Ego Defense Mechanisms - Freudian Psychoanalytic Theory

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In Freudian psychoanalytic theory, defense mechanisms are unconscious psychological strategies brought into play by various entities 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 persistent use leads to maladaptive behavior such that the physical and/or mental health of the individual is adversely affected. The purpose of ego defense mechanisms is to protect the mind/self/ego from anxiety, social sanctions or to provide a refuge from a situation with which one cannot currently cope.

They are more accurately referred to as ego defense mechanisms, and can thus be categorized as occurring when the id impulses are in conflict with each other, when the id impulses conflict with super-ego values and beliefs, and when an external threat is posed to the ego.

The term "defense mechanism" is often thought to refer to a definitive singular term for personality traits which arise due to loss or traumatic experiences, but more accurately refers to several types of reactions which were identified during and after daughter Anna Freud's time. Defense mechanisms are sometimes confused with coping strategies.

One resource used to evaluate these mechanisms is the Defense Style Questionnaire (DSQ-40).


Freud's Structural Iceberg

Freud's Structural Iceberg

Structural Model: The id, ego, and superego

The concept of id impulses comes from Sigmund Freud's structural model. According to this theory, 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, such as aggression (Thanatos or the Death instinct) and sexuality (Eros or the Life instinct). For example, when the id impulses (e.g. desire to have sexual relations with a stranger) conflict with the superego (e.g. belief in societal conventions of not having sex with unknown persons), unsatisfied feelings of anxiousness or feelings of anxiety come to the surface. To reduce these negative feelings, the ego might use defense mechanisms (conscious or unconscious blockage of the id impulses).

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


Definitions of Individual Psyche Structures

Freud proposed three structures of the psyche or personality:

  • 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", "right" and "wrong" behavior.
  • Ego: the moderator between the id and superego which seeks compromises to pacify both. It can be viewed as our "sense of time and place".

Primary and Secondary Processes

In the ego, there are two ongoing processes. 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 unconscious thoughts originate here.


The Reality Principle

Id impulses are not appropriate in 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 Superego

The superego forms as the child grows and learns parental and social 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.


The Ego's Use of Defense Mechanisms

When anxiety becomes too overwhelming, it is then the place of the ego to employ defense mechanisms to protect the individual. Feelings of guilt, embarrassment and shame often accompany the feeling of anxiety. In the first definitive book on defense mechanisms, The Ego and the 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 signaling 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 defensive action towards the perceived danger. Defense mechanisms work by distorting the id impulses into acceptable forms, or by unconscious or conscious blockage of these impulses.




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