Ego Defence Mechanisms, or adjustment or metal mechanisms, as they are sometimes called, consist of some of the several ways of responding to frustrations and conflicts. They are ways of finding out-let to repressed and frustrated desires. They enable individuals to ward off or reduce tensions and anxieties arising from frustration, and thus, protect their self-esteem or personality from embarrassment and obvious disintegration. In fact, they are ways of moderating levels of emotions and anxiety created by stresses and unresolved psycho-social problems brought about repressed urges and desires which are in conflict between individual’s ideas and realities of life, and those frustrations and disappointments we meet in our social interactions and daily life.
According to Stigmund Freud’s psycho-dynamic theory, ego or mental defence mechanisms arise from the fact that we all, at one time or the other, have certain urges and desires which are morally or socially unacceptable in the society. Thus, due to the social or moral unacceptability of such urges and desires, they are repressed. To protect the individual from the frustration and emotional stresses arising from the inability to realize such desires or urges, and their consequent repression, certain defenses are put forward by individual’s either consciously or unconsciously, to protect their self-esteem or ego (personality).
But overuse of such mechanisms may result to manifestation of neurotic symptoms. People who are neurotic spend so much time and energy trying to deflect and disguise the unacceptable urges and desires that they are hardly left with any energy for productive and meaningful living or satisfying relationships.
A number of such ego defence mechanisms have been identified by a British psychoanalyst and daughter of Sigmund Freud, Ann Freud. Briefly discussed here are some of the Ego Defence Mechanisms:
This defence mechanism is a situation whereby a person frames certain faulty or socially laudable logic in order to explain away, or as an excuse for socially unacceptable habits or behaviour. For instance, a heavy drinker confronted with the danger of his drinking habit may claim that he feels happier or even more rational in thinking when he is drunk. Rationalization has two main defensive values:
i. It helps to justify specific behaviours, and
ii. It aids in softening the disappointment connected with unattainable goals. For instance, a student expelled from the polytechnic may claim that he did not really like going to a polytechnic.
Have you ever seen your own emotions and intentions in someone else’s before? When we perceive our own undesirable traits or motives in others, we are demonstrating projection. By the use of this mechanism, we may blame others for our shortcomings or difficulties. Or we may attribute to others, our own unacceptable desires. For instance, a week student who has failed his course may blame his failure on the strict way his scripts had been marked by the lecturers. Or a cheat may believe that every other person around is a cheat.
Sublimation has been described as working off frustrated desire (especially sexual desires) in substitute activities that are constructive and accepted by the society. It is the channelling of the psychomotor energies generated Libidinal urges and other repressed impulses to a more socially useful activities. For instance, the irresistible urges to tell lies may be channelled to fiction writing and a barren woman may substitute her frustrated maternal urges by choosing to work at an orphanage or by running a nursery home.
Sigmund Freud believes that art, music, poetry, scientific discoveries and other such creative activities, largely represent a rechannelling of frustrated sexual energies into productive behaviours.
Compensation is a form of behaviour whereby a person tries to make up for some personal defecr or fault. Compensatory reactions serve as defenses feelings of inferiority. A person who has a deficiency (real or imagined) may go unusua lengths to overcome the weakness or to compensate for it by excelling in other areas. For example, a student who has been very unsuccessful in his academic programmes may join either school football team or music band and become successful in this area.
Compensation may be direct or indirect, positive or negative. Direct compensation consists in intensifying efforts to achieve success in the very or the same field the person feels inferior. For example, a student who is very weak at mathematics may change his reading habit, buy better books and even pay for extra lectures and eventually becomes a good mathematics student.
Indirect compensation is when a person attempts to make up for his failure by achieving success in a different or alternative field. An example of this type of compensation is a case of a student who drops out of school because of below average performance and later joins petty trading business and makes enough money as to earn the respect of his former school mates used to despise him for his failure in school. Another example is a very ugly and unattractive young lady who devotes all her time and energy to her studies that she becomes very intelligent and wins the admiration of her schoolmates and others.
What makes compensatory activity positive or negative depends on how desirable or undesirable such activity is to the individual and the effect it has on his social relation and adjustment with others. Positive or desirable compensation is like the example given about the school dropper who joined petty business. An undesirable or negative compensation may be given with the case of a dull student who was feeling inferior to his class-mates because of his dullness and snobbish attitude of the more brilliant ones in the class. To compensate for this inferiority, Valentine, as he was called, joined cult group and began to resort to intimidation and aggressive attitude toward his fellow students, but was eventually expelled from school.
5. Denial Of Reality
Denial of reality is an attempt to “Screen out” disagreeable realities by ignoring or refusing to accept their existence. It is probably the simplest and most primitives of all self defence mechanisms. Sometimes, it is called “Reality Evasion”.
This defense mechanism has to do with discharging pent-up feelings, usually of hostility, on objects less dangerous than those initially arousing the emotion of frustration. For instance, a child who is angry with a parent may vent out the anger on a younger brother or sister; or a young lady who has been jilted by her lover may give out-let to her frustration by destroying the lover’s pictures and other items that remind her of her lover.
Identification is a situation whereby an individual tries to enhance his feelings of worth and protect himself against self-devaluation, when threatened with low self esteem or failure, by associating himself with those who have been successful in one way or the other. E.g. illiterat persons would always boast of their well read friends or relatives, while poor persons would always boast of their very rich relatives or friends.
Introjection is closely related to identification. As a defence reaction, it involves the acceptance of other’s values and norms as one’s own, even when they are contrary to one’s previous assumptions and beliefs. In fact, introjection has been referred to as “Identification with the aggressor or dictator”, and is a defensive reaction that seems to follow the principle, “if you can’t beat them, join them”. For instance, during Abacha’s regime, some persons identified with him out of fear and not out of their will.
This is a defence mechanism by means of which threatening or painful thoughts and desires are excluded from consciouness. It is sometimes referred to as selective forgetting. Although the memory of the experience so repressed or suppressed is denied admission in the conscious awareness, it is not really forgotten. For instance, a soldier who has seen his best friend’s head shattered with bayonet at battle front may find the sight so terribly painful that he excludes the memory of the sight from consciousness and becomes “amnesic” of the battle experience.
Repression is a very importanct self-defence mechanism in that it affords protection from sudden traumatic experiences. It may also help an individual to control morally unacceptable desires, and at the same time alleviate the anxiety associated with the desires.
10. Reaction Formation
Reaction formation involves hiding one’s emotional desires by not only repressing them, but also developing conscious attitude and behaviour patterns that are just the direct opposit. For an example, desires of sexual promiscuity may be concealed under moralistic sexual attitudes and behaviours, such as advocating for punitive punishment against those caught in sexual misconduct, or joining some religious groups to preach against sex. By so doing, the individual successfully or partially represses his or her own real desires and emotions.
The examples discussed above are not in any way exhaustive of the numerous ego defense mechanisms which people use in various degrees as psychological measures to ward off some frustrated situations that are likely to harm or upset their psychological balance. Others that worth mentioning here include: regression, intellectualization, withdrawal, undoing, acting out, emotional insulation, fantasy, procrastination, etc.
As earlier stated, the above defence mechanisms can only serve their purpose as long as they are used within limit, that is, as temporary means, but when they come to be relied so much upon and seen as solutions to problems, they may lead to worse frustrations, which may likely result to manifestation of some mental symptoms and neurotic reactions.