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©1998-2013 Maria Helena Rowell

III. Classic Psychoanalytic Theory

1. Unconscious, Pre-conscious, Conscious
2. Id, Ego, Superego
3. Anxiety
4. The Defense Mechanisms


Defense mechanisms are unconscious psychic processes that provide the ego with relief from the state of psychic conflict between the intruding id, the threatening superego and the powerful influences emanating from the external reality.

Due to these forces in the mind opposing and battling against each other, anxiety signals an internal danger. These mechanisms come into play to enable the ego to reach compromise solutions to problems that it is unable to solve, by letting some component of the unwelcome mental contents emerge into consciousness in a disguised form.

How efficiently these mechanisms are to strengthen the ego and to what extent they further different forms of compromise formations that may turn out to be psychoneurotic symptoms, depends on how successfully the ego reaches a higher or lesser degree of integration of these conflicting forces in the mind.

The more the ego is blocked in its development for being entangled in its earlier conflicts (fixations), clinging to archaic modes of functioning, the greater is the possibility of succumbing to these forces.

Anna Freud, in The Ego and The Mechanisms of Defence (1946), formulates the hypothesis that what the ego fears most is the return to a previous stage of fusion with the id, in case repression fails or instincts are too intense. In order to ensure the maintenance of the level of organization achieved, the ego has to protect itself from the invasion of instinctual demands (drives) of the id and from the return of the repressed contents.

In fact, in the chapter "The Ego's Dependent Relations", in The Id and the Ego (1923), Freud says: "psychoanalysis is the instrument to enable the ego to achieve a progressive conquest of the id".

Psychoanalysis aims at transforming greater amounts of what once belonged to the id into acceptable possessions of the ego, along with its main purpose of turning unconscious contents into conscious ones. Thus, the mind can find solutions that were previously unattainable to the immature ego.

The major defense mechanisms are the following:

1. Repression - the withdrawal from consciousness of an unwanted idea, affect, or desire by pushing it into the unconscious part of the mind.

2. Reaction formation - the fixation in consciousness of an idea, affect, or desire that is opposite to a feared unconscious impulse.

3. Projection - unwanted feelings are attributed to another person.

4. Regression - a return to forms of gratification belonging to earlier phases, due to conflicts arising at more developed stages.

5. Rationalization - the substitution of the true, but threatening cause of behavior for a safe and reasonable explanation.

6. Denial - the conscious refusal to perceive disturbing facts. It deprives the individual of the necessary awareness to cope with external challenges and the employment of adequate strategies for survival as well.

7. Displacement- the redirection of an urge onto a substitute outlet.

8. Undoing - is achieved through an act, which goal is the cancellation of a prior unpleasant experience.

9. Introjection - intimately related to identification, aims at solving some emotional difficulty of the individual by means of taking into his personality characteristics of someone else.

10. Sublimation - part of the energy invested in sexual impulses is shifted to the pursuit of socially valuable achievements, such as artistic or scientific endeavors.


Psychoanalysis/ Index Definition History Hysteria Hypnosis 1 2 3 (theory)