Ego defenses

Coping mechanisms – involuntary (unconscious) and voluntary (conscious)



The ego is a machine for looking after you.  Ego defenses are a natural manifestation of the Healing Principle, the pressure to thrive.  

When we suddenly find something hard to cope with, when we feel fear or discomfort, our ego will deploy various conscious and/or unconscious mechanisms in order to help us stall for time until we are able to cope.  

These mechanisms, ego defenses, have in common that they all involve denying, repressing or changing some aspect of the situation which it is the ego’s job to manage.  

The four influences acting on the ego are the conscience or super-ego; the id or emotions/drives; people; and reality.  We may suddenly find any one or more of these, at any one time, too difficult to cope with consciously.  Therefore the subconscious ego will try to deny, repress or change one or more of them, or at least, in our perception, until we can consciously cope with the situation.  

It is said that the ego listens most, and most quickly, to the emotions.  

There are probably more ego defenses than there are people.  Anna Freud, the daughter of Sigmund Freud and a great psychoanalyst in her own right, delineated the classical set of these mechanisms, set out in this article from Psychology Today:


The Essential Guide to Defense Mechanisms - Can you spot your favorite form of self-deception?

Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D.,


In addition, there is “acting out” – doing something instead of feeling.  

George E Vaillant classifies ego defenses into psychotic, immature, neurotic and mature.  The first three tend to be destructive and maladaptive in the long run, although in the short term they are valid coping mechanisms for the person deploying them.  Mature ego defenses are called such because they tend to be constructive and adaptive in the long term for oneself and others.  

Vaillant's classification runs as follows:  psychotic (delusional projection, denial, distortion); immature (projection, fantasy, hypochondriasis, passive aggression, acting out, dissociation); neurotic (displacement, isolation/intellectualisation, repression, reaction formation); mature (altruism, sublimation, suppression, anticipation, humour).

For example, in altruism, we attempt to change people and reality in a positive helpful way in order to feel better.  In humour, we deliberately change our emotions from conflicted to happy.  In anticipation, we change our perception of reality by deliberately preparing for difficult times ahead.  In sublimation, we may produce great art.  In displacement, we change the perceived source of the conflict from a scary threatening object to an illusory but safer and more manageable one.  Mature ego defenses may be described like this:  



The oyster, after all, deals with the irritation produced by a grain of sand by creating a pearl.  

George E Vaillant – “The Wisdom of the Ego”



Immature ego defenses will get under your skin

If someone uses an immature ego defense against you, and you find that it gets under your skin and irritates you – that is because it is meant to, albeit unconsciously.  


