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Exploring Ego Defense Mechanisms in Psychoanalysis

No matter which approach a counsellor or therapist uses to work in their practice, understanding defence mechanisms is necessary to understand the clients fulfilling the required competence in this practice. The concept first proposed by S. Freud over a century ago, describing unconscious psychological mechanism processes directing to protect a person from conflictual mind-sets and unbearable emotional states, has evolved thoroughly by his followers. The idea was then expanded upon, describing several different cautious strategies, both adaptive and morbific. Presently, though difference perseveres, primitive or childish defences, which falsify certainty to a superior degree, are thought to be pervasive at an early age, while more enhanced viewpoints have interjected to the field by looking at them like level of deregulation (American Psychiatric Association, 2013)

In this writing, I will explain the main concepts defence mechanisms have, various viewpoints categorizing them, and include some clinical implications.

Defence Mechanisms as Protecting the Self

The impression of defence mechanisms has a long record, from the original documents of S. Freud describing them as defence, a mental process keeping hurting feelings and sensations out of consciousness (Cramer, 2014). Later on, Anna Freud and Fenchol attended more on the concept as "warding off" anxiety and dealing with guilt feelings. Others also posit that defences are part of healthful cognitive progress and not essentially a sign of pathology. A necessity for such a defensive response starts primary in living when a child approaches misfortunes and defeats as they build their way in the world. Adult reactions are mystifying early efforts to interact with adults, but discontents and "defeats" do not restrain the infant, further enhancing the defence strategies. Being egocentric in the peer world of adolescence, and continued throughout the rest of life, encounters continually being challenged in every life domain, in every endeavour with frustration, rejection, lost opportunities, and failed relationships. Defences adjust in a way in which we differentiate "reality" and reflect about ourselves, whether to get more comfort or be more disturbed about these realities we capture. Thus, we may divide it into self-deception or self-protection; however, it is what defence mechanisms are exerting.

Although children survive, they are not unchanged or unaltered; they learn to protect themselves and preserve their confidence. They also mature strategies to power their emotions, including "negative" emotions like sadness, anger, and jealousy. Through specific instruction or observation of others, children develop different techniques for dealing with their emotions as they mature. In addition to the consciously learned and used coping strategies, which is a part of socialization, a child also employs other mechanisms to regulate feelings and defend their self-assurance as they develop. These processes, which arise from the earliest reflexes of the child, are referred to as ego mechanisms of defence. This point is important because if this objectivity, rationality, and unbiased reporting can be enhanced through self-understanding, knowing about how we manage to deceive ourselves would essentially be important in positing it through the therapeutic point of view (CCPA, 2020).

Differentiating from Coping mechanisms

Humans overcome stressful situations by three groups of managing approaches: seeking help from suitable others, cognitive approaches deployed to control stress, and adaptive spontaneous coping mechanisms (defence mechanisms) that deform the acuity of realities (internal and external) to ease subjective distresses like anxiety or depression (Cramer, 2006). This protects them from psychological stress and upset by unconsciously employing defence mechanisms, which is different from coping mechanisms that are consciously and purposefully posited. Determined efforts carrying out the intent to focus on something or ignoring others or finding a solution to a problem indicates them as coping mechanisms. While defence mechanisms are trying to ward off exhausting anxiety and restore comfort, problem-solving is the primary goal of coping strategies (Cramer, 2014). Thus, undergoing strain, a person may deliberately attempt to disregard it, attention on somewhat else, catch an explanation, or pursue support from others. All these are attempt to diminish anxiety; though they are similar to defence apparatuses in their drive, substantial theoretic differences exist among the two ideas. Nonetheless, both are functioning like healing a fracture by holding it. In fact, diagnostic terminology of psychological issues regarding anxiety, depressions, and personality disorders are the apparent expressions of these homeostatic challenges to adjust to life (Sadock et al., 2017).

Three theoretical assumptions about defence mechanisms are being summarized throughout studies as follows (Cramer, 2014):

  1. Experimentally induced stress increases defence use.

  2. Defence use protects children from psychological distress.

  3. Excessive use of age-inappropriate defences is associated with psychopathology in adults, adolescents, and older children. In turn, this supports the validity of this measure for assessing defence mechanisms.

These psychological defence systems may continue from one stage to the next as we grow from infancy through adolescence and then into adulthood, return to previous phases in reaction to stresses, or change (Cramer, 2014). A detailed grasp of defence mechanisms may assist physicians in moving through therapy and avoiding mistakes. Recognizing the existence of defence mechanisms, for example, during a patient visit might aid in the maintenance of an acceptable therapeutic and professional relationship (Boeker et al., 2013). It is helpful for the therapist to recognize and discuss any defence mechanisms the patient uses to become more client-centric. Psychodynamic treatment may help patients become more involved in their own care by increasing their awareness of their psychological defence mechanism patterns. It is critical to acknowledge that self-awareness and communication-based therapies will prevent the potential consequences of therapist-client misconceptions (Steinert et al., 2017). Another element inviting counsellors to be familiar with defence mechanisms is their commonness in our practice and the need for adequately identifying and root-causing them. We are all familiar with relatively maladaptive, "narcissistic," or "immature" defences. Projections, passive aggression, schizoid fantasies, hypochondriasis, dissociation, and "acting out" are common defences among adolescents, immature adults, and people who have personality disorders. Often, they cause more discomfort to others than the user. A global mental health assessment negatively relates to such defences, profoundly altering affective components of interpersonal relationships.

