Defence Mechanism

Defence mechanism is an unconscious psychological operation that functions to protect a person from anxiety-producing thoughts and feelings related to internal conflicts and outer stressors.

Defence mechanisms  are psychological strategies brought into play by the unconscious mind to manipulate, deny, or distort reality in order to defend against feelings of anxiety and unacceptable impulses and to maintain one’s self-schema or other schemas.

These processes that manipulate, deny, or distort reality may include the following: repression, or the burying of a painful feeling or thought from one’s awareness even though it may resurface in a symbolic form; identification, incorporating an object or thought into oneself; and rationalization, the justification of one’s behaviour and motivations by substituting “good” acceptable reasons for the actual motivations.

In psychoanalytic theory, repression is considered the basis for other defence mechanisms.

©VERYWELLMIND

Psychiatrist George Eman Vaillant introduced a four-level classification of defence mechanisms: 

Much of this is derived from his observations while overseeing the Grant study that began in 1937 and is on-going. In monitoring a group of men from their freshman year at Harvard until their deaths, the purpose of the study was to see longitudinally what psychological mechanisms proved to have impact over the course of a lifetime.

The hierarchy was seen to correlate well with the capacity to adapt to life. His most comprehensive summary of the on-going study was published in 1977.

The focus of the study is to define mental health rather than disorder.

  • Level I – pathological defences (psychotic denial, delusional projection)
  • Level II – immature defences (fantasy, projection, passive aggression, acting out)
  • Level III – neurotic defences (intellectualization, reaction formation, dissociation, displacement, repression)
  • Level IV – mature defences (humour, sublimation, suppression, altruism, anticipation)
©CALMSAGE

Defence mechanisms may result in healthy or unhealthy consequences depending on the circumstances and frequency with which the mechanism is used.

Healthy people normally use different defence mechanisms throughout life. A defence mechanism becomes pathological only when its persistent use leads to maladaptive behaviour such that the physical or mental health of the individual is adversely affected.

Among the purposes of ego defence mechanisms is to protect the mind/self/ego from anxiety or social sanctions or to provide a refuge from a situation with which one cannot currently cope.

There are many different perspectives on how the construct of defence relates to the construct of coping; some writers differentiate the constructs in various ways, but “an important literature exists that does not make any difference between the two concepts”.

In at least one of his books, George Eman Vaillant stated that he “will use the terms adaptation, resilience, coping, and defense interchangeably”.

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