An important aspect of the operation of defenses in the personality can be appreciated by considering the experience of impulse, emotion, or anxiety that occurs within the person as a response to either an internal or external stimulus. Such a stimulus phenomenon can trigger tension, especially when an emotion is experienced as threatening so that the person would consider it as being negative. Tension may be perceived only dimly or not at all; nevertheless, the presence of such tension provides a strong and reliable signal that elicits defenses in an automatic manner. The automatic evoking of defenses in response to signal anxiety has far-reaching consequences for the individual.
These consequences regarding the operation of defenses in response to signal anxiety results from the repeated utilization of characteristic behavior patterns when a threat to the individual's well-being, integrity, or security is experienced or even anticipated. This threat to well-being can stem from internal sources in the emotional life, such as fantasies or impulses, or from external situations. The operation of each defense has implications for the individual's behavior in terms of orientation toward goals, achievement of satisfactions, reality testing, and interaction with other people.
Because specific defenses and combinations of defenses become regularly and automatically employed in an unreflective manner, they often contribute to the repeated occurrence of problem situations. For example, an individual faced with examinations in academic work may repeatedly experience signal anxiety in anticipation of potential failure or competition. If the need to study is defensively denied and avoided in order to assuage the anxiety, a continuing struggle with procrastination or a poor academic performance can be the result.
A qualifying analysis of individual defenses is necessary at this point. A frequently held assumption about defenses is that they protect the individual from danger and therefore are considered to be almost axiomatically identified with emotions that are viewed by the individual to be negative. These defenses are also identified with diagnoses that are popularly considered to be undesirable diagnoses. For example, the emotion of terror and the defense of repression are frequently correlated. The emotions of anger and hostility frequently are related to the defenses of repression and displacement. The diagnosis of paranoid thinking is associated with the defense of projection. Thus, it is usually assumed that defenses are only associated with so-called negative states. This assumption severely limits the psychologist's analytic perspective and potential contribution to the overall understanding of defense and diagnosis.
Individual defense mechanisms are not utilized exclusively in the service of negative emotions. In fact, defenses relate to all emotions. Subjects whose test results reveal avoidance of depressive feelings, for example, frequently seek continual external stimulation and engage in compensatory fantasy and behavior. The purpose of this defensive operation, which specifically utilizes the mechanism of compensation, is to secure sustained feelings of pleasure. This pleasurable feeling would be diminished if the defense did not operate and in such a case the depression would surface.
Further examination of the functioning of different defense mechanisms together introduces additional complexities in understanding the utilization of defenses. A particular defense, such as repression or denial, may be used to ward off depression; however, to be successful it needs to be combined with the mechanism of compensation, which ensures that a generalized pleasure emotion continues to be available in the experience of the person.
Another variation on this theme of the implementation and purpose of specific defenses concerns the utilization of individual defense mechanisms to manage, transform, and even diminish the feeling of sexuality. For example, it is usually the case that the defense mechanism of reaction formation disguises and ultimately transforms the person's pleasurable sexual responses into opposite states or moods, namely revulsion or disgust. Examples of this transformation occur in test productions when subjects offer idiosyncratic responses to inkblots involving exaggerated protestations of ugliness and disgust, or when responses emerge such as "take it away, I can't look at it," "this makes me sick," and so on. What may be involved in such instances is an underlying pleasure attraction that cannot be faced and accepted. This pleasure attraction is expelled from consciousness in an automatic, characteristic fashion through instituting the reaction formation defense. In this way, the reaction formation serves the specific purpose of attenuating pleasure emotions.
Corresponding support for the hypothesis that defense mechanisms address all of the emotions is suggested by psychoanalysts, who understand dreams in which the subject feels nauseous, disgusted, or revolted as sometimes reflecting opposite inclinations of sexuality or pleasure. Thus, appreciating the full nature of defense mechanisms can enrich the psychologist's understanding of the protocol.
The varied roles played by defensive operations in the personality require the psychologist to understand and clarify defense syndromes and their diagnostic implications as well as the nature of individual defense mechanisms. To further this analysis, a consideration of individual defenses is presented in the following section. This exposition is divided into two categories. The first delineates individual defense mechanisms designed to manage individual emotions. The second category presents individual defense mechanisms that become instrumental in the process of character or personality trait formation.
Was this article helpful?
Suffering from Anxiety or Panic Attacks? Discover The Secrets to Stop Attacks in Their Tracks! Your heart is racing so fast and you don’t know why, at least not at first. Then your chest tightens and you feel like you are having a heart attack. All of a sudden, you start sweating and getting jittery.