Where Defenses Come From
Identifying Defense Mechanisms and How to Know When They’re Hurting You
Defense mechanisms are strategies that we adopt to cope with reality and maintain our sense of self-worth. Defenses mediate our reaction to emotional conflicts and to both internal and external stressors. To accomplish that, defense mechanisms must referee the conflict between the two opposing teams in our minds: 1) our wishes, needs, emotions and impulses; 2) our personal behavioral codes and emerging realities, such as external dangers or stressors.
Defense mechanisms help protect us from anxiety by preventing us from being fully aware of our unwanted or “unacceptable” impulses, thoughts, feelings and behaviors.
We all employ psychological defense mechanisms from time to time, even those of us who are emotionally healthy. And often, we aren’t aware that we’re doing it. Defense mechanisms, for better or worse, are part of our coping toolkit.
Where Defense Mechanisms Come From: The Ego as Referee
It is the ego that constructs defense mechanisms. Defenses emerge when the ego is unable to effectively manage the demands of the id and superego; that is, when the ego is unable to balance the needs of the id against the demands and expectations of society.
The id is impulsive, hedonistic and primitive — the first personality structure to develop. It represents our hard-wired responses, reactions and drives. The id always seeks instant gratification of its needs and immediate tension reduction. The id is responsible for primary process thinking (e.g., I am hungry), and will form a mental representation of an object — or even hallucinate one — to satisfy its needs.
The superego has two components: our conscience and our ego-ideal or idealized self-image. The superego is the ethical, idealistic, judgmental component of human personality, comprised of ideals that we internalize from parents and others we admire. The superego’s job is to make the ego behave morally, rather than realistically. The superego’s rules, criticisms and prohibitions become our conscience. When we violate the superego’s lofty standards, we feel guilt or anxiety, and perhaps the need to atone for our “bad” behavior.
The ego is responsible for secondary process thinking, cognitive and perceptual skills that distinguish fact from fantasy and allow it to satisfy id needs in an appropriate manner. The ego functions on the reality principle, but the id functions on the pleasure principle. For the ego, life is a constant juggling act between the instinctual needs and desires of the id and the internalized societal demands represented by the superego. Sometimes the ego can’t keep all the balls in the air, and that’s when defenses emerge.
How do we choose our personal defense mechanisms?
Some defenses can originate as conscious strategies, then become nonconscious through repetition and automation. Once those defenses are formed, the healthy mind might become conscious of them and attempt to weed out the ones that are most maladaptive.
Emotional construction and regulation take place at a low level of consciousness. We may be aware of disturbing thoughts and feelings, but only fleetingly. The signaling function of anxiety is adaptive in that it warns us of threats to our equilibrium. We experience the anxiety as an increase in physical and/or mental tension, which cues us to take defensive action against the perceived threat… defense mechanisms emerge. And they work by distorting our id impulses into acceptable forms, or by blocking these impulses unconsciously, consciously, or often, semi-consciously.
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Defense Mechanism Lower Emotional Intelligence
Psychological processes that block the flow of information feeding into conscious awareness tend to lower emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is the ability to regulate and manage emotions logically and consistently, which increases emotional stability and reduces emotional reactivity. Emotionally intelligent people are adept at perceiving, identifying and expressing their own feelings and recognizing and understanding the feelings of others.
Defending against emotion (for example, using denial) can impede our judgment because it not only reduces pain but the information about the world that accompanies pain. Increased defensiveness, coupled with information blockage, can lead to a reduced sensitivity to others, reduced social and relationship skills and compromised mental health.
The fewer our defenses, the greater our emotional involvement and emotional intelligence.
Being open and willing to reconstructing our emotions encourages us to develop emotions that are adaptive and consistent with our ego’s view of how we should respond to emotion-charged situations in life. Being aware of our defenses helps us reframe our emotions, choosing mature, adaptive emotional strategies, rather than immature or pathological ones. We instinctively understand how to regulate our emotions and communicate with others. And we develop expert knowledge of specific emotional areas, whether they be moral/ethical, aesthetic or spiritual.
When is a Defense Mechanism Adaptive and When is it Harmful?
It could be argued that, as a short-term solution, defense mechanisms are helpful, even adaptive (helping us adapt), especially if they help us worry less about things that aren’t worth worrying about, or that we can’t do anything about, anyway. But the problem is, they distort our perception of reality and prevent us from taking action to improve our situation and ourselves, and that’s when they hurt us.
Over time, over-relying on a defense mechanism to prevent us from feeling can become pathological and maladaptive. Suffering emotional abuse in childhood by controlling or noncaring parents, for example, could set up a psychopathology in adulthood that takes the form of immature defenses and damaged self-representation (Finzi-Dottan, Karu, 2006).
Here are some warning signs that a defense mechanism is hurting you:
- the defense is used rigidly and excessively
- it distorts the present and clouds your judgment
- the motivation for using it is built on past needs, rather than present or future reality
- it distorts or blocks emotions and feelings, instead of rechanneling them in a helpful way
- it creates relationship problems and impairs normal functioning and enjoyment of life
- it blocks the flow of information, lowering your emotional intelligence
Perhaps the best defense is no defense at all.
Defense mechanisms are, at best, short-term solutions, and coping with our real feelings sooner, rather than later, saves us a lot of suffering in the long run. We cannot experience freedom until we break through our defenses. For example, a wife in denial pretends that she’s happy in her marriage, but her smile is hiding a lingering sadness and seething anger at her husband. Denial only makes her angrier, and does nothing to improve the marriage. The longer she denies the problems, the bigger they become. But once she allows herself to feel those feelings and expresses them to her husband, she’s free to receive feedback and support, focus on solving the problems and become healthy and whole.
Ultimately, healing and improvement can only emerge through enhanced awareness, which means that only the defenses that preserve reality allow us to respond in an optimal, emotionally healthy way.
Sahaja meditation can help mediate internal emotional conflicts, which can help abolish the need for defense mechanisms.
Finzi-Dottan, Ricky, Karu, Toby. From Emotional Abuse in Childhood to Psychopathology in Adulthood: A Path Mediated by Immature Defense Mechanisms and Self-Esteem. Journal of Nervous & Mental Disease: August 2006 – Volume 194 – Issue 8 – pp 616-621.
Freud, A. (1937). The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis. (Revised edition: 1966 (US), 1968 (UK))