We all go through and react differently to conflict and stress at some point in our lives. But, are you the kind that will repress the situation, deny that it is happening, or direct your frustrations to the nearest person that is less threatening to you? If your mind is constantly telling you that you are a hopeless, good for nothing person, that is your ego defense mechanism at work. Mental traps our minds use unconsciously to avoid feelings of guilt or shame.
Understanding Ego Defense Mechanisms
See, ego defense mechanisms refers to the psychological strategies that we use to detach ourselves from any unpleasant thoughts, actions, or events. That way, our sanity stays intact, and we can cope with the uncomfortable phases in our lives.
The Psychoanalytic Theory
Ego defenses stem from a Psychoanalytic Theory proposed by Sigmund Freud, an Austrian Neurologist and the founder of Psychoanalysis. The theory describes the sum of our personality based on the unconscious mind; an interaction between our id (instincts), ego (reality), and super-ego (morality).
This unconscious mind is shaped by the events from our childhood. It also dictates how we behave when in conflict or stress. If we have deeply repressed conflicts in our unconscious mind, it will show up later on in our adult lives, affecting our self-growth. Hence, Freud aimed at making this unconscious mind conscious and addressing these dysfunctional thoughts.
How It Happens
Ego defenses are inevitable in our psychological development. For, they help us deal with unpleasant encounters. However, the unconscious mind may be clinging to an outdated reality to try and protect us from the current unpleasant situation.
And, since these cognitive errors are so ingrained in our minds, we hardly realize how much it is affecting our decision making and growth. Hence, you end up with a perception tainted with negativity that results in unrealistic beliefs.
Common Ego Defense Mechanisms
Below are the 6 most common ego defense mechanisms and how they affect our lives and self-growth process: –
Definition: Having extreme beliefs about life. Here, the person views life in black or white, with no room to accommodate in-between beliefs. They express their view in the absolute.
Examples: Using such phrases as, “I am ugly”, “Other people are always out to get me”, and “They hate me”.
Implications: False extremist beliefs leave us with low self-worth, hurting our social interactions and growth.
Definition: Hiding ideas or feelings in the unconscious mind since we see them as too painful or socially unacceptable. Here, the person puts on a cheerful front unconsciously denying any unpleasant impulses in their lives.
Examples: Repressed memories of sexual abuse in a child may hinder them from forming meaningful relationships in their adult life. A phobia for pets due to a dog bite that happened to the child years ago.
Implications: Repressed memories can only be recalled using hypnosis or other therapeutic tools.
Definition: The conscious blocking of any unpleasant feelings that we find too difficult to face. It is similar to repression, only done by the conscious mind. People who opt to suppress their feelings want to avoid getting anxious.
Examples: A patient choosing not to talk about their recent diagnosis of cancer so that they won’t have to think of the implications of the illness. A student who is sitting for an exam without adequately preparing for it may opt to remain positive about their outcomes, to prevent panic attacks.
Implications: Suppressed emotions lead to physical stress seen as erratic blood pressure, insomnia, and memory loss.
Definition: Slowing or having a negative growth due to underlying stress. Here, the person seems to act immature, childish, or in an age-inappropriate manner, as they regress to their behavior at an earlier developmental stage. This mechanism offers a temporary feeling of safety. The person relates to a safer, carefree stage in their life when all their needs were met.
Examples: A teenage bedwetting when they had stopped it a few years earlier. Adults throwing tantrums at the thought of divorce.
Implications: Regression is an ineffective way of dealing with life stressors. In turn, the persistent avoidance of hardships makes the victim over-dependent on others to make most of their life decisions.
Definition: Refusing to acknowledge a difficult event in our lives. Here, the person may distort their reality by denying its existence.
Examples: A drug, smoke, or alcohol addicts refusing to acknowledge their addiction. A terminally ill person failing to seek medical help, hoping that the illness will cease to exist.
Implications: Temporary denial of a serious diagnosis or a traumatic event is acceptable because it gives the victim time to prepare to face the harsh reality. However, if this denial is prolonged, it may result in regressive behaviors, with the victim throwing tantrums, crying, or demanding special treatment.
Definition: A mature ego defense mechanism where an individual channels their disruptive impulses into socially acceptable behaviors.
Examples: A person taking up a dangerous hobby to channel their childhood anger impulses into the sport. A cheating spouse taking their partners out for dinner to try and ‘compensate’ for their infidelity.
Implications: Unlike other ego defense mechanisms, sublimation is a positive way of channeling our negative impulses to a substitute object in a socially acceptable way.
What Next? Overcoming Negative Ego Defense Mechanisms
Ego defense mechanisms can promote or be a great hindrance in self-growth. If negative, it soothes the ego into thinking that all is well, when in fact; the person has negative psychological growth. But, we can all free ourselves from these negative ego defenses using these tips:
- Talk about your feelings
- Control your emotions by performing appeasing activities like sublimation
- Aim to solve any problem that arises by having a plan for action and a follow-up
- Reorganize the way you view things by seeking psychological help in hypnosis, meditation, and breathing exercises
- Try to find meaning in every situation so as you can learn from the unpleasant experience
- Join a support group where you can learn from the experiences of others
Anytime we encounter an unpleasant situation, our egos will come up with tactics to protect us from the subsequent trauma, hence keeping us sane. However, most of these tactics derail our self-growth. You need to understand how to cope with hardships. And, seek help in addressing any dysfunctional thoughts that are now affecting your adult life.