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Ego defence mechanisms: An overview
The ego defence mechanism (DM) is a popular concept in Freudian psychology. It defines the schemes through which conflicts between the id and superego are handled through the medium of the ego.
The conflict arises because the id is primal and even hedonistic, while the superego is like our conscience – high-minded and normative. Defence mechanisms are also used to help maintain an individual’s self-concept.
Although defence mechanisms may be unhealthy or counter-productive in some instances, they are natural or impulsive reactions to perceived threats. Sometimes, the protection is a routine response or rooted in our subconscious mind.
All DMs influence our social reality in some manner, whether it is by transforming, distorting or falsifying our perceptions. The distinction between a coping strategy and a defensive strategy is also important. Coping strategies are lucid and rooted in the conscious mind, whereas defence mechanisms are the polar opposite of that.
Psychologists who adhere to Freudian theories opine that several types of anxiety activate ego defence mechanisms. These include fear of something physical or tangible (reality anxiety); the need to suppress the id (neurotic anxiety); or a fear of breaking codes of behaviour (moral anxiety). DMs serve to reduce tensions created by such anxieties and they are classified according to which anxiety they seek to resolve.
A common classification by George Vaillant (1977) groups ego defence mechanism into four types: Psychotic, Immature, Neurotic and Mature.
These ego defence mechanisms are symptoms of psychosis – a maladaptive state of mind. Such defences include being delusional, in denial, or projecting onto others. An example of a psychotic defence is “I flunked my exams because all of my professors wanted me to fail.” Persons who use this form of defence attempt to explain or justify deviant behaviour by attributing it to an unlikely cause.
One example of an immature defence is “tit-for-tat.” However, these defences refer to the type that children use to justify their actions or get what they want. A common strategy in this group is that of passive aggressive behaviour. Since children may be powerless to rebel against authority, they may use covert means to express this. Other examples of immature defences include throwing tantrums, idealization and fantasy.
Neurotic defences are more ‘adult’ and reflect the attempt to suppress the id and its desires. This may explain the supposed double-standard in an adulterous pastor vehemently preaching against adultery. Strategies that are neurotic often result from attempts to link problems faced to external entities. Displacement, justification and repression are just some of the defence mechanisms associated with this classification.
Mature defence mechanisms are usually the most positive and healthy manner of resolving tensions between the id and superego. With this strategy, socially undesirable desires of the id are transformed into more desirable actions. For example, a Freudian psychologist would argue that altruism is a way to resolve tensions created by greed and selfishness.
Ego defence mechanisms are common and varied. They are a critical aspect of our socialization, since it helps the superego control the impulses of the id and address anxieties and conflict that arise from it.
Over-reliance on defence mechanisms and using inappropriate strategies to resolve the conflict can lead to EDMs being maladaptive or even pathological. In other cases, ego defence mechanisms help more than they hurt.