Ego Defense Mechanisms
We stated earlier that the ego’s job was to satisfy the id’s impulses, not offend the moralistic character of the superego, while still taking into consideration the reality of the situation. We also stated that this was not an easy job. Think of the id as the ‘devil on your shoulder’ and the superego as the ‘angel of your shoulder.’ We don’t want either one to get too strong so we talk to both of them, hear their perspective and then make a decision. This decision is the ego talking, the one looking for that healthy balance.
Before we can talk more about this, we need to understand what drives the id, ego, and superego. According to Freud, we only have two drives; sex and aggression. In other words, everything we do is motivated by one of these two drives.
Sex, also called Eros or the Life force, represents our drive to live, prosper, and produce offspring. Aggression, also called Thanatos or our Death force, represents our need to stay alive and stave off threats to our existence, our power, and our prosperity.
Now the ego has a difficult time satisfying both the id and the superego, but it doesn’t have to do so without help. The ego has some tools it can use in its job as the mediator, tools that help defend the ego. These are called Ego Defense Mechanisms or Defenses. When the ego has a difficult time making both the id and the superego happy, it will employ one or more of these defenses:
arguing against an anxiety provoking stimuli by stating it doesn’t exist
denying that your physician’s diagnosis of cancer is correct and seeking a second opinion
taking out impulses on a less threatening target
slamming a door instead of hitting as person, yelling at your spouse after an argument with your boss
avoiding unacceptable emotions by focusing on the intellectual aspects
focusing on the details of a funeral as opposed to the sadness and grief
placing unacceptable impulses in yourself onto someone else
when losing an argument, you state “You’re just Stupid;” homophobia
supplying a logical or rational reason as opposed to the real reason
stating that you were fired because you didn’t kiss up the the boss, when the real reason was your poor performance
taking the opposite belief because the true belief causes anxiety
having a bias against a particular race or culture and then embracing that race or culture to the extreme
returning to a previous stage of development
sitting in a corner and crying after hearing bad news; throwing a temper tantrum when you don’t get your way
pulling into the unconscious
forgetting sexual abuse from your childhood due to the trauma and anxiety
acting out unacceptable impulses in a socially acceptable way
sublimating your aggressive impulses toward a career as a boxer; becoming a surgeon because of your desire to cut; lifting weights to release ‘pent up’ energy
pushing into the unconscious
trying to forget something that causes you anxiety
Ego defenses are not necessarily unhealthy as you can see by the examples above. In face, the lack of these defenses, or the inability to use them effectively can often lead to problems in life. However, we sometimes employ the defenses at the wrong time or overuse them, which can be equally destructive.