The desire to protect and enhance one’s self-image is among the strongest motives of human behavior. No wonder scientific literature is laden with discussions on the ways in which people invoke self-deception in the interest of maintaining a favorable sense of their selves.

People have a propensity to avoid conscious awareness of fear-triggering worries, conflicts, and uncertainties. They engage in thought patterns that distort the external realities as a way of coping with distress.

Psychologists use the term “ego defense mechanisms” to describe the pattern of thought and behavior that arises in response to the perception of psychical danger.

Defense Mechanisms Play an Important Role in Self-Preservation

Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) wrote in The Ego and the Id (1923,) “We have come upon something in the ego itself which is also unconscious, which behaves exactly like the repressed—that is, which produces powerful effects without itself being conscious and which requires special work before it can be made conscious.” Freud’s daughter, Anna Freud (1895–1982,) and other psychologists identified twelve primary defense mechanisms:

  1. Denial: explicitly refusing to acknowledge the threatening reality even when presented with indisputable data (e.g. someone with a terminal illness rejecting the imminence of his death.) Denial may give the respondent some time to evaluate the meaning and seriousness of the threatening reality before reacting to it.
  2. Disavowal: acknowledging the threatening reality but downplaying its significance
  3. Suppression: intentionally engaging distractions to eliminate from consciousness any thoughts of the threatening reality
  4. Fixation: committing inflexibly to one specific mind-set or course of action
  5. Substitution: replacing an unattainable or unacceptable instinctual object or emotion with one that is more accessible or tolerable
  6. Displacement / Transference: redirecting emotions from their original object to a substitute object that is somehow associated with the original one.
  7. Compensation: making amends for a perceived deficiency that cannot be eliminated (e.g., a physical defect) by excelling in some other way.
  8. Grandiosity: exaggerated feeling of power or influence over the threatening reality
  9. Idealization: ascribing power or influence to an existent or imaginary “savior” (an individual or a organization)
  10. Defense Mechanisms Play an Important Role in Self-PreservationIntellectualization: thoroughly rationalizing a particular thought or action, by means of a misleading, but self-serving justification
  11. Projection: incorrectly attributing to others any objectionable thoughts or actions. According to Sigmund Freud, projection makes a person perceive his objectionable character traits in others as a means of avoiding seeing those very faults in himself. For example, a man who cannot accept his own anger may cope with his feelings by accusing others as angry.
  12. Splitting: fragmenting, isolating, and focusing on only certain elements of the threatening reality, instead of considering the complexity brought about by the crisis as a coherent whole

Idea for Impact: It pays to familiarize yourself with these twelve defense mechanisms and be able to identify them in how you (and others) react to emotionally charged situations, especially in close relationships. Defense mechanisms are natural forms of self-protection. However, used excessively, they can turn out to be pathological.

Reference: Cheryl Travers, “Handling the Stress” in Michael Bland (Ed.) Communicating out of a Crisis (1998)

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