Ego Defences and the Freuds

In this session we go back into some of the key ideas about who we are. Lots of people are interested in studying psychology because they want to know what makes them tick and understand what makes other people tick... and this is the very same place that Sigmund Freud started out with his work.

However, psychology has evolved over the years and frames many of these questions about who we are in scientific terms – so the purpose of psychological interventions are often to help us ‘adapt’ or ‘change difficult behaviours’ to meet the demands and stresses of living in the 21st century.

There’s nothing wrong with this but we thought it might be good to go right back to the beginning and start thinking about ‘who’ we are, and ‘why’ we are.....

  • Sigmund Freud was born in 1856 in Frieberg. This is now the Czech Republic but when Freud was born it was part of the Austro- Hungarian Empire. Freud’s family moved to Vienna in 1885. He was Jewish and born to a respectable family where his was a bit of a ‘golden child’ and encouraged to follow a respectable career.
  • Freud trained in medicine and from the beginning he was really fascinated by memory as a place where the biological and the psychological meet – we may store a memory in the brain but how we interpret this memory is highly subjective; or two people can have the same experience and yet their memory of this can be entirely different.
  • It’s probably worth mentioning here that Psychology was classed as branch of philosophy until the 1870s, when it developed as an independent scientific discipline. Psychology as a field of study started in 1879, in Leipzig Germany, when Wilhelm Wundt founded the first department dedicated exclusively to psychological research in Germany.
  • It’s useful to place Freud in this historical context because his work is written in the tradition of philosophy and he doesn’t develop his ideas in a linear (scientific) way. Freud also uses references to literature and myth to describe behaviours and responses.
  • In 1885 Freud went to Paris to study with Jean-Martin Charcot who was at the very forefront of neurology (he discovered MS, Charcot Marie Tooth (CMT) disease which is a kind of muscular atrophy he discovered with Mr Marie and Mr Tooth (true! Have a look on Wikipedia!).
  • Charcot initially believed, as was widely understood, that hysteria was a hereditary disease of the nervous system.
  • However through his work and around the time that Freud was studying with him, Charcot made several important discoveries.
  • Charcot argued strongly against the widespread medical and popular prejudice that hysteria was rarely found in men. He identified several cases of traumatic male hysteria and identified how these could be found in soldiers and other traditionally ‘masculine’ occupations.
  • Charcot also made the huge discovery that trauma can be non-biological (i.e. an emotional response) and this can cause hysteria - and that hysteria can be an expression of an earlier traumatic experience.
  • By the early 1880s Freud is working as a medical doctor in Austria. He is fascinated by the idea of the unconscious and that seemingly meaningless behaviours expressed unconscious conflict – and you can see the link between his ideas and his time with Charcot.
  • Freud’s work spans over 40 years but one of the very important concepts that runs through his work is that of ‘repression’. Freud identifies this as key to understanding human beings. Repression is the mechanism that turns our unacceptable desires away from us and makes them inaccessible to our thinking by dumping them in the unconscious.
  • Another point worth making is that in his earlier work Freud was much more interested in depth – in bringing what was deeply unconscious into consciousness. His later work is much more interested in the interactions and negotiations that the person has in the everyday world.
  • In 1923 Freud published Das Ich und das Es (translated as ‘the I’s and the it’) in which he revised and expanded his ‘structural model’ of personality.
  • Freud basically believed humans were motivated by drives. These drives are Eros and Thanatos. Literally, Life and Death.
  • Freud’s structural model describes how the self manages these powerful drives.
  • It’s REALLY important to note the translation of this. The terms "id", "ego", and "super-ego" are not Freud's own. They are terms adapted from Latin by the translator of his work James Strachey.
  • Freud describes the self as ‘I’ and there is also an ‘over I’ and the ‘it’ . So when I say ‘I went out for a walk' this is not strictly true because it does not describe the whole me – who went out for a walk? Was it the ‘I’, the ‘over I’ and the ‘it’? 
  • And here lies a problem because, think about when someone says, “I don’t know what came over me!!” “I don’t know what I was thinking when I did that...” The ‘what comes over us’ is the ‘it’. THE IT!!!!!!!
  • According to Freud, we are born with our ‘it’.  The it (or in Strachey’s translation, ‘ID’) is an important part of our personality because as babies, this allows us to get our basic needs met.  Freud believed that the ‘It’ is based on our pleasure principle. In other words, it wants whatever feels good at the time, with no consideration for the reality of the situation. When a child is hungry, the it wants food, and therefore the child cries. When the child needs to be changed, the it cries. When the child is uncomfortable, in pain, too hot, too cold, or just wants attention, the it speaks up until his or her needs are met.
  • The it doesn’t care about reality, about the needs of anyone else, only its own satisfaction. Babies are not considerate of their caregivers' wishes. They don’t care about time, whether their caregivers are sleeping, relaxing, or eating. When the it wants something, nothing else is important.
  • Bit of an aside here... but this is why so many people are fascinated by serial killers or dark figures – because they are part of us and in some way we recognise this but are repelled by this knowledge.
  • Freud believed that during the first three years, as the child interacts more and more with the world, the second part of the personality begins to develop. Freud called this part the ‘I’ (‘ego’ in Strachey’s translation). The I is based on the reality principle. The I understands that other people have needs and desires and that being impulsive or selfish can hurt us in the long run. It’s the I’s job to meet the needs of the it, whilst navigating reality.
  • By the age of five, or the end of the Freudian phallic stage of development, the ‘over I’ (‘super ego’ in Strachey’s translation) develops. Think of someone you might know who struggles to refer to themselves in the first person. This is because her ‘over I’ - the wondering what others might think – is so dominant that the self, the ‘I’ struggles to be present.
  • In a healthy person, according to Freud, the self ‘I’ is the strongest part of our personality so that it can satisfy the needs of the it/id, not upset the over I/superego, and still take into consideration the reality of every situation. It’s a difficult balancing act and not an easy thing to do. If the it/id gets too strong, impulses and self gratification take over the person’s life. If the over I/ superego becomes too strong, the person would be rigid and judgmental in their interactions with the world. 
  • Not surprisingly the poor old ‘I’/ego develops various ways of trying to protect itself. And here we arrive at ego defence mechanisms.
  • The work on ego defence mechanisms was really developed by Freud’s daughter Anna Freud – who cared for, transcribed and presented Freud’s ideas for the last 15 years of his life.
  • Defence mechanisms are psychological strategies brought into play by theunconscious to manipulate, deny or distort reality in order to defend the ‘I’ against feelings of anxiety and unacceptable impulses.
  • Freud himself identified three types of anxiety:
  1. Neurotic anxiety - is the unconscious worry that we will lose control of the it/id's urges, resulting in punishment for inappropriate behaviour.
  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 frightening dog. The most common way of reducing this anxiety is to avoid the threatening object.
  3. Moral anxiety - involves a fear of going against our own moral principles – e.g if we believe ‘homosexuality’ is a sin but have feelings of attraction to another man.

