The best defence is... (22/01/19)

Hello once again to my look at some aspects of psychodynamic counselling theory. Last time, I went through an outline of Freud’s model of psychic structure, which was composed of the Super-ego, Ego and Id. I want to now start to look at the Ego Defences associated with this model.

The term Ego Defence suggests that the Ego needs to defend itself against something. If the look at the structural model of the psyche, the poor Ego is stuck in the middle of the Super-ego and the Id, which are both in conflict all the time. The Id wants all of its needs supplied, now if possible. Meanwhile, the Super-rog is constantly pointing out why these needs should not be fulfilled, and how they are against the aim of achieving perfection. The Ego has to act as the moderator between these two warring factions and this is can be exhausting. Freud suggested that managing this conflicts leads to anxiety. This can include feelings of guilt or shame, which can lead to emotion states such as extreme sadness and depression. So in order to survive this ordeal, we develop a set of defences to allow us to function while by-passing the feelings from the Id and Super-ego demands. These are our Ego Defences, and they operate on an unconscious level. This means that unless we engage I some serious reflection, we do not know we are using them. Even after they are in our awareness, they still operate in the moment, from an unconscious place.

Sigmund Freud originally came up with a set of around five main defences, and his daughter Anna then further defined these and added to their number. Later theorists have further expanded the list. George Vaillant devised a categorisation system for the Ego Defences, which is based on their stage of development and association to personality disorders. This system was one of the key foundations of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM, now on its fifth edition).

Vaillant suggested four levels of defence, which I will go through in reverse order (as this is how I will look at them in subsequent posts):

Level 4, Mature: These are defences that will have been formed in childhood, but are extremely common in adulthood. They allow an individual to defend their Ego, while allowing full functioning in society. They can be considered “healthy” defences, as they are unlikely to lead to too many social problems, unless used to excess, or they develop into later level defences. Examples in this level include, humour, altruism and anticipation.

Level 3, Neurotic: Again, these will have formed in childhood, however, if utilised can cause breakdowns in relationships over the long term. They are extremely common in adulthood, as they provide a means of coping with stresses in the short-term. People that use these as their primary defences may find some aspects of life difficult. Examples in this level include, intellectualisation, repression and displacement

Level 2, Immature: As the name suggests, these defences were formed at a very early age. If these are used, other people often find them difficult to handle or deal with. They are less common than the previous levels, and may only appear in times of more extreme stress. Due to their anti-social nature, they can cause difficulties in life if used regularly, and are often associated with personality disorders, high levels of anxiety, and long term depression. Examples in this level include, acting out, passive aggression and hypochondriasis.

Level 1, Psychotic or Pathological: These are extreme defences in which the Ego actively rearranges or warps reality. They can form as responses to trauma, where to face the actually reality might be too damaging. They often appear to be highly irrational and “crazy” to other people, and for this reason, they can have a highly disruptive effect on a person’s ability to function in society. Due to their unconscious nature thy can be the cause of disturbing dreams and nightmares. Examples of these include, delusions, distortions and extreme denial.

So if those are the different levels of Ego Defence, how might they present themselves in real-life? Imagine as an example you have accidentally picked up someone else’s item from a shop counter as well as your own. At this moment your Id might be feeling really happy with the unexpected gain and be demanding that you keep the item and leg it out of there. At the same time, your Super-ego will start to berate you for having made such a stupid error. It will also point out all the horrible consequences of keeping the item and imagine what others are thinking about you. At this moment of internal conflict, the Ego needs to protect itself, even if it has consciously decided to return the item to the cashier.

In a mature way, you might take the item back and utilise humour in a self-deprecating way. Perhaps you would say something like, “So sorry, I took this by accident. What a ding-bat!” This response will enable to brush off the attacks from the Super-ego, by allowing perceived criticism from others to be ignored, as you’ve told the world how stupid you are.

In a neurotic way, you might take the item back, but internally run through all the reasons why it was not your fault, why it would be silly to keep it, and why no one is thinking any less of you. You might argue to yourself that if it hadn’t been so close to your stuff you’d never have picked it up. The colour of the two items was so similar that no wonder you thought they were just one thing. People do this kind of things all the time, and besides, you were talking to the cashier, and so that must have had some role in distracting you. It would be daft to keep the item as well, as it’s not even something you would use, and it would be silly getting into trouble for something so small. I this way, you are able to keep the Id supressed as you are explaining away why it can have the item. You are also providing the Super-ego with rational reasons why you shouldn’t feel any guilt.

An immature response might be to take the item back, but passively aggressively place the blame on the cashier. You might say, “I had to bring this back. Someone placed it near my items, so it found its way into my bag”. The message here is clearly that the accident was not your fault, and that therefore you can silence your Super-ego by shifting it elsewhere. You are also not being overtly rude or aggressive and so your Super-ego cannot complain about anti-social behaviour. The aggression (in the passive aggression) will provide a useful emotional outlet for the Id which wants to express its annoyance at not being able to keep the item.

A neurotic response might be to see the item and believe that someone has purposely placed it in your bag. They are now watching you through CCTV to see what you are going to do. There is a squad of armed security people waiting behind a door, ready to pounce the moment that you reach the exit to the shop. With this response you might run back to the cashier with the item, drop it on the counter and run off as fast as you can.

I understand that the example might be a bit silly, but hopefully it shows you in some way. How Ego Defences operate. I am also aware that I have somewhat personified the Super-ego and the Id. This is simply to illustrate ow they are in conflict and I am not suggesting that there are literally a set of voices having an exchange in your head. In fact due to their unconscious nature, most of what I described above would happen I a few seconds and without you even being aware.

What I plan to do over the next few weeks or month is to go through sets of Ego Defences and describe what they are and how they function to protect our hard working Egos.