Famous Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud undertook some of the earliest extensive studies on the human mind. For instance, he discovered that the human mind is largely made up of two parts: a much bigger unconscious part and a smaller conscious part (which he described as just a tip of the iceberg).
Though he pointed out the existence of a subconscious part of the mind, which normally swings between the conscious and unconscious, he was of the idea that most of our involuntary behaviors originate from the unconscious part of our minds.
From his studies, Freud discovered that, during situations which cause distress and anxiety, the human mind has the capacity to naturally develop what he referred to as defense mechanisms, so as to cope with such circumstances.
These are unconscious behaviors which might enable individuals to separate themselves from unpleasant events, thoughts or actions. Defense mechanisms help us to reflexively distance ourselves from threats or unpleasant feelings, such as anxiety, guilt or shame.
Freud developed the idea of defense mechanisms from his Psychoanalytic Theory, which then gave rise to the Psychodynamic Perspective of modern psychology. This particular perspective of personality views human personality as being a product of the interaction between three distinct components: the id, ego and super-ego.
The Psychodynamic perspective of psychology has since evolved, after several subsequent studies by other psychologists, including Sigmund Freud’s own daughter- Anna Freud. However, majority of psychologists who subscribe to the psychodynamic perspective are in agreement that most human behaviours, just like defense mechanisms, are never under our conscious control. Hence, most of our behaviours are bound to manifest automatically.
HOW DO THE DEFENSE MECHANISMS WORK?
According Sigmund Freud’s model of personality, there are three components of human personality i.e. the id, ego and super-ego. The three are always in conflict with each other, hence the main source of anxiety.
- The Ego: This is the rational part of our personality, which deals with reality and makes the right decisions. Hence it is the executive part of our personality, which controls the demands of the unreasonable id until an appropriate time and space is available. This part normally develops as an individual grows and interacts with the environment. The ego is realistic given that it is the seat of higher cognitive abilities like intelligence, reasoning, thoughtfulness and learning.
For instance, if you are hungry and the id demands that you immediately eat any food that you come across, the ego will have to make a decision on when and whether it is appropriate to eat, besides deciding on the type of food to eat.
- The Id: This part of human personality is considered to be infantile (childish) since it seeks to fulfill all our wants, impulses and desires instantly. The id is innate, hence all of us are born with it, and it works on a pleasure-seeking principle.
It is the most basic, primitive and biological part of our personality, hence only responds to biologically based needs such as food, warmth and sexual gratification. The id always wants immediate gratification of these needs, whatever the cost or circumstances, which makes its demands very illogical or irrational.
- The Superego: This is the part of human personality that wants us to act in an idealistic and moral manner; hence determines what is right and what is wrong. It is made up of all the internalized morals and values that we acquire from our environment, as we grow. These might include the morals and values that we get from our parents, teachers, close family members, religious dogma and the society in general.
When you were growing up, you might have been told severally how wrong it was to steal other people’s property, you were also expected to respect elders, you were reminded to say thank you or sorry whenever circumstances demanded so, and always be kind to others. These values and morals form the basis for the superego.
While walking on a long stretch of a road, a man realizes that his bladder is full and he is really pressed. In this case, the id might instantly demand that you find a place, by the roadside, and pee so as to release the tension and get some relief.
On the other hand, the superego will tell you not to pee by the roadside since doing so, in a public place, is bad manners and simply foolish. What will the people passing by think of you? Meanwhile, the ego will receive both demands and try to weigh them and decide what the most rational action that needs to be taken is.
The ego will consider the situation and probably find out that the next available washroom that you can use is about two kilometres away and there is a possibility of you peeing in your trousers before you reach them. The two realistic options might then be: you either find a spot on the roadside and relief yourself, while enduring the shame that comes with it, or risk the bigger shame of wetting your trousers and showing up at the office looking all wet and awkward.
The ego might then quickly decide to take the risk of peeing at a corner by the roadside (most likely, on some wall with big handwritten words that scream “USIKOJOE HAPA!” Of course, as you do your thing, some passers-by will stare at you as if you have two empty heads.
However, your ego will have reasoned that it is easier to bear the shame of strangers staring at you as you “shake your gadget well after use,” or even risk getting into trouble with “Kanjo,” than having to face the shame of showing up at the office all wet. You will definitely have no plausible explanation regarding how you ended up all wet, yet there is no rain outside! In this case, your id wins.
You just lost a job, hence only source of livelihood, in the layoffs triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. So you are as broke as a church mouse, yet you have a family that fully depends on you and your rent is in three months arrears.
One morning you get a text notification on your phone and mumble to yourself; “That must be the silly landlord again! Kwani which bank does he think I robbed during the night? I spoke to him just last evening!”
Then on checking you find out it is an Mpesa message, beginning with the golden words: OFM8602WY4 Confirmed. You have received 50,000.00 from…. you instantly know it is money sent to the wrong number, since you were not expecting any money and the sender’s name isn’t familiar. Another message comes immediately telling you, “Pris hiyo pesa irikuwa ya mgonjwa ya kuripiwo biro ya hospitari, tafadhli naomba uniludishie tu.”
