Published on February 7th, 20131
The Psychology behind Defense Mechanisms
By Joachim Vogt Isaksen
When a person experiences psychological tension and discomfort, there are several strategies to reduce emotional pain. One of Sigmund Freud’s most innovative ideas was his demonstration of how the human mind is designed to deal with psychological difficulties.
Very often in life people find themselves in a state of psychological distress that they need to properly deal with. In Freudian psychoanalytic theory defense mechanisms are psychological strategies used by the unconscious mind to manipulate, deny, or distort reality, in order to protect itself from anxiety and psychological pain. In the following section I will give a short description of the most common defense mechanisms people use when they are confronted with emotional difficulties:
1) Repression protects your conscious mind against instinctual wishes or traumatic experiences. Typically this takes place in two different ways; sometimes you may find yourself having forbidden thoughts that go against accepted norms or values of the society. Since these instinctual drives or fantasies can never be fulfilled, they need to be repressed. Repression may also take place when a person has experienced something traumatic that is impossible to handle in everyday life. The mind is designed to repress the unbearable thoughts, in order to function normally.
2) Projection happens when a person refuses to realize his own negative personality traits, and rather push those feelings onto others. Typically this may happen in a loving relationship, where a person uses his spouse as an outlet for his own negative emotions.
3) Identification is the opposite of projection. When a person is psychologically or physically abused, he may start to identify with the perpetrator. The most famous example of this is to be found in hostage situations, where the prisoner identifies with the people who keep him captured. This is famously known as the Stockholm syndrome.
4) Denial happens when a person interprets a traumatic experience or a conflict as it suits him. Typically this may happen when a person refuses that he has been captured by a serious illness or injury.
5) Rationalization takes place when a person refuses to get in touch with an unpleasant feeling by analyzing it in a rational way.
To sum up, defense mechanisms are used both by human beings, groups, and even nations, as a way of coping with reality, and maintain a proper image and self-esteem. Even if defense mechanisms often are considered negative, they actually protect us psychologically toward social anxiety and social pressure from the surroundings. Actually they may help distance ourselves from emotionally difficult situations, and more easily deal with life’s stressful experiences.
*Cover photo by Alan Turkus