Anxiety and the Defense Mechanisms

29.04.2020 |

Episode #6 of the course The theories of Sigmund Freud by Psychology Insights Online


“Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.” ―Sigmund Freud

In yesterday’s lesson, I introduced you to Freud’s theory of personality. Recall that the model is composed of the Id, Ego, and Superego. The Ego in particular has a difficult task, as it must strike a balance between the requirements of both the Id and Superego. In most circumstances, the Ego successfully copes with these conflicting demands, but not always.

Freud suggested that when the Ego is overwhelmed, the result is the formation of anxiety. Three types of anxiety were proposed: objective anxiety (fear over real danger from the world), neurotic anxiety (fear over being punished for the Id’s urges), and moral anxiety (fear over compromising one’s morals). Consequently, the Ego has developed strategies that protect against anxiety by creating ways to distort reality. Freud called these strategies defense mechanisms. Let’s take a look at frequently discussed defense mechanisms.

Repression. Repression was viewed by Freud as the most commonly used defense mechanism. With repression, the Ego attempts to take the unpleasant and hurtful thoughts that are causing the anxiety and bury them in the unconscious. While effective, Freud believed that these repressed thoughts could later be expressed in dreams and Freudian slips and be recalled during Free Association.

Projection. Projection involves the removal of the anxiety associated with a thought by placing the blame for the thought elsewhere. That is, individuals attribute the cause of their own faults to another person. For example, let’s say that a student is dealing with anxiety after cheating on an exam. This makes them uncomfortable, and as a way to relieve this tension, the Ego looks for an outlet. In this case, they could project blame onto their professor, believing that they created an unfairly difficult test and that the student’s cheating was actually warranted.

Regression. The defense mechanism of regression is designed to relieve the anxiety of the present by retreating to the past. For adults, this means regressing back to a behavior that is typically seen only in childhood or infancy. For example, let’s say that the Ego is overwhelmed by anxiety; regression could involve the individual avoiding this tension by having a temper-tantrum reminiscent of a toddler. This is an age where the person likely felt safe and taken care of, which is also comforting. Furthermore, the Ego can offload any responsibility that it has by allowing the individual to behave like a child instead of an adult.

Reaction formation. With reaction formation, the Ego replaces the thought that is creating anxiety with a new thought that is the polar opposite. For instance, if the Ego feels anxiety from the Id’s desire to have an extramarital affair, it may attempt to replace this thought with being outwardly critical of other people who cheat on their spouse. Unfortunately, the replacement thought or action, while initially providing relief, can itself cause tension if it strongly appeases only the needs of the Superego and ignores the Id.

Sublimation. Lastly, sublimation occurs when the Ego exchanges an inappropriate desire for a socially acceptable alternative. As an example, let us say that the Id expresses hostile urges to physically assault someone. In this case, the Ego understands that this has serious repercussions and through sublimation, will instead seek a more appropriate outlet, such as enrolling in a group boxing class.

Freud originally suggested that there were a dozen different defense mechanisms. Subsequent work by other psychodynamic theorists—most notably, his daughter Anna Freud—added more to this list. Today, the names of many defense mechanisms still permeate our language and are often recognizable when we see them in action.

Today’s task: Run through the list of defense mechanisms presented. Do any look eerily familiar to you? Have you relied on any of these strategies to reduce an inappropriate desire in the past? If so, contemplate whether the defense mechanism actually worked for you or if they just served as a Band-Aid in the short term.

For tomorrow’s lecture, we’ll focus on Freud’s ideas about the importance of sexual themes for understanding human development. See you then!


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You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself by David McRaney


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