Abnormal Psychology: Mental Health and Mental Illness


What do psychoanalysts mean by defense mechanisms?

According to psychoanalytic theory, we use defense mechanisms to protect ourselves from feelings and thoughts that make us anxious. Through these mental manipulations, we keep ourselves blissfully unaware of uncomfortable information. In her classic 1936 book, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, Anna Freud (1895-1982) listed ten defense mechanisms. Anna Freud was the youngest of Sigmund Freud’s six children.

Defense Mechanism Explanation
Displacement Here the person expresses feelings toward one person or situation that are really aimed at another. For example, a child might express anger at her babysitter when she is really angry at the parent who left to go on a business trip.
Introjection In introjection, people internalize the person or action that has caused anxiety, thus moving from the passive to the active role. For example, a child who has been bullied may start to bully other children as a way of mastering his or her sense of powerlessness. This is similar to the process of identifying with the aggressor.
Isolation In isolation, the intellectual awareness of an event is disconnected from emotional experience. The person is aware of everything that happened, but is completely out of touch with the emotional meaning of the event.
Projection When people project emotion onto another person, they are attributing their own emotion to that person. In effect, they are saying, “I don’t hate you. You hate me.”
Regression In regression, a person avoids anxiety by reverting back to an earlier developmental stage. For example, adolescents afraid of their budding sexuality might regress to their pre-sexual childhood.
Repression Sigmund Freud believed repression to be the primary defense mechanism used to ward off threatening mental content. In repression, disturbing emotions, thoughts and memories are pushed entirely out of awareness.
Reaction Formation Here the person expresses the opposite feeling from what is truly felt. For example, a rageful person becomes overly solicitous of the other person. An unconsciously rebellious person becomes excessively compliant.
Reversal or Turning against the Self
When people cannot bear feeling negative emotions toward another person, they might turn the emotion inward, for example, berating and punishing themselves rather than acknowledging the real source of their anger. Here the person redirects the forbidden impulse into a socially valued activity. For example, childhood aggression may be sublimated into a career as a surgeon.
Undoing When people are terribly ambivalent about something, they may express one emotion with one action and then undo their action as a way of expressing the opposite emotion.

Types of Defense Mechanisms

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