Someone’s in denial, someone’s projecting…we hear and maybe even use these psychological terms but…what do they really mean?
Denial and projection are a couple of the ego’s defense mechanisms. Your ego (or “self”) is part of the human personality as defined by Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. It’s basically the story you tell yourself about who you are. It’s the conscious, decision-making part of you that experiences and interacts with the world.
So when uncomfortable or painful thoughts, situations or feelings arise and challenge that picture of who we are, our ego can jump in to defend our sense of self.
Ego defense mechanisms can make it easier to live in a hard world and are natural and normal responses to stress. Sometimes, we need them to protect us from pain, anxiety, difficult emotions, and hard truths so that we can continue to function in our day to day lives.
But if they are overused or if we are using them in a way we are totally unaware of, it can make it very difficult to have healthy relationships, set appropriate boundaries, or recognize codependent or other dysfunctional tendencies.
It all depends on how much, how often, and with what (or whom) your ego is employing its defense mechanisms. Remember, this process is predominantly unconscious and it is a part of the “factory setting” for being human.
Inside this episode, I’m going over the most commonly used psychological defense mechanisms to raise your awareness around where your ego might be blocking you from true self-knowledge.
“Defense mechanisms are psychological strategies that are unconsciously used to protect a person from anxiety arising from unacceptable thoughts or feelings.”¹
You’re likely familiar with Sigmund Freud’s concept of the ego (and maybe even the ID and the superego) but, it’s Anna Freud’s book The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defenses that is still the standard text for ego psychology. ²
Your ego is the version of your “self” that is acceptable to you.
Anna Freud expanded on her father’s work and argued we instinctively protect our sense of self with psychological defense mechanisms, and while they might help us avoid pain in the short term, in the long term, overuse can affect our emotional development and our ability to deal with reality.
I’ve included a list of the top ten defense mechanisms in this week’s downloadable PDF, but let’s get into the ones I see most commonly used:
A refusal to accept reality or facts (even though they might be obvious to everyone around us). Denial is a willful ignoring of things that are too painful or difficult to face head-on. It’s a way to block external events or circumstances so that we can spare ourselves the emotional impact of those experiences.
Over time, it can be very damaging depending on what is being denied, because we’re not engaging with what’s actually happening in our lives or in the world.
Pushing down painful memories or uncomfortable thoughts. It’s similar to denial in that you’re avoiding something you don’t want to face, but somewhere that thing still exists in your psyche.
No matter how deep we bury things, we do not have the power to shove things down forever. The charged feelings and emotions will not just disappear. So we can end up with unresolved feelings in what I call “the basement” of our minds and they start to inform our behaviors, decisions, and interactions. In this way, repression can cause issues in our personal and professional relationships.
Disavowing our own uncomfortable emotions or feelings by assigning them to another person.
Projection is a reframing of a situation or feeling so that we perceive it as happening TO us instead of coming FROM us. It can allow us to shift into the victim role which feels more aligned with our ego.
For example, you dislike someone, but that doesn’t fit into your sense of self (you’re a “nice” person after all), so your ego projects that feeling onto that person, creating a perception that you experience as the other person disliking YOU.
Woah, right? I remember learning about projection in grad school and thinking, this is deep stuff. I’m sure you can see that projection warps the truth and blocks us from understanding ourselves. So stop, take a look at the facts and the evidence and then allow yourself to FEEL your feelings.
Taking out your feelings about something or someone on another person or even an inanimate object because it’s less threatening than expressing your feelings directly.
Let’s say you’re super frustrated at your boss, but you can’t take it out on them directly, so you come home and scream at your partner or your kids instead. Ouch.
When we displace our feelings of anger, sadness or frustration, we’re not actually processing or understanding how we feel. It’s definitely not fair to the people in our lives and when it comes down to it, it’s not fair to you either because it’s yet another way of not knowing yourself.
An adaptive way of processing and channeling your emotions into a more productive outlet. This defense mechanism is a more positive strategy because it includes redirecting intense feelings into an activity, an object, or even a career in a way that is safe and appropriate.
Sublimation could be a physical activity like working out or artistic expression. So instead of going home and screaming at your person after an intensely frustrating day at work, you go and take a boxing class.
6. Reaction Formation
Denying feelings, natural inclinations, or desires and then acting out the extreme opposite. When someone is acting out a reaction formation defense mechanism, they are aware of their feelings but they feel like they shouldn’t be feeling that way and so they overcompensate in the other direction.
It’s almost an attempt at undoing the real feeling states that are unsafe or threatening to their constructed sense of self. So in our last example of disliking someone, you would go out of your way to be overly nice to them. Or, let’s say someone has an undercover desire for their same-sex best friend, they might act out by having a ton of heterosexual encounters because it doesn’t feel safe for them to feel those homoerotic feelings.
I hope you can see that while our ego defense mechanisms are normal and can protect us, letting them run rampant under the radar can negatively impact our behaviors, our relationships, and the way we show up in the world.
Truly knowing ourselves is the key to vibrant mental health. I’ve included the complete Top Ten list of psychological defense mechanisms in your downloadable PDF this week, so grab that right here.
Get inspired to better understand how your mind works, because self-awareness is how we actually get empowered to change the things that aren’t working in our lives.
I’d love to hear what you think about this and how it resonated with you, so drop me a comment here, or tag me on Instagram @terricole.
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I hope you have the most amazing week and as always take care of you.