Welcome back to the wonderful world of ego defence. Last time I described how Vaillant categorised ego defences into four groups: pathological, immature, neurotic and mature. Over the next two posts, I want to look at the mature defences in more detail.
The mature defences are used on a day to day basis by most people. Unlike the other levels they operate on a semi-conscious (my term) level. In other words, sometimes we can engage them through conscious thought on a voluntary basis. However, if we habitually use certain ones we might really be aware of what we are doing, and so they are operating just outside of our awareness. This in contrast to the defences at the other levels operate unconsciously.
Mature ego defences allow us to function in society and can allow us to have successful relationships and interactions with people. In this way, they can be helpful to both ourselves and society. However, it can be argued that if they are used to an extreme level they may start to have negative effect or transform into other defences or behaviours. I will outline some of them and how they might operate to protect our Egos from our Ids and Super-egos.
Humour: I have chosen this defence to begin with as it is a common one, and one I use personally. It should be noted that not all humour is a defensive response. However, humour is a useful way of coping with difficult thoughts and emotions. There is the old cliché about the “tears of a clown”, suggesting that behind their happy exteriors, clowns are really crying and sad on the inside. There may be some truth to this. This is because sometimes there is truth in a joke or humours remark. When this occurs it shows how humour operates defensively. It enables us to express something that is painful or distressing to us whilst giving pleasure to those around us. So making a joke about missing the bus enables us to let people know that we are a bit gutted about it, without us having to explicitly acknowledge it. We can successfully negotiate around the difficult feeling, while still having implicitly expressed it. This is useful in society, as other people will not then feel they have to engage with the difficult emotion that is perhaps behind the joke.
One way in that humour is used in this way is through self-deprecation. If we make a mistake, this can sometimes cause us disappointment, shame, resentment, guilt, or any of a host of other emotions. If another person highlights the mistake, they may put you in a position where you have to publicly acknowledge it, and then deal with the feelings directly. So a way of circumventing this is to make light of the mistake with a joke or comment. You are externally owning the mistake, without having to deal with the difficult emotions. You have therefore allowed you Ego to by-pass the judgement from the Super-ego which is striving for perfection, and also placated the Id which might want to lash out in anger or despair.
Identification: I am going to suggest that this ego defence (as with most things, including the other defences) operates on a wide spectrum. It was originally identified by Feud as identification with the aggressor, and was linked with his idea of the Oedipus complex (which I am SO not going into here). Essentially, it suggests that in order to cope with and resolve feelings of fear caused by another person, we can start to identify with and then behave like they do. This imitation will then endear us to the threatening person so that they will accept us. We engage in this adaptive behaviour when entering strange situations, for examples starting a new job. One thing we might do is start to act I the same way as our colleagues as a way to gain their acceptance. Our Super-ego will be content as we are following the social norms of the environment, and our Id doesn’t need to act out of fear from threat, ostracization and rejection. This defence allows us to operate well in society and be successful.
However, I would argue that there can be a point at which we adapt too much to fit in, and can perhaps lose some our authenticity, which might prove to be harmful in the long term. There is also an extreme form of identification, which is Stockholm syndrome. This is when someone who is abused, kidnapped or mistreated, and in order to survive they adapt in such a way that they completely identify with their captors and persecutors, becoming just like them, and even feeling sympathy and allegiance with them. These positive bonds can be exceptionally strong, and only when out of the harmful situation does the people fully feel the traumatic effect of their ordeals. Obviously, this is extreme, and I hope you can see it is removed from the mature utilisation of identification.
Sublimation: This defences was one originally suggested by Freud and has strong links with the Id. Sublimation is essentially the refocussing of energy from a drive or impulse that is perhaps harmful or socially unacceptable, into something more positive. For example, we may be exceptionally angry with someone, but rather than tapping into our Ids need to lash out in a destructive manner, we might chose to use that energy in another pursuit. These activities could be anything, but are often creative or active e.g. painting, singing, running, playing sports, making a model, or tidying the house. So if I was really sad and my Id just wanted me to sit and eat ice cream to fulfil my need for comfort, I might sit and write a poem about my feelings instead. The Id is calmed, as the energy has been utilised and not stored up, and the Super-ego is ok as you are doing something productive with the energy. Your ego is protected from them both and has not had to process the emotion directly. You can also see how this can be a positive defence to use, as you are doing something of benefit to yourself, and possibly those around you. You can possibly think of all the wonderful things that have been created, and the great accomplishments achieved by people who have perhaps been sublimating their difficult emotions. As with all these defences, however, if over used it may mean that difficult feelings are never being processed fully and so there will be some harmful build up over time (consider those creative people who have been depressed).
Altruism: This defence is one that tends to utilise our empathy. It has been suggests that as a social species, empathy evolved as a way to allow us to interact with members of our society in more productive ways. We are less likely to do harm to others if we can put ourselves in their position and imagine what it would feel like for them to be hurt. What behaving altruistically allows us to do is to help others who may be feeling what we are feeling. This means that we perhaps don’t have to process an emotion head on, but instead do it in a more vicarious way through others. So for example, if I have been recently bereaved, I might decide to help out with a charity for bereaved children. They are likely to know how I am feeling, and I can hopefully alleviate some of their grief. If I have just come out of a long term relationship, I might offer to help out a pet rescue centre, as I can identify with the animal’s perceived feelings of abandonment. This Ego defence, definitely supplicates the Super-ego, as it is about giving back to society. It also allows the Id to feel connection with others and so link to the Eros (drive for life). I would offer that although this defence seems completely positive, there might be a link with TA drivers in terms of ‘Please me’ and so it is important to make sure that the defence is not employed so much that your own needs are not addressed.
Next time, I will continue with the rest of the mature Ego defences…