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Defense Mechanisms - Examples

What are the defense mechanisms as proposed by Freud, Anna Freud, and others? Explain each mechanism and provide an example.

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1. What are the defense mechanisms as proposed by Freud, Anna Freud, and others? Explain each mechanism and provide an example.


The ego deals with the demands of reality, the id, and the superego as best as it can. But when the anxiety becomes overwhelming, the ego must defend itself. It does so by unconsciously blocking the impulses or distorting them into a more acceptable, less threatening form. The techniques are called the ego defense mechanisms, and Freud, his daughter Anna, and other disciples have discovered quite a few.

1. Denial involves blocking external events from awareness. If some situation is just too much to handle, the person just refuses to experience it. As you might imagine, this is a primitive and dangerous defense -- no one disregards reality and gets away with it for long! It can operate by itself or, more commonly, in combination with other, more subtle mechanisms that support it.

Parents have reported that after a child sees a commercial that is not age-appropriate (i.e., spooky horror with blood, knives, masks, and screams of terror) when they attempted to explain the commercial to the child, "Boy, that was a scary commercial, wasn't it?" to have the child reply, "What commercial?" The parent explained, "The commercial that was just on, with the blood and the mask and the screaming...!" She had apparently shut out the whole thing. That's denial. This is quite common for young children.

2. Repression, which Anna Freud also called "motivated forgetting," is just that: not being able to recall a threatening situation, person, or event. This, too, is dangerous, and is a part of most other defenses.

As an adolescent, I developed a rather strong fear of snakes. I didn't know where it came from, but it was starting to get rather embarrassing by the time I entered college. Years later, I had a dream, a particularly clear one, that involved walking through a bush alone when I was very young. It was getting dark, and just as I went to step onto the path -- you guessed it! - a snake crawled over my foot.

The Freudian understanding of this phobia is pretty simple: I repressed a traumatic event -- the bush incident -- but seeing snakes aroused the anxiety of the event without arousing the memory.

Other examples are many. Anna Freud provides one that now strikes us as quaint: A young girl, guilty about her rather strong sexual desires, tends to forget her boy-friend's name, even when trying to introduce him to her relations! Or an alcoholic can't remember his suicide attempt, claiming he must have "blacked out." Or someone almost drowns as a child, but can't remember the event even when people try to remind him -- but he does have this fear of open water!

Note that, to be a true example of a defense, it should function unconsciously. I had a fear of dogs as a child, but there was no defense involved: I had been bitten by one, and wanted very badly never to repeat the experience! Usually, it is the irrational fears we call phobias that derive from repression of traumas.

3. Asceticism, or the renunciation of needs, is one most people haven't heard of, but it has become relevant again today with the emergence of the disorder called anorexia. Preadolescents, when they feel threatened by their emerging sexual desires, may unconsciously try to protect themselves by denying, not only their sexual desires, but all desires. They get involved in some kind of ascetic (monk-like) lifestyle wherein they renounce their interest in what other people enjoy.

Today, boys often have a great deal of interest in the self-discipline of the martial arts. Fortunately, the martial arts not only don't hurt you (much), they may actually help you. Unfortunately, girls in our society often develop a great deal of interest in attaining an excessively and artificially thin standard of beauty. In ...

Solution Summary

This solution explains the defense mechanisms as proposed by Freud, Anna Freud, and others, and also provides examples of each.