To stage a deep understanding of defence mechanisms that every mental health professional needs to have insight into, levels of defence are an essential aspect of defence mechanisms.

The first level is specified with breakdown of defensive ruling to comprise the person's response to stressors, resulting in disconnection with objective reality. The examples for this defensive dysregulation level are:

  • Delusional projection.

  • Psychotically denying the external facts.

  • Distorting facts psychotically like hallucinations.

Counselling with clients ensues pinpointing of these defence mechanisms, understanding that the client's efforts to ward off the stress necessitates deploying empathy by the counsellor. It is noteworthy to highlight that empathy is fundamental to a therapeutic relationship and a fruitful therapy, even at this level of defences and no matter which theory is being employed working with the client.

The second level of defence, action level, is protective operative that contracts with stressors (internal and external) by fighting or retreating. In acting out, the behavioural countenance of feelings tries to relieve strain related to emotions or to interconnect them in a masked or ancillary mode to others. Behaviours like arguing, theft, intimidating, or tossing tantrums could reform earlier occasions as an appearance of oblivious desires or feelings or more likely sexual or aggressive of the origin or meaning of these behaviours (VandenBos, 2015). Passive aggression can be seen in reply to a therapist's query or statement; when a client says "no" or disregards something aforementioned, the tone of voice and method of talking designates if a resenting attitude ultimately conveys anger. Similarly, a counsellor seeing an irrational retreat from interpersonal contact and social involvement with a severe decrease of interest in the environment suggests the apathetic withdrawal. Help-rejecting complaining (hypochondriasis) would be a moaning tone that can help highlight the self-protective countenance of covert anger and helplessness.

Image distorting or level three includes autistic fantasy, which specifies imaginary associations and splitting (self-image or others' image) or making self or others good or bad. With diving to the next level or disavowal level, the defences appear to be more adaptive, trying to keep unpleasant or unacceptable stressors, desires, thoughts, emotions, or accountability out of consciousness either with or without a misattribution of these to external causes. While in denial, realities are neglected, one's characteristics, affects, and impulses are attributed to others in projection. A counsellor may hear an appealing tone of expressing rationalization, which can be extremely useful in discriminating an effort to mask a motivation. If it echoes counterfeit, the client may be not easy-going with the rationale proposed as a clarification. There is reasonable evidence supporting rationalization as a suboptimal defence mechanism because it extracts implied information, factual beliefs, and valuable desires from these non-rational systems' influence on behaviour (Cushman, 2019). However, rationalization partners with poorer emotional development and a wide variety of antisociality, like shoplifting, pedophilia and murder (Brody, (2020).

In Minor Image-Distorting Level (level V), which may be employed to adjust self-worth distortions, devaluation, idealization and omnipotence occur in the distorting image of the self, body, or others. A counsellor can see in the client a dangerous assigning of amplified undesirable or desirable virtues to self and others or delusional believes that one can direct or posit the reality outside the self by thought or wish alone (VandenBos, 2015). Idealization of the counsellor and the devaluation of the self, paralleled with the triggering of separation anxiety during the absence time of the therapist in life, are common patterns in these souls, which counsellors should be aware of.

Through "Compromise Formation," defensive activity in the Mental Inhibitions (level VI) keeps hypothetically harmful ideas, emotions, reminiscences, desires, or worries concealed from awareness. Individuals release tensions linked with, for example, hatred and anxiety via displacement by directing them toward a less threatening objective. Throughout our practice, we will see how a client dissatisfied with their employment may blame their spouse rather than their employer. By reaction formation, unacceptable or intimidating oblivious instincts are denied and are substituted in awareness with their contradictory, like when a parent denying feelings of rejection significantly spoils her child. Dissociation, which has been linked to both previous sexual trauma and present stressful circumstances, is characterized by the separation of opposing impulses or the separation of dangerous thoughts and sensations from the rest of the mind. Repression protects from anxiety caused by all types of ego-threatening events and recollections by eliminating unpleasant experiences and inappropriate urges from awareness. In a broader sense, it is the practice of limiting, constraining or subduing something or someone. It may be used in a variety of defensive mechanisms, such as denial, in which a person avoids unpleasant facts by first attempting to suppress them and then dismissing them when repression fails. Through intellectualization, emotional aspects of a subject are ignored by considering it on a strictly intellectual level. Conflicts or emotional issues are therefore treated abstractly or masked by excessive intellectual work. This essay may very well be seen as an example of this defence! Undoing, a feature of obsessives, is characterized as a reversive magic act to delete the event or its consequences; something is done that is the polar opposite of what is meant to be done (VandenBos, 2015). Working with clients, we see this compulsive ritual when they buy an item for the second or third time.

