freud and his theories are well known, and not just by psychologists and psychiatrists. His opinions and writings have made a home in our collective unconscious, so much so, that I often hear my clients make comments about Freud “rolling in his grave”

As a psychologist who works with trauma, defence mechanisms come up in therapy quite often. So what are these defence mechanisms named by Freud?
Before we explore defence mechanisms, it is important to note that Sigmund Freud is not the Frued who developed these in detail. They were defined by his daughter, Anna Freud.

Meaning of Defence Mechanisms

Freud, Anna, defines defence mechanisms as “unconscious resources used by the ego” to decrease internal stress, conflict, and other unpleasant emotional experiences.
As far as Freudian Theory goes, employing defence mechanisms involves a distortion of reality to some capacity which allows us to better cope with situations.

Types of Defence Mechanisms

Anna Freud identified and defined 10 defence mechanisms

  • Denial – This is one we’re all familiar with. This defence mechanism is activated in response to a difficult aspect of reality, and results in a refusal to accept a painful or distressing truth. It is particularly prevalent in drug use and dependence. Drug users or alcoholics often deny that they have a problem.
  • Displacement – This is witnessed as the transferring of challenging urges and emotions to an object that did not trigger the urge. This is most commonly seen in people who may spend a lot of time in positions where they do not have power or control, and often then displace their anger or distress over in areas where they do have control, or are less threatening.
  • Rationalisation – another common mechanism for coping, this refers to a persistent pattern of “logically” explaining painful emotions and situations. It is done at the cost of any underlying reasons or emotions that may be distressing. A classic example is when a person fails a test they worked really hard for, they might say they “never cared” anyway.
  • Intellectualisation – in a similar vein as rationalisation, this refers to a tendency to focus on the “intellectual components” of a situation, thereby distancing oneself from distressing emotions that the situation may be causing, of the situation helps to distance people from the anxiety-provoking emotions associated with the situation. Think of a parent whose child develops a terminal illness, and they spend all their time learning about the illness and its treatment, keeping away from the pain they may be feeling otherwise.
  • Suppression – This mechanism can often operate semi-consciously and manifests as the decision to “not dwell” on a memory, emotion, or thought. This is done so that attention can be better focussed elsewhere.
  • Repression – more likely to be unconscious, it is similar to suppression. However, it manifests itself as forgetfulness or lack of awareness of one’s internal thoughts or external experiences. Often, the person repressing is unaware of the subject of repression and its consequences.
  • Projection – this mechanism is relatively simple to spot, as it appears as a persistent pattern of attributing one’s own undesirable feelings or thoughts onto another. This mechanism works because the unacceptable emotion gets to be expressed, but in a way that protects one’s perception of oneself. A common situation is when a person feels their partner is “insecure” or “jealous”, when they themselves may be harbouring similar feelings.
  • Reaction formation – this mechanism works by replacing a painful, unacceptable emotion with an “opposite” emotion. For example, think of a teenager who dislikes someone and then proceeds to go on a date with them
  • Regression – this mechanism often leads a person to “revert” to patterns of thinking and behaving they used at a previous stage of development. This mechanism has a bad reputation. Often adults tend to curl up and cry in a fetal position when distressed, and this would be a form of regression.
  • Sublimation – when unacceptable emotions and desires are converted into acceptable activities, it is a form of sublimation. For example, a person with chronic difficulty with anger, may take up boxing classes.

Do you recognise any of these in your own behaviour ?