10 Basic Defense Mechanisms and the Ego

The Ego's Coping Skills

Phobias are a form of anxiety disorder.
Phobias are a form of anxiety disorder. Peopleimages/Getty Images

In psychoanalytic theory, the ego is the rational portion of the mind that attempts to balance the needs of the primal id and the judgmental superego. Anxiety is rooted in this struggle for balance. To alleviate the tension caused by anxiety, the ego employs a number of coping strategies, often known as defense mechanisms. Anna Freud, daughter of Sigmund Freud, identified ten basic defense mechanisms, all of which involve some level of subconscious or unconscious distortion of reality.

  • Denial -- Denial may be the best-known defense mechanism of all. In denial, the ego tries to believe that a particular situation does not exist. Denial is particularly common in substance abusers who "can quit any time."

  • Repression -- Repression is the tendency to push painful memories into the subconscious. Instead of going away, these memories may continue to influence our current behaviors.

  • Suppression -- Suppression is an intentional form of repression, in which we actively work to avoid painful memories.

  • Sublimation -- Sublimation is the attempt to turn an inappropriate urge into something more socially acceptable, like taking up karate rather than beating up one's boss.

  • Projection -- Projection is the tendency to believe that someone else holds the opinion or feeling that we want to avoid. An example is a racist who accuses others of racism.

  • Displacement -- Displacement occurs when we attribute our feelings to an innocent target. Someone who kicks the dog after a fight with his wife is exhibiting displacement.

  • Intellectualization -- Intellectualization occurs when we divorce ourselves from our feelings about a situation. An example is someone who systematically searches the Internet for work-at-home jobs rather than confronting his feelings about being laid off.

  • Reaction Formation -- In reaction formation, we overreact to a feeling by behaving in the complete opposite manner. Skydiving with a phobia of heights is an example of reaction formation.

  • Rationalization -- Rationalization gives alternative, often untrue or partially true, explanations for behaviors or feelings. The classic example is known as sour grapes: In "The Fox and the Grapes," from Aesop's Fables, a fox tries desperately to reach some grapes on a nearby vine, but is unsuccessful. As the fox gives up, he decides that the grapes were sour anyway.

  • Regression -- Regression is the tendency to become fixated on a particular developmental stage. For example, those stuck in the oral stage may overeat or take up smoking.

Later authors have identified additional defense mechanisms. Depending on the circumstances, a defense mechanism can be either positive or negative. Together, our defense mechanisms help us cope with the ups and downs of daily life in a socially acceptable manner.

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