In level VII, the last and most adaptive level of defensive functioning, optimum adaptation in handling stresses, and defence mechanisms increase satisfaction and the conscious understanding of thoughts, ideas, and repercussions. These widely advised mature mechanisms have been proven to help individuals and the community promote an optimum balance among conflicting motives. The attentiveness to solving problems before they arise and anticipation prepare the person for a mental or physical activity by preparing for various possible difficulties. This stress-lessening strategy can be accompanied by self-assertion and self-observation, which place the opinion or take action that expresses the needs, privileges, or desires and consciously spots them. Similarly, affiliation empowers social relationships by joining or seeking out others based on personal attachment, resulting in cooperative, friendly association with others as a fundamental human desire. Another useful one, suppression, would be a conscious exertion of putting disturbing thoughts and experiences out of mind or managing and constraining the expression of undesirable compulsions or feelings. A generous behaviour that benefits others is altruism, though it comes with some cost to the person. Various collections of behaviours will be considered, like voluntarily working for the community and helping others in everyday life, though their degree of genuineness may vary. On the other hand, sublimation is equally indicative of being constructive, in which undesired impulses are diverted into socially suitable means of countenance and readdressed hooked on new, learnt behaviours that subsidiarily satisfy the original desires. As well as providing replacement satisfaction, these pacifiers can also insulate people from the initial anxiety caused by impulses, as we see when a spouse comes home after a fight with a bucket of flowers in hand. The last in the list of mature defence mechanisms, humour, is the capability to recognise or direct the comical features of a situation. While there are disagreements about the principle of humour and the drives we laugh or smile at narratives or jokes, it is a way of taking hurtful things lightly and overcoming them (Cramer, 2015, VandenBos, 2015). Sigmund Freud states, "they enable individuals to freely express forbidden impulses and refined humour in terms of a release of the energy normally employed in keeping them out of consciousness."


It is crucial to understand and be aware of viewpoints and theories introduced about coping strategies and defence mechanisms, what they are, and what schemas counsellors can see in their practice. The concept helps the counsellor identify and define all aspects of representing individuals; however, gender, age, religion, and ethnicity should also be conceded in formulating the clients. Developing a solid relationship that increases the chance of a fruitful therapy outcome needs to identify and address potential conflicts, defence strategies the client uses, and the boundaries of professional sessions (Collins, 2020). It also contains the lived experience, current reserves, and inspirations in the therapy relationship during the meetings. Possessing the role of counsellor orders us to construct a therapeutic connection and coalition with clients, see and analyze what they have brought to sessions, empowered with the components of their coping strategies and defence mechanisms (VandenBos, 2015). This safeguards that counselling emphases on the profits and objectives of the clients, not us; however, occasionally, the psychotherapist and the client's proposals may not be in the same trend (Collins, 2018).


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Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association. (2020). Canadian Code of Ethics for Psychologists (3rd ed.).

Cramer P. Change in children's externalizing and internalizing behavior problems: the role of defense mechanisms. J Nerv Ment Dis. 2015 Mar;203(3):215-21.

Cushman, F. (2019). Rationalization is rational. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 43.

VandenBos, G. R. (2015). APA Dictionary of Psychology® (2nd ed.) [E-book]. American Psychological Association.

Cramer, P. (2006). Protecting the Self: Defense Mechanisms in Action (1st ed.). The Guilford Press.

Cramer, P. (2014). Defense Mechanisms: 40 Years of Empirical Research. Journal of Personality Assessment, 97(2), 114–122.

Brody S, Costa RM. Rationalization is a suboptimal defense mechanism associated with clinical and forensic problems. Behav Brain Sci. 2020 Apr 15;43:e31.

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. American Psychiatric Association.

Sadock, B. J., Sadock, V. A., & Md, R. P. (2017). Kaplan and Sadock’s Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry (2 Volume Set) (10th ed.) [E-book]. LWW.

Steinert, C., Munder, T., Rabung, S., Hoyer, J., & Leichsenring, F. (2017). Psychodynamic therapy: As efficacious as other empirically supported treatments? A meta-analysis testing equivalence of outcomes. American Journal of Psychiatry.

Collins, S. (2018). Embracing cultural responsivity and social justice: Re-shaping professional identity in counselling psychology. Counselling Concepts.

Collins, S. (2020, July 6). The Bio-Psycho-Social-Cultural-Systemic Framework [Video]. Youtube.

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