Toward a Unified Metaphysical Understanding: Ego Defence Mechanisms    
 Ego Defence Mechanisms
2009-04-12, by John Ringland

The individual ego is a self perpetuating thought process within the mind that identifies with the activity of the mind and the contents of the mind and assumes that “I did that”. The collective ego is a ruling regime within a culture that identifies with the activity of the culture and the contents of the culture and assumes that “it is responsible and in control”.

In the same way that an individual ego believes that the organism is “its body” so too does a collective ego identify with the population. Thus the term 'ego' refers to the general phenomenon, which may be an individual ego in an organism or a collective ego in a civilisation.

Ego Defence Mechanisms are psychological strategies brought into play by individuals, groups and nations to cope with reality and to maintain self-image. An ego defence mechanism becomes pathological when its persistent use leads to maladaptive behaviour such that physical and/or mental health is adversely affected. The purpose of the Ego Defence Mechanisms is to protect the ego from anxiety, social sanctions or to provide a refuge from a situation that it cannot currently cope with.

Ego Defence Mechanism are pathological when they prevent the individual or collective from being able to cope with a real threat and it obscures their ability to perceive reality. Ego defence mechanisms are basically immature and are commonly used during the formation of the ego but usually persist throughout the life of the entity. Use of defence mechanisms prevents optimal coping with reality and leads to inappropriate behaviour. They are neurotic and common in almost everyone, and are not optimal for healthy reality coping and lead to problems with participation in the world thus they generally result in suffering.

Defence mechanisms are used by the ego to consolidate and maintain itself. Mental illness is a dysfunctional demonstration of a pathological maladaptive response to life events. An ego defence mechanism becomes pathological when:

  • the defence mechanism becomes rigid, inflexible, and exclusive in its implementation,

  • the motivation for using the particular defence mechanism is oriented more in the past than in the needs demonstrated in present or future,

  • the defence mechanism being used severely distorts the triggering conditions,

  • the defence mechanism being used leads to significant problems in functioning and effective participation,

  • the use of the defence mechanism impedes or distorts the expression of emotions and feelings, rather than re-channelling them effectively,

The use of ego defences is related to poor adjustment throughout the process of development and results in greater conflict and tension, poor ability to create and maintain relationships, higher likelihood of mental illness and poorer health in general.

Types of Defence Mechanisms

Level 1

The mechanisms on this level are severely pathological. These three defences, in conjunction, permit one to effectively rearrange ones perceptions of reality to avoid coping with reality. These defences, although extremely destructive, are very common. They include:

Denial: is the refusal to accept something because it is too threatening; arguing against an anxiety provoking stimuli by stating it doesn't exist. This involves resolution of emotional conflict and reduction of anxiety by refusing to perceive or consciously acknowledge the more unpleasant aspects of a situation.

Denial is a defence mechanism in which one is faced with a fact that is too uncomfortable to accept and rejects it instead, insisting that it is not true despite what may be overwhelming evidence. The subject may deny the reality of the unpleasant fact altogether (simple denial), admit the fact but deny its seriousness (minimisation) or admit both the fact and seriousness but deny responsibility (transference).

The concept of denial is particularly important to the study of pathological behaviour. The ability to deny or minimize is an essential part of what enables an ego to continue its self-deception in the face of evidence that, to an outsider, appears overwhelming. This is one of the reasons that rational discussion is seldom effective in liberating a mind or culture from an oppressive ego.

Denial of denial can be difficult to identify within oneself, hence it is a major barrier to changing pathological ways of being. Denial of denial involves thoughts, actions and behaviours which bolster confidence that nothing needs to be changed. This form of denial typically overlaps with all of the other forms of denial, but involves a deeper level of self-delusion.

Once pathological behaviour has been exhibited, a common strategy of the ego-dominated person is to attack those who attempt to make them accountable for their offence, thereby reversing victim and offender roles. "I have observed that actual abusers threaten, bully and make a nightmare for anyone who holds them accountable or asks them to change their abusive behavior. This attack, intended to chill and terrify, typically includes threats of law suits, overt and covert attacks on the whistle-blower's credibility, and so on..... [T]he offender rapidly creates the impression that the abuser is the wronged one, while the victim or concerned observer is the offender. Figure and ground are completely reversed... The offender is on the offense and the person attempting to hold the offender accountable is put on the defense." (Freyd, J.J. (1997) Violations of power, adaptive blindness, and betrayal trauma theory)

Distortion: a reshaping of ones perceptions and understanding of reality to meet the internal needs of the ego. This is where the ego constructs and maintains, within the mind or culture, a fantasy representation of the situation and treats that fantasy as if it was the actual situation.

Delusional Projection: delusions about reality based upon the needs of the ego, which are often of a persecutory nature. Due to denial, the actual situation is unrecognised and due to distortion the fantasised situation is experienced. Thus judgements, statements and actions are projected from the fantasy onto the actual situation, where they are inevitably inappropriate.

Level 2

These mechanisms lessen distress and anxiety provoked by threatening situations or by uncomfortable aspects of reality. Entities that excessively use such defences are seen as socially undesirable in that they are immature, difficult to deal with and seriously out of touch with reality. These are the so-called "immature" defences and their use almost always lead to serious problems in one's ability to cope effectively. These defences are often seen in severe depression, personality disorders and fascist regimes. In human adolescence, the occurrence of all of these defences is normal. They include:

Fantasy: a tendency to retreat into fantasy in order to resolve inner and outer conflicts.

Projection: a primitive form of paranoia. Projection also reduces anxiety by allowing the expression of the undesirable impulses or desires without becoming consciously aware of them; attributing one's own unacknowledged unacceptable/unwanted thoughts and emotions to another; includes severe prejudice, severe jealousy, hypervigilance to external danger, and "injustice collecting". It is shifting one's unacceptable thoughts, feelings and impulses within oneself onto someone else, such that those same thoughts, feelings, beliefs and motivations as perceived as being possessed by the other.

Hypochondriasis: the transformation of negative feelings towards others into negative feelings toward self, pain, illness and anxiety.

Passive Aggression: aggression towards others expressed indirectly or passively.

Acting Out: direct expression of an unconscious wish or impulse without conscious awareness of the emotion that drives that expressive behaviour.

Level 3

These mechanisms are considered neurotic and are common in egoic entities. Such defences have short-term advantages in coping, but can often cause long-term problems in relationships and effective interaction, and often result in suffering when used as one's primary style of coping with one's situation. They include:

Displacement: a defence mechanism that shifts primitive impulses to a more acceptable or less threatening target; redirecting emotion to a safer outlet; separation of emotion from its real object and redirection of the intense emotion toward an entity that is less threatening in order to avoid dealing directly with what is frightening or threatening.

Dissociation: a temporary drastic modification of one's own identity or character to avoid emotional distress; separation or postponement of a feeling that normally would accompany a situation or thought.

Intellectualisation: a form of isolation; concentrating exclusively on the intellectual components of a situation so as to distance oneself from the associated anxiety-provoking emotions; separation of emotion from ideas; thinking about wishes in formal, affectively bland terms and not acting on them.

Reaction Formation: converting unconscious wishes or impulses that are perceived to be dangerous into their opposites; behaviour that is completely the opposite of what one really wants or feels; taking the opposite belief because the true belief causes anxiety. This defence can work effectively for coping in the short term, but will eventually break down.

Repression: the process of pulling thoughts into the unconscious and preventing painful or dangerous thoughts from entering consciousness. Manifests as seemingly unexplainable naivete, memory lapse or lack of awareness of one's own situation and condition; the emotion is conscious, but the idea behind it is absent.

Level 4

These are commonly considered the most mature, even though they have their origins in the immature level. However, these have been adapted through the years so as to optimise effective participation and relationships. The use of these defences enhances the ego's pleasure and feelings of mastery in non-destructive ways. These defences help the ego to integrate conflicting emotions and thoughts while still remaining in control. Entities that use these mechanisms are often perceived to have virtues. They include:

Altruism: constructive service to others that brings pleasure and personal satisfaction.

Anticipation: realistic planning for future discomfort.

Humour: overt expression of ideas and feelings (especially those that are unpleasant to focus on or too terrible to talk about) that gives pleasure to others. Humour enables someone to call a spade a spade, while "wit" is a form of displacement (see above under Level 3)

Identification: the unconscious modelling of one's self upon another's character and behaviour.

Introjection: identifying with some idea or object so deeply that it becomes a part of the entity's self-image.

Suppression: the conscious process of pushing thoughts into the preconscious; the conscious decision to delay paying attention to an emotion or need in order to cope with the present reality; then later to access the uncomfortable or distressing emotions and accept them.

Sublimation: transformation of negative emotions or instincts into positive action, behaviour, or emotion; acting out unacceptable impulses in a socially acceptable way; refocusing of psychic energy away from negative outlets to more positive ones; sublimation is the process of funnelling the unacceptable into socially useful achievements. Sublimation is instrumental to the development of culture and civilization. Psychoanalysts often refer to sublimation as the only truly successful defence mechanism.

Paraphrased and adapted from: and

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