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Turning Against the Self

Papa Freud, conflicted, with cigar by Carla216

Papa Freud, conflicted, with cigar by Carla216

In Freudian psychoanalytic theory, Turning Against the Self is a Freudian defense mechanism in which an original desire to harm others is directed towards oneself.

Freud’s psychoanalysis contained many of the key elements for this idea, but this particular mechanism was elaborated on by his daughter, Anna Freud.

An example of Turning Against the Self would be an individual who burns him- or herself with cigarettes. Although considered a type of masochism, there are different interpretations as to why people burn themselves.

One interpretation is that harming oneself is a kind of misguided altruism. Alternately, it’s possible that an individual is dulled to pain because they’ve entered another type of consciousness where physical pain doesn’t matter or, perhaps, register.

As with most defense mechanisms, socially sanctioned activities like smoking would also fall into the category of turning against the self.

Freud, himself, was a heavy cigar smoker. When he contracted jaw cancer he didn’t stop smoking cigars, although it’s not clear if Freud knew about the correlation between smoking and cancer. As a leading medical man, one would think that Freud was aware of the harmful effects of smoking. In 1929 the German physician, Fritz Lickint, had published a paper outlining the link between smoking and cancer¹ (Freud died in 1939).

Digital Dame adds:

The link between cancer and smoking was discovered at least as early as the 1920s. I remember seeing an old B&W silent showing people on a float in a parade (maybe it was an anti-smoking rally?) dressed as skeletons, or the Grim Reaper, as an anti-smoking campaign. There’s an article on Wikipedia about the anti-smoking movement and the Nazis. Maybe because of its association with the Nazis, the anti-smoking movement never really took hold here? As late as the 1960s doctors were telling people it was good to light up, and many doctors themselves were smokers.²

English: Maternal anti-smoking campaign

Maternal anti-smoking campaign (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Given our present day awareness, one could argue that all smokers are turning against the self with their self-destructive behavior. The same could be said with alcoholics, drug abusers, hydrogenated vegetable oil and aspartame consumers, etc.

As our knowledge of harmful substances grows almost daily, it becomes increasingly difficult to differentiate between normal versus abnormal, as well as defensive, destructive or adaptive behaviors.

Related Posts » Deviance

¹ Hanspeter Witschi, “A Short History of Lung Cancer”

² See in context


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The sleepwalking Lady Macbeth

The sleepwalking Lady Macbeth (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Undoing is a defense mechanism proposed by Sigmund and Anna Freud in which an unpleasant thought or action is blotted out from consciousness.

Undoing differs from – or could be seen as a subtype of – repression because negativity is repressed through obsessive ritual activity.

Lady Macbeth‘s repeated hand washing “Out, damned spot!” after the murder of King Duncan in Act V of Macbeth could be taken as a loose literary example of undoing.

It’s loose because she still talks about blood, death and hell during her late-night washing ritual. In short, she goes a little off base in an attempt to deal with her guilt and anxiety.

Recent psychological studies suggest that undoing can be brought about by replacing negativity with positive emotions.¹


Related Posts » Obsession



Defense Mechanism

English: Sigmund and his daughter Anna Freud N...

English: Sigmund and his daughter Anna Freud Nederlands: Foto van Sigmund en Anna Freud, op vakantie in de Italiaanse Dolomieten (1913) Česky: Sigmund Freud se svou dcerou Annou (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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

  1. regression
  2. repression
  3. reaction formation
  4. isolation
  5. undoing
  6. projection
  7. introjection
  8. turning against the self
  9. reversal
  10. sublimation

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.

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Anna Freud

Anna Freud (1895-1982) was the daughter of Sigmund Freud and an important psychoanalytic thinker particularly in the area of child psychoanalysis. Her The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence (1936) elaborated on her father’s idea of defense mechanisms.

Sigmund and his daughter Anna Freud Nederlands...

Sigmund and his daughter Anna Freud Nederlands: Foto van Sigmund en Anna Freud, op vakantie in de Italiaanse Dolomieten (1913) Česky: Sigmund Freud se svou dcerou Annou (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Sigmund and his daughter Anna Freud

Sigmund and his daughter Anna Freud via Wikipedia

In psychoanalysis, isolation is a defense mechanism developed by Sigmund Freud (and later by Anna Freud) in which a painful or traumatic memory and its associations are separated from the rest of conscious experience.

With isolation, memory is not repressed but the emotive content and associated feeling tones are severed or weakened almost to the point of non-existence. Related thinking, feeling and outward activity are essentially blocked for a period after having recalled the painful event.

This artificial stripping of the affective component from memory could occur, for instance, with victims of sexual abuse, rape or natural catastrophes.