In 1922 the pioneering psychologist Sigmund Freud wrote that the defense mechanism is “a general designation for all the techniques which the ego makes use of in conflicts which may lead to neurosis.”¹
The defense mechanism may be useful and adaptive but when inappropriate or out of balance it is regarded as neurotic and potentially destructive.
A defense mechanism arises from anxiety that poses a threat to the psyche. Anxiety may be generated by instinctual tensions, guilt (threats of bad conscience from the superego) or by actual danger.
Freud was close to his daughter, Anna, who became a psychoanalyst in her own right. Anna Freud lists the defense mechanisms as
- reaction formation
- turning against the self
Of the ten, sublimation always refers to positive, so-called normal behavior and is never deemed neurotic or negative. Additionally, the psychological processes of splitting and denial are usually regarded as defense mechanisms.
It’s interesting to note that the idea of the defense mechanism is worded in such a way so as to make the world seem like a hostile, attacking place. While it’s true that much of human life is about psychological assault and being assaulted, children with a good, loving upbringing have parents (or primary caregivers), family and friends who shield them from many of life’s attacks. Good parenting also knows how to guide the child toward a healthy kind of mastery that includes genuine consideration for the rights of others. From this, kids and adults can experience all the joy and satisfaction that accompanies a mature balance of mastery and considerateness.
Having said this, one might wonder why Freud didn’t take a more positive approach and call these psychological dynamics coping or, perhaps, living mechanisms instead of defense mechanisms. Perhaps Freud’s choice was partly due to the fact that he developed his theories from working with neurotic patients. Also, Freud had a pessimistic, atheistic vision in which his patients, at best, progressed from neurotic anxiety to an apparently normal state of human unhappiness.
By forwarding a psychology which omitted God’s love from the healing process, one could say that, for all his smarts, Freud missed the main point.
¹ Cited in Charles Rycroft, A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1977, p. 28.
- Anna Freud (earthpages.wordpress.com)
- Defense Mechanism (socyberty.com)
- Sigmund Freud (earthpages.wordpress.com)
- Freud’s Not Dead; He’s Just Really Hard to Find (my.psychologytoday.com)
- The Geezer’s Dirty Dozen on Psychodynamic Psychotherapy (jajsamos.wordpress.com)
- Sigmund Freud: a summary (newlifeparties.com)
- Totem and Taboo: The Life and Thought of Sigmund Freud (psychologytoday.com)
- Defense Mechanism (ourpoetrycorner.wordpress.com)
- Freud’s Not Dead; He’s Just Really Hard to Find (psychologytoday.com)
- Dreams. Freud. (giftofgabb30.wordpress.com)
- What Is Neuroticism? What Causes Neurosis? (medicalnewstoday.com)