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Defense Mechanisms

The concept of the defense mechanism can be observed daily across cultures and contexts, even among those who are not familiar with Freud or psychoanalytic theory. These mechanism are a function of the ego, which strives to protect the individual from experiencing anxiety and guilt, provoked by the discord between the id and the superego. This coping strategy safeguards the mind against feelings and thoughts that are too difficult, such as inappropriate or unwanted thoughts and impulses, from entering the conscious mind. There are several defense mechanisms that Freud proposed (Corey, 2008):

Denial is the refusal to accept reality and to act as if a painful event, thought, or feeling did not exist. It is considered one of the most primitive of the defense mechanisms because it is characteristic of very early childhood development.

Repression is the blocking of unacceptable impulses from consciousness.

Reaction formation is the converting of wishes or impulses that are perceived to be dangerous into their opposites.

Projection is the attribution of one's undesired impulses onto another.

Displacement is the redirecting of thoughts, feelings, and impulses from an object that gives rise to anxiety to a safer, more acceptable one.

Rationalization is the cognitive reframing of one's perceptions to protect the ego in the face of changing realities.

Sublimation is the channeling of unacceptable impulses into more acceptable outlets.

Regression is the reversion to an earlier stage of development in the face of unacceptable impulses.

Compensation is a process of psychologically counterbalancing perceived weaknesses by emphasizing strength in other areas.

Compartmentalization is a process of separating parts of the self from awareness of other parts and behaving as if one had separate sets of values.

Intellectualization is the use of a cognitive approach without the attendant emotions to suppress and attempt to gain mastery over the perceived disorderly and potentially overwhelming impulses.

An individual may use any combination of these coping strategies during his or her lifetime. It is when these mechanisms fail to protect the individual at a certain point, however, that the individual will unconsciously experience an overwhelming sense of emotional discord, and it will most likely be at this time that he or she seeks counseling.

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