Mr Freud is a bit of a fave of mine. I mean his theory, Psychoanalysis, was around in the time of 1896 and it is still being used and studied today. It has been elaborated on and taken up in various forms by other theorists, but it’s certainly stood the test of time! If you have ever heard of the phrase ‘Freudian Slip’ this is related to the man himself. It means that you have said something in error but in reality it has revealed some unconscious feelings inside of you.
He founded some big concepts in psychodynamic theory and one of these were called defence mechanisms. Sounds a bit technical doesn’t it? But it’s really describing manners in which we behave or think to protect or defend ourselves.
You see Freud said that we had three parts to our personality, the Id, Ego and Superego. Unfortunately the poor Ego can come under fire from the warring Id and Superego and so it cleverly devised these defence mechanisms to help us survive. They deny, manipulate or distort reality and protect us from anxiety or guilt. Most of them are entirely unconscious.
So if they help they are ok then?
Yes they are natural and help us to cope. But, like with most things though, if they are used too much, or we become dependent on them we can develop anxiety, phobias, obsessions or even addictions. Some can even lead to abusive behaviour.
Ok, is that it?
Not entirely. They do a pretty good job of keeping us stuck. Also, on the flip side of protecting us from uncomfortable feelings, they stop us from seeing what we have done wrong. If we can’t recognise when we have made mistakes we cannot learn, we don’t realise that we have unintentionally hurt someone and therefore cannot make amends. Life then becomes uncomfortable for people around us.
How do I recognise them?
Let me give you a few scenarios.
Take the woman who is in a relationship with someone who cheats on her. She knows he cheats so she doesn’t use the defence of denial. She may use the defence mechanism of rationalisation to explain this to a friend and say it wasn’t his fault because……and then give a rational explanation. Rationalisation is used to avoid addressing the underlying reasons for a behaviour. It helps people maintain their self-respect. In other words, we believe our lies. The woman may not want to address the reasons because it may mean that the relationship is over. A failed relationship may be too painful for her at that moment, her self-esteem may be low and so she uses rationalisation. It all may be too unbearable for her at that time.
Or the person who smokes heavily but refuses to accept that smoking is bad for them until one day it makes them sick. This is the defence of denial. The refusal to accept reality. It may be too late to stop. It avoids dealing with the truth.
Then there’s the defence of displacement. This is the redirection of an impulse (usually aggression) onto a powerless symbolic substitute. So, for instance a person may have a bully of a boss and they may not be able to do anything about how they feel at work because it may get them into trouble, so they keep all their feelings in. When may come home they may displace their anger for the boss onto the other family members in ways such as shouting or even hitting. Which, over time, could really put a strain on family relationships.
These are just a few. Freud and then his daughter Anna noted many. Some are healthy, some are destructive.
But what makes a person overuse them?
Unresolved past experiences, trauma or insecurities are usually at the roots for this. If we have unresolved ‘stuff’ going on inside it just doesn’t disappear, it plays away like a record track in the background. We may find that we are finding life difficult, struggling with our self-esteem or experiencing relationship problems, but we don’t actually know why! It can feel very confusing.
What can I do?
If you cannot figure out a particular behaviour then you can ask yourself some questions like ‘why do I do this?’ or ‘what do I think the root cause of this is?’ Sometimes without professional help, these painful memories and feelings may be hard to access on our own we may just not know why. Talking to a qualified counsellor could really help, to support you in these discoveries and work with you to quieten that backing track down.