Ego Defense Mechanisms

After reading about Freud this week, in Theories of Personality, I’ve been thinking a lot about defense mechanisms and wanting to explore that topic a bit more. Freud described defense mechanisms as coming from a psychological need to protect the ego. Modern research seems to concur with Freud on that point, although concepts of “ego” have changed over the years along with the list of defense mechanisms. Expanding on Freud, researcher George Vaillant (2000) found that hierarchies exist within defense mechanisms, from least to most mature and least to most adaptive. Interestingly, Vaillant included “suppression” in his list of most mature and adaptive defense mechanisms, and the DSM-IV agrees, which is a mechanism not included in Freud’s research, to my knowledge. Both Freud and Vaillant seem to agree that sublimation is among the healthiest defense mechanisms. I will be exploring both Freud’s views on defense mechanisms as well as Vaillant’s, and venture briefly into discussing the display of defense mechanisms at work, particularly among those in leadership roles.

Freud talked about “id” as the unconscious, drive-related, pleasure-seeking part of the brain and the “ego” as the conscious, reality-driven, decision making part of the brain (Feist and Feist, p. 28 – 29). Today, based on research and brain-imaging technology, psychologists consider the id as comparable to the limbic system—the primitive, “feeling/emotional” brain, and the ego as comparable to the neocortex—the more evolved, “thinking” brain (Reeve, 2009, 404). So, it seems that, in concept, Freud was a pioneer in understanding the primitive versus more evolved components of personality and motivation. Freud considered the ego as highly adaptive in response to the instincts and drives of the id; he referred to the id as “force” and the ego as “counterforce.” He saw the id as the drive behind human needs to obtain pleasure and avoid pain. The ego, in part, keeps the impulsive and often unconscious urges of the id in check. Defense mechanisms, also called “ego defenses,” came about to help the ego protect itself from and deal with anxiety stemming from needs of the id, the morals of the superego, and the realities of the external world. Ego defenses are considered involuntary mental mechanisms that distort our view of reality to reduce stress, as opposed to more conscious mechanisms such as seeking social support or using cognitive strategies (Vaillant, 2000). Freud came up with the following ego defenses: repression, reaction formation, displacement, fixation, regression, projection, introjection, and sublimation. I won’t define these now, but will define and discuss several of them later in context of modern views of ego defenses.

Heinz Hartman, considered the “father of ego psychology” and a “Neo-Freudian” suggested that the ego was much less in conflict with the id than proposed by Freud’s psychodynamic theory. He proposed that because of its ability to learn, adapt, and grow, the “mature ego” is mostly autonomous from the id. He and fellow researcher Loevinger proposed that the ego develops from impulsive, self-protective states through conformist and conscientious states, to emerge in an autonomous functioning state when fully mature. The autonomous ego is self-motivating and self-regulating (Reeve, 2009, 405). Defense mechanisms are universally used by everyone, even by those with mature egos, given that anxiety-provoking events are all around us and no one goes through life completely stress free. But researchers have found that ego defenses can be categorized from least to most mature, from least to most adaptive. Ego maturity seems to be indicated by the defense mechanisms that people use. Mature ego defenses seem to be closer to conscious/cognitive choices. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) in the DSM-IV considers certain defense mechanisms “highly adaptive.” In Vaillant’s article (2000), he quotes the APA as saying that adaptive mental mechanisms “maximize gratification and allow conscious awareness of feelings, ideas, and their consequences.”  The defense mechanisms they consider highly adaptive are: anticipation, altruism, humor, sublimation, and suppression.

Vaillant (2000) believes that although defense mechanisms appear to be inferior to the coping mechanisms of seeking social support or using cognitive strategies, they can actually be superior to these because they enable coping even in the absence of voluntary/conscious mechanisms. He says that mature defenses are a sign of good mental health and that they usually develop between adolescence and mid-life (p. 92). Freud’s list of ego defenses includes several of those Vaillant studied, including projection, displacement, reaction formation, and sublimation. The following chart shows the maturity level and definitions given to these four defense mechanisms, which span the gamut of maturity/adaptation levels (Reeve, 2009, 408):

Surprisingly, Vaillant and the APA consider “suppression” an adaptive/mature defense mechanism. I’ve always thought that suppression was a negative/maladaptive way of dealing with anxiety. Vaillant (2000) admits that suppression is often regarded by psychotherapists as a vice, but that it’s seen as mature/adaptive because it’s a semiconscious decision to postpone paying attention to a conscious impulse or conflict that reduces anxiety while acknowledging the impulse, leaving others unharmed, and keeping reality intact (pp. 93 – 94). There seems to be a lot of interest in self-regulation techniques that encourage exploring emotions and thoughts, not suppressing them, for example Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and mindfulness meditation, to name two that I’m familiar with based on my studies at Regis. I can see situations in which suppression makes sense, such as the one Vaillant (2000) describes in his article of a man suppressing feelings of panic in an accident; however, there is research that suggests that suppressing thoughts and emotions usually leads to more of those thoughts and emotions. According to research by Dan Wegner, the way out of the cycle of thought suppression and recurrence is to focus on and think about the unwanted thoughts/feelings (Reeve, 2009, 404). So, it seems as if there is still further research to be done on suppression and how to classify it on the scale of defense mechanisms.

Of the other highly adaptive/mature defense mechanisms listed, I am drawn to humor the most. Although humor can be used in harmful ways, and can be used to disguise emotions, it can also be transformative, disarming, and highly effective, especially in the workplace. Research on emotional intelligence supports the idea that self-deprecating humor is a hallmark of a mature, emotionally-intelligent leader (Reeve, Boyatzis, and McKee, 2002). It’s amazing how humor has the ability to transform our perceptions and those of others in an otherwise tense, awkward, or anxiety-provoking situation. Humor also allows us to not take ourselves too seriously and to accept our shortcomings in a healthy, socially-acceptable way (Reeve, 2009, 207). I think anyone in a leadership role should examine their ego defenses and do what they can to move toward the mature/adaptive range. Of course, becoming aware of how you react is a huge part of this, which may not be easy.


Feist, J. and Feist, G. (2009). 7th Edition. Theories of Personality. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R., & McKee, A. (2004). Primal Leadership. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing.

Reeve, J. ( 2009). 5th edition. Understanding Motivation and Emotion. New York, NY: Wiley Press.

Vaillant, G. (2000). Adaptive Mental Mechanisms: Their Role in a Positive Psychology. American Psychologist, 55(1), 89-98.

Additional Reading:

Psychosocial Implications Of The Shadow (Dr. Andrew Powell)


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