Sunday, May 6, 2012

Freud's Birthday, Defense Mechanisms

Sigmund Freud, hard at work avoiding neurosis
Sigmund Freud, born on May 6, 1856, would have been 156 years old today. Although this isn't directly related to the topic of forensic psychology, I thought I would give you a little information about his theory.

Freud referred to anxiety in much of his writing, and he described it as an unpleasant state that people desperately attempt to avoid. He divided anxiety into three different types:

1. Reality Anxiety: A fear of real-world events. For example, you might become scared that you will fall if you are walking very close to the edge of a cliff. It is easy to "cure" yourself of this type of anxiety--just stay away from cliffs.

2. Moral Anxiety: A fear of violating moral principles. If you think it is wrong to have premarital sex, yet you have a strong desire to do so, you will experience this type of anxiety. The "cure," in this case, is probably a very cold shower.

3. Neurotic Anxiety: An unconscious fear that we will lose control of our basic urges, which causes us to punish ourselves for any inappropriate behavior. Whereas you might feel moral anxiety at the thought of violating your principle of avoiding premarital sex, your "id" is constantly telling you to go for it. When you act on those basic urges, you might end up punishing yourself with neurotic anxiety or "neurosis."

In order to protect ourselves from conflict and anxiety, especially the neurotic kind, we use defense mechanisms. These mechanisms can be adaptive--they rid ourselves of anxiety in a healthy way. Or, they can distort reality and become unhealthy.

Anna Freud, one of Sigmund's children, came up with a list of 10 commonly used defense mechanisms:

1. Denial: A refusal to admit that something has happened or is happening ("Our house isn't flooding. I don't know what you are talking about").

2. Repression: Forcing information out of our conscious awareness--this happens unconsciously and you don't know you are doing it (People who have experienced sexual abuse as children sometimes "forget" that it happened).

3. Suppression: Consciously forcing something out of conscious awareness ("That was awful. I am never going to think about it again").

4. Displacement: Taking out our anger on people who are less threatening (When your boss yells at you at work, you go home and kick your dog).

5. Sublimation: Acting out unacceptable impulses in socially acceptable ways (An aggressive person might choose to become a boxer).

6. Projection: Taking qualities we don't like about ourselves and placing them onto others (When a narcissist says, "I don't like Betty, she only thinks of herself").

7. Intellectualization: Thinking about everything in a detached, cold, thoughtful manner ("Death is a natural part of life. No one can avoid it. It is not worth crying over").

8. Rationalization: Explaining unacceptable behavior in a logical manner and ignoring the true reasons for the behavior ("The reason I got so drunk last night was because of my stressful day at work. I never would have had that much to drink if George hadn't been covering my tab").

9. Regression: Giving up on coping strategies and reverting to earlier levels of development ("Now, where did I put that adult-sized diaper?").

10. Reaction Formation: Taking a negative feeling and acting in the exact opposite manner (Treating someone you dislike with a tremendous amount of respect).

Do you recognize any of these processes at work in your life? Do you have a favoriate defense mechanism? Which ones seem healthier than others?

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.


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