The id will immediately run berserk reminding you all the money problems that you have and how God has answered your prayer. It will then urge you to rush and withdraw the money immediately, before the owner reverses the transaction. Conversely, the superego will scream at you, “Stop! That is wrong and immoral! Just send the money back to the owner!”
The ego will consider both proposals carefully. If the id ends up winning and you withdraw the money then switch off your phone, the ensuing internal conflict and guilt will weigh heavily on your ego for a long time to come.
On the contrary, the ego might reason that, “What if it were you who sent such an amount of money to a wrong number? How would you expect to be treated? Eventually, you might decide to send the money back and it this case, your ego will feel relieved and even proud for having upheld the right morals.
We face several such dilemmas in life, some even bigger than the two examples above. Consequently our egos are always under intense pressure from conflicting demands made by the id and superego. The ego has to make very tough decisions, especially when we are going through rough patches in life. If we depend on our id too much, we risk being social misfits. Also, if we depend on our superego too much, we might become lousy perfectionists and even risk our lives by denying our bodies some very necessary basic needs.
You just lost your office job. Your id tells you, “get up and go sell cabbages by the roadside or wash clothes for people; all you need is money and it doesn’t matter how you get it. After all, you urgently need some cash to feed your family!” The superego will tell you, “wait a minute, from an office job to washing clothes for people? That will be too shameful!” Your ego will eventually have to make the most suitable decision based on the reality on the ground. You will probably end up choosing to sink into more debt, as you look a new job.
When faced with such big dilemmas, and the incessant conflicting demands from the id and superego, what automatically follows is anxiety, stress and depression. In order to deal with such anxiety, Sigmund Freud believed that involuntary behaviors known as defense mechanisms help us in shielding the ego from the conflicts created by the contradicting demands of the id and superego, vis a vis the reality on the ground.
Defense mechanisms are therefore a normal and natural aspect of psychological development. However, you need to clearly identify which kind of defense mechanism you, and those around you employ, in various situations, if you are to maintain healthy relationships. This is because some of these mechanisms end up hurting the people around you.
10 Most Common Defense Mechanisms
As indicated earlier, defense mechanisms are not under one’s conscious control. From my own observations, a number of these psychological responses have been on the rise during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since some of these psychological responses negatively affect those around us, it would be advisable for you to introspectively evaluate yourself and see which one of them you have been exhibiting, and how it has been affecting others.
This refers to the tendency to choose a substitute object for the expression of your feelings, simply because you cannot express them directly to the real target. Therefore, you might find yourself directing strong emotions and frustrations towards the wrong (normally weaker) person or object because they feel less threatening to you. While this allows you to satisfy an impulse to react, it also offers you a more convenient and safer target that doesn’t come with significant consequences.
For instance, after getting annoyed or embarrassed by your boss at work, it is easy to find yourself going home and harassing your spouse and kids on flimsy grounds. This is because you are unable to hit back at your boss for fear of losing your job. Your spouse might also decide to turn the heat on the children, since she/he may not be in a position to hit back at you.
Many more examples abound around us. Have you ever found yourself harassing a person who is weaker or junior to you just because a superior individual has annoyed you? There are many more cases of misplaced aggression around us. Just look at how mobs of Kenyans have been viciously attacking hapless victims on social media (especially Twitter and Facebook). Most of the people who trawl or bully others on social media employ displacement since, in most cases, they’re dealing with bigger and more intimidating issues in their own lives.
Folks who use this defense mechanism recognize their unconscious feelings, but they consciously choose to behave in a manner that is opposite to their instincts. In most cases, their conscious thoughts or feelings are experienced as quite real.
For instance, a person may choose to become very considerate and polite to a person that they hate, to an extent that they go out of their way to be very nice to such people. This covers for the deep anger and hatred that they feel towards the person.
Another locally relevant example is when you find a student whom, given a chance, can cheat in exams, but they are in the forefront complaining about excessive cheating among their colleagues. Similarly, you are likely to find a politician who is very tribal/racial and corrupt at heart, being the first one to complain loudly about the levels of tribalism/racism and corruption in the country. This defense mechanisms makes such people horrible hypocrites and hence hard to trust.
This happens when we attribute our unwanted feelings and characteristics to someone else. For instance, a student who is weak in a particular subject may complain that his or her teacher is very poor or weak in the said subject. They then go ahead to believe that this is the cause of their problems in the subject.
Similarly, an unfaithful spouse may accuse his or her spouse of unfaithfulness and will always suspect them. Hence, this defense mechanism causes shifting of blame, which is likely to mess up relationships. This is because you see in people, wrong things that you unconsciously desire to do yourself.
This is a situation where you completely refuse to accept certain aspects of reality, especially if such realities are painful or distressing. There are many instances where we may refuse to accept certain experiences in life. For instance, it is normally hard to accept that we have lost a loved one to death or even separation and divorce. You may also refuse to accept that you have been diagnosed with a terminal disease.