Anna Freud published The ego and the mechanisms of defencein 1936 in Austria and 1937 in London.

The 10 defence mechanisms identified by Freud(s) are

  • Denial. Refusing to admit the reality of the situation.
  • Repression. Bury a painful experience or memory
  • Regression. You revert back to a childlike emotional state in which your unconscious fears, anxieties, and general "angst" reappear.
  • Displacement. In displacement, you transfer your original feelings that would get you in trouble (usually anger) away from the person who is the target of your rage to a more hapless and harmless victim. The classic example is: You've had a very unpleasant interaction with your boss or teacher, but you can't show your anger toward him or her. Instead, you come home and kick the cat or dog or take your anger out on someone who you perceive as having less power than you.
  • Projection. You project your feelings onto other people. If there is a person you dislike instead of admitting you dislike them you’d say “Oh no, she hates me”
  • Reaction formation. Classic example is homosexual feelings turned into being homophobic.
  • Intellectualisation. If you are diagnosed with cancer, rather than experience the fear of death you defend yourself by studying scientific data etc.
  • Rationalisation. Making a logical excuse for a behaviour – the reason I drink is to be sociable
  • Sublimation. Redirect drives that are not socially acceptable – generally sexual and aggressive drives that are redirected onto socially acceptable pursuits. Interesting about Michael Jackson who sublimated but then ended up actually living in a version of his ID...
  • Fantasy. You revert into a safe world of fantasy to block out the uncomfortable feelings brought on by reality.

Since Freud and Anna Freud first wrote about the original defence mechanisms, others have been added to describe methods of reducing anxiety.

George Vaillant who is a Harvard psychiatrist has taken Freud’s original work on ego defence mechanisms and ideas, organized them into levels of defence.

Vaillant organised defences into four levels:

At the first level the defences are psychotic – they reshape reality. These are an attempt to deal with the pain of reality by psychologically fleeing from it.  

At the second level are what Vaillant calls immature defences such as acting out: passive aggressive behaviours, self-cutting, dissociation and projection.

The third level are what Vaillant describes as neurotic defences. The aim of these is to keep potentially threatening feelings out of awareness. This means that these defences often manifest as phobias or compulsive behaviours.

On the fourth level are the mature defences which Vaillant suggests increase with age (and maturity). These defences are there to increase the person’s conscious awareness of feelings, ideas, and their consequences. The main defences at this level are: 

Sublimation: converting nervous energy into constructive or creative projects.

Suppression: keeping the lid on negative emotions to prevent them from becoming destructive or being expressed at an inappropriate time.

Anticipation: investing in preparation and planning as a way to reduce anxiety and stress.

Altruism: deriving satisfaction, perspective, and meaning from using your resources and talents to help others.

Humour: the ability to see the funny side or to see the irony of a stressful or upsetting situation.

Introjection: Identifying with some idea or object so deeply that it becomes a part of that person. For example, introjection occurs when we take on attributes of other people who seem better able to cope with the situation than we do.

Its important to remeber that defence mechanisms are a way the unconscious mind defends us, for example, helping you put off dealing with a problem until theres a better time to face it or by protecting us in the short term from anxiety and stressful situations.