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Defense Mechanisms and The Role of the Ego

It has been known that the ego’s job was to satisfy the id’s impulses, not to offend the moralistic character of the superego, while still taking into consideration the reality of the situation. This is not an easy job. Think of the id as the “devil on your shoulder” and the superego as the “angel  of your shoulder”.  Since either one must not get too strong than the other, both of their perspectives must be heard and then decisions be made. This decision  is the ego talking, the one looking for that healthy balance.

Before discussing about this, one needs to understand what drives the id, ego, and superego. According to Freud, there are only two drives: sex and aggression. In other words, everything one does is motivated by one of these two drives.

Sex, also called Eros or the Life force, represents one’s drive to live, prosper, and produce offspring. Aggression, also called Thanatos or the Death force, represents one’s need to stay alive and stave off threats to one’s existence, one’s power, and one’s prosperity.

Now, the ego has a difficult time satisfying both the id and the superego, but it doesn’t have to do so without help. The ego has some tools it can use in its job as the mediator, tools that defend the ego. These are called ego defense mechanism or defenses. When the ego has a difficult time making both the id and the superego happy, it will employ one or more of these defenses.

One means of dealing with stress that occurs in an unconscious level is the use of defense mechanisms. Defense mechanisms are unconscious strategies that maintain a person’s sense of control and self-worth by distorting or denying the actual nature of the situation.


A. Aggressive Reaction

1.   Displacement. It is taking our impulse on a less threatening target.

Forms of Displacement:

1.1   Scapegoating. This is a form of hostility expressed against a person or an object other than the original source of frustration. Example: Yelling at your spouse after an argument with your boss; a student who fails in a subject may express his anger towards his companion at home.
1.2   Free-floating. Hostility becomes generalized so that it is directed at almost anything or anybody. Example: Vandalism as an expression of young people towards unfavorable status in life; a person whose anger is ventilated by kicking anything, either an animal, person, or object along his way.
1.3   Suicide. Hostility is directed towards the self. Example: A student who incurred a lot of failure may attempt to take her life.

B. Withdrawal Reactions
1).   Fantasy. It is a temporary escape or retreat from the difficulties of real life into a world of fantasy where one’s desire can be fulfilled in imagination.

Types of withdrawal reactions:
1.1   Conquering hero type of daydream. The person pictures himself in his daydream as the hero who does great deeds or achieves the things he desires. Example: A student who fails the exam will dream that he emerged as the highest.      
1.2   Suffering Hero type of daydream. The person pictures himself as the underdog.  Example: A boy who is dissatisfied within his home life may imagine himself as a delinquent who steals.

2).   Identification. The individual enhances his feeling of importance by imitating or acquiring the characteristics of a person whom he admires, such as his parents, teachers, or movie heroes; while in introjections a person acquires or imitates the characteristics of a person whom he fears. Example: A student patterns himself from the teacher whom he despises.

3).   Beatnik Reaction. This is manifested by someone who stands apart from society and avoids most responsibilities  of a citizen. Example: Wearing special outfit, slang and use of drugs.

4).   Repression. It is a process of pushing unacceptable impulses and traumatic experiences back into the unconscious mind and out of awareness. Example:  A student who experienced abuses from his parents may repress his traumatic experiences by not talking about; forgetting sexual abuse from one’s childhood due to trauma and anxiety.

5).   Apathy. This is displayed by showing indifference or inactivity. Example: A student who hated his group members may show lack of cooperation and interest.

6).   Nomadism. It is an attempt to get away from a frustrating situation by continuously moving from place to place usually without tangible gain. Example: A person who experienced unhappy childhood may never be satisfied with any kind of job or relationship.

7).   Suppression. It is pushing into the unconscious things that have hurt you. This is more of the “emotions”,  repressed in the mind, suppressed in the heart.

8] .   Regression. This is returning to a previous stage of development. Example:  Sitting in a corner after hearing bad news; throwing temper tantrums when you don’t get your way.

9).   Intellectualization. This refers to avoiding unacceptable emotions by focusing on the intellectual aspects. Example: Focusing on details of the funeral as opposed to the sadness and grief.

10).   Denial. This is manifested by arguing against an anxiety provoking stimuli by stating that it does not exist. Example: Denying that your physician’s diagnosis of cancer is correct and seeking a second opinion.

11).   Fixation. This is experienced when an individual gets locked in an earlier development stage because of under or over gratified needs.  Example: Adults showing mannerisms of a child.

C. Compromise Reactions 

   1. Reaction formation. Transforms an unacceptable impulse by giving expression in the opposite and at time, it is highly exaggerated, excessive, extreme and intolerant.  Example: A teacher who hates children may be so loving and sweet towards her students to the point of pampering them;  an employee who may continuously praise his boss towards whom he actually feels hostile.

   2. Projection. It is a defense mechanism wherein the individual who can not accept his own shortcomings and undesirable feelings are attributed to others seeing them with undesirable traits. Example: A gossipy teacher who projects his trait to another teacher; a student who fails in his exam may blame his incompetent teacher.

   3. Sublimation. It is an adjustment mechanism by which unconscious and unacceptable desires are directed into activities that have strong social approval. The unacceptable desire are usually sexual in nature which may be sublimated through creative efforts such as music, arts and literature. Example: A student who has sexual desire towards his teacher may sublimate through poems or painting nude models.

   a. Substitution. This is another sublimated act wherein the person when frustrated, impulses are expressed directly with no change in the conscious quality of the desire.  Example: Frustrated sexual urges may be substituted through dirty jokes.

   4. Compensation. It is a mechanism of adjustment wherein a person attempts to disguise his inferiority into something which will overcome his weaknesses or failure. Example: A student who is inept may excel in academics.

   5. Rationalization. It is a defense mechanism in which plausible but false reasons are devised by  the individual to explain and justify his behavior that is deemed to result in a loss of self-esteem or social approval. It is making excuses or giving socially acceptable reasons instead of the real ones. This is of two types:

   a. Sour-Grapes. It implies that what one sincerely wanted is not worth trying after all. It involves self-deception by giving up, relinquishing all efforts and by adopting the conviction that the goal was not worth the efforts anyway. Example: A man who was turned down by a girl may say that the girl was not really his type.

   b. Sweet-Lemon. It finds desirable qualities in that which was not truly wanted. The person takes frustration as a form of blessing in disguise or make the activity pleasant even if it is not. Example: A girl who is not permitted by her parents to attend a party may find instead that staying at home is more favorable and safe.

Ego defenses are not necessarily unhealthy. In fact, the lack of these defenses, or inability to use them effectively can often lead to problems in life.  However, if these are employed at the wrong time or become overused, both can be equally destructive.


Trajeco, Ma. Shirley C. Ph. D. et al., 2008. Psychology in Action. Philippines. MMRC Publications

What about the "flight or fight" choice when faced with danger? That is not agression if taking flight. Is it the survival instinct,- the wish to stay alive in order to rut more?

One may add it as such. And surely it falls or it may fall under any of the category/ies.

So how can you tell me that you're lonely?
And sayin' for you that the sun don't shine.
Let me take you by the hand
And lead you to the streets of London
I will show you something
To make you change your mind.

Buy me Burberry in London.  LOL!


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