Faced with rejection by their crush, you might have heard some people say (In Kenyan street parlance), “Amenikataa lakini sijasikia vibaya.” You may not know it, but most Kenyans “hear” their feelings. Denial is one of the most common defense mechanisms and, in most cases, it is temporary since the reality soon sets in.
As CS Mutahi Kagwe will tell you, the more you continue behaving normally, as if nothing happened, the more the situation might end up dealing with you abnormally. When reality finally dawns, people react differently. Some may cry a river to vent out their frustrations, while others might seek counselling in order to find some closure to the issue affecting them.
Denial is what we nomally call burying one’s head in the sand and it only serves to delay the right actions from being taken.
This is a situation where, using your own set of facts, you may try to find an acceptable excuse to justify something that is improper or undesirable. It normally involves justifying your own or other people’s actions and believing it. This makes you comfortable with the choices that you make, even when deep down you know they are wrong.
For instance, a guy who asks a lady out and he is turned down might end saying things like: “I wasn’t even serious with her” or “she is not even as pretty as I thought.” You might also hear such people saying, “hata sikuwa serious na yeye.”
However, rationalization might take a dangerous angle when victims of violence or abuse rationalize the violent behavior meted on them, by known aggressors. For instance, a spouse in an abusive marriage, where she is physically abused, might say things like, “he psychologically abuses me or hits me because I make him angry.” This is how people end up staying in abusive relationships for far too long.
This involves forcing hurting or painful memories, experiences, feelings, or wishes out of the conscious to the unconscious part of the mind. This is done in the hope that you will end up forgetting about them completely.
However, it doesn’t mean that these bad painful experiences will completely disappear. They are likely to resurface and influence future behaviors or even unconsciously impact on your future relationships.
For instance, you may want to forget that you were brought up in an abusive home where your parents always fought. However, this might resurface to affect the way you behave in your own marriage several years later.
Similarly, if you were embarrassed in front of an entire class, when you failed to answer a simple question and everyone laughed at you, this might later on unconsciously come to affect how you behave in front of crowds.
This is a situation where when you feel threatened or anxious, you may unconsciously “escape” into behaviors that you exhibited in an earlier stage of development. This is most obvious in young children. Whenever they experience trauma or loss, they may suddenly behave as if they are young again. They may even begin behaviors that they had outgrown, such as wetting their beds or sucking their fingers, again.
Adults can also regress. When struggling to cope with painful events, some people may turn to their childhood behaviors such as sleeping while cuddling a cherished stuffed animal or chewing on pens or pencils, and even nibbling at their finger nails.
This is a form of displacement where a substitute (more acceptable) activity is adopted to express an unacceptable impulse. This type of defense mechanism is considered as positive since people who adopt it choose to re-channel strong emotions or feelings into an object or activity that is more socially appropriate and safe.
For example, a person who is naturally inclined to have aggressive tendencies or impulses may express them in a more socially acceptable sport such as boxing. This will then allow the individual to be aggressive without being criticized by society or finding themselves on the wrong side of the law.
My Psychology 101 professor gave us a very interesting example of a doctor that he knew, who enjoyed applying anesthesia to patients that he put to sleep before they underwent surgery. The the anesthetist seemed to enjoy his work to an extent that he would proudly say, “let me knock this one off in a minute…” and seemed to get real pleasure out of it.
My prof thought that, in another life, this particular doctor could easily be a serial killer. This is in line with Sigmund Freud’s own assertions that people who opt to be surgeons have aggressive tendencies, which they express in a more acceptable way through surgery. Some people might choose to channel their frustrations into regular workouts at the gym, while some could also channel or redirect their emotions into art, writing, music, or sports.
This happens when you separate your life into independent sectors, which may feel like an easy way to protect several elements of it. For instance, one might choose to avoid discussing personal life issues when at work or in school. You completely block off, or compartmentalize, that aspect of your life. This allows you to carry on with important current activities, without facing the challenges or anxieties emanating from other sectors of your life.
Many of us are guilty of this type of defense mechanism. When faced with a challenging situation, we may choose to remove all emotion from our responses and instead focus on hard facts. This works to mitigate anxiety by thinking about events in a cold, clinical way. Intellectualization allows us to avoid worrying about the distressing, emotional aspect of the situation and instead focus only on the intellectual component.
For instance, a person who has just been diagnosed with a terminal illness may decide to fully focus on learning everything about the disease that they can lay their hands on. Some conduct extensive researches to an extent that they become “experts” on the subject. This helps them to avoid any attendant distress by distancing themselves from the reality of the situation.
Cherry, K. (2020). Common Defense Mechanisms People Use to Cope with Anxiety. Retrieved 4 July 2020, from https://www.verywellmind.com/defense-mechanisms-2795960
Waqas A, Rehman A, Malik A, et al. (September 30, 2015) Association of Ego Defense Mechanisms with Academic Performance, Anxiety and Depression in Medical Students: A Mixed Methods Study. Cureus 7(9): e337. doi:10.7759/cureus.337
Holland, K., & Legg, T. (2019). Top 10 Defense Mechanisms and Why We Use Them. Retrieved 4 July 2020, from https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/defense-mechanisms#treatment