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Defense Mechanisms

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Defense Mechanisms and Ego Anxiety
Defense mechanisms help the ego cope with reality

Defense mechanisms help the ego reduce anxiety.

Image: Jasper Greek Golangco

You've probably heard people talk about "defense mechanisms," or ways that we protect ourselves from things that we don't want to think about or deal with. The term got its start in psychoanalytic therapy, but it has slowly worked its way into everyday language. Think of the last time you referred to someone as being "in denial" or accused someone of "rationalizing." Both of these examples refer to a type of defense mechanism.

In Sigmund Freud's topographical model of personality, the ego is the aspect of personality that deals with reality. While doing this, the ego also has to cope with the conflicting demands of the id and the superego. The id seeks to fulfill all wants, needs, and impulses while the superego tries to get the ego to act in an idealistic and moral manner.

What happens when the ego cannot deal with the demands of our desires, the constraints of reality, and our own moral standards? According to Freud, anxiety is an unpleasant inner state that people seek to avoid. Anxiety acts as a signal to the ego that things are not going right. As a result, the ego then employs a defense mechanism to help reduce these feelings of anxiety.

Frued identified three types of anxiety:

  1. Neurotic anxiety is the unconscious worry that we will lose control of the id's urges, resulting in punishment for inappropriate behavior.

  2. Reality anxiety is fear of real-world events. The cause of this anxiety is usually easily identified. For example, a person might fear receiving a dog bite when they are near a menacing dog. The most common way of reducing this anxiety is to avoid the threatening object.

  3. Moral anxiety involves a fear of violating our own moral principles.

In order to deal with this anxiety, Freud believed that defense mechanisms helped shield the ego from the conflicts created by the id, superego, and reality.

Next: What is a Defense Mechanism?

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