Hello, and welcome back to my Blog. The title of this post might suggest I am wondering off topic and onto the complex world of cheese. Unfortunately, or fortunately (you decide) it actually refers to my continued exploration of the Mature Ego defences suggested by the Freuds and others. If you recall, these defences can be used in a semi-conscious (still my term) way, and allow us to defend our Egos from difficult emotions in a more constructive and “healthy” way. Although, I would still caution that their over use may be cause for concern. So, the next on our list is:
Distraction: As the name suggests, this is when we consciously put off thinking or feeling about a particular issue, thing or person by refocussing our attention onto another activity. From this description, it might sound similar to sublimation which was mentioned in my last post. The difference, however, is that in sublimation there was a use of the psychic energy from the emotion for another end, by rechannelling it onto another activity. In this defence, literally any activity at all is chosen as a way of diverting our attention away from what is troubling us. So for example, if I am feeling sad about having broken something, I might chose to watch my favourite TV programme so that I am not thinking about it anymore. The programme is not being used as a way of making me feel better, it is simply acting as a metaphorically shiny thing to distract your mind away from the difficult emotion or thought that it doesn’t want to feel or think at that moment. Another example might be to read a book rather than sitting feeling anxious and worrying about an upcoming test. The though or feeling doesn’t go away, and in fact, you cannot keep yourself distracted indefinitely, but what it does do is manage when and where you might have to deal with the issue. It is also managing to keep the Super-ego and Id distracted and busy, so that your Ego can perhaps ready itself for their combined onslaught. It is a delaying tactic to hold off the inevitable, but it can be what is needed to help you function.
Thought suppression: Like distraction, this Ego defence is used to delay the processing of thoughts. Rather than using activity, it uses our force of will to push unwanted thoughts out of our awareness. It is a bit like our minds putting its fingers in its ears (!) and singing “la la la la, can’t hear you” to any thoughts that might be distressing us. It is a voluntary (as it is partially in our conscious) version of the neurotic defence of repression. The difference is that you are more aware that it is happening and so it is temporary in nature. Like distraction, it is useful for holding our Super-egos and Ids at bay perhaps until our Egos are in a better or more appropriate place to process the troubling thoughts. For example, you might receive a parking fine, just before you are going to a meeting. You might say to yourself, “I haven’t got time to deal with this now, I’ll think about how I’m going to pay for it later”. You will then push the thought out of your awareness so that you can concentrate on your meeting. Later, however, you will have to consciously reengage with the thought of how you are going to pay the fine.
Another issue with this defence is that sometimes our ability to suppress a thought may not be a strong as we think. Our Ids and Super-egos are pretty tough, and so what can sometimes happen is that the thought sneaks back in when we are least expecting. For example, you are halfway through your presentation, someone has asked a really key question and your mind goes blank. All your brain can access it the thought of the fine sitting on your desk. Thoughts also trigger emotions and so there is often a leaking effect with this defence, and the emotions associate with the thought might find themselves leaking out. In the example with the fine, you might find yourself feeling a little bit angry with people in the meeting as this is how the thought has left you feeling. Sometimes a thought may cause sadness and this may cause tearing up in an inopportune moment. Verbally, your unconscious might cause a Freudian slip to let the true thought leak out. For example you are talking about securing funds for a project and you end up saying, “I’m sure we will be able to get the fines we need for that to go ahead. This is perhaps a defence to use sparingly, as it is not necessarily the most reliable.
Anticipation: Unlike the tense waiting for something suggested by Frank-N-Furter I Rocky Horror, this Ego defence is all about using waiting time to plan, in a sensible and realistic way. When we know something unpleasant is going to happen, the suspense can cause us a lot of emotional distress, as we worry and ruminate over all of the possibilities. Our Super-ego takes advantage of this time to remind us of our failings and mistakes and tell us that we will have to respond perfectly. Our Id bombards us with images of failure and destruction from the Thanatos (death drive). In order to protect itself, what the Ego can do, is to get a little perspective and rationally form a plan of action. Using all of the available information it can prepare for the worst (and try to expect the best). This uses the psychic energy in a more constructive manner than simply worrying about what might go wrong (so there is a little similarity with sublimation, but this is usually through thought, rather than action). So for example, you have sent an application form in for a job and you are waiting for a reply, rather than worrying and feeling anxious about what the reply might be, you can instead plan for how you will handle yourself in the interview, if you are invited in for one. You can also plan for which other companies you can apply for, if the response if a no. Your Ego is managing to placate the Super-ego by doing something constructive and sensible, while you are reminding the Id that you live in the real world, and not the fantasy one constructed from its whims.
I like to think that this defence has echoes in Transactional Analysis, as the Adult Ego State will respond to stresses and concerns by taking a rational approach to the problem. This is done using the physical, intellectual and emotional information available to it, to come up with a plan. This means that you are not slipping into distressing feelings that perhaps you are not fulfilling your drivers (from your Parent Ego State), and you are also not sinking into the Injunctions given to you as a child (and felt by your Child Ego State). A key point to note in this defence is that the planning must be realistic. It cannot be driven by fantasy, which can be difficult to do, due to our brain’s excellent talent of using imagination to fill in the blanks (see previous Blog Post).
Introjections: This Ego defence appears to have some similarities to identification. It is when a person takes on aspects of personality, beliefs and ideas of another person. This is usually a caregiver when we are growing up. We absorb these attitudes without thinking and automatically. For example, we might take on our parent’s views on gender, religion, politics and race. These often inform our values. This happens unconsciously and through the authoritative nature of the caregiver to us. It can also occur with other authority figures such as older siblings, teachers, grandparents etc.
The reason that it can be used as a defence is that if we take on values that are positive, for example kindness, thoughtfulness, compassion, responsibility and loyalty, we can use these in our relationships with other to achieve positive outcomes. As a child, these more positive attributes from a caregiver that were taken into ourselves allow us to cope when that person is not there. We can use the compassion of a parent, for example, to self-soothe ourselves if the parent is not present, as it is inside of us. We can kind of have the person’s voice internalised in our thoughts to act as a useful guide when we need it. These introjected aspects are useful tools in the managing of the Super-ego / Id conflict with in us.
The problem with this defence is that not all of the aspects we take into ourselves may be positive. So we may form values that are at odds with the majority of society. We may also take the introjections to form our sense of ourselves and be left with feeling unworthy. There is a comparison to be made with these negative introjections and the injunctions from TA, which are messages given from childhood which negatively impact our view of ourselves and our development. There can also be a cognitive and emotional dissonance if we introject a part of someone else that we then later find out is not true. So for example, we may idealise a parent for their strong morals and loyalty, and then later find out they had an affair. Abuse of any kind, sets up damaging systems of introjections as well, which are immensely unhealthy. Therefore, this is a defence mechanism which although has many positive aspects (which is why it was considered mature by Freud), it is definitely a double edged sword in terms of the impact that it can have.
So there we have the mature Ego defences. I hope that it has been clear how they are able to keep us safe from the struggle between the Id and Super-ego, and how at this level, they are largely helpful, healthy and above all socially acceptable. Remember, we all have them, but these ones might be easier to spot in ourselves, due to their nature crossing into our conscious awareness more often. You might like to see which ones you have a preference for, and when you employ different ones. This type of self-awareness can be useful to allow us to better defend ourselves emotionally, should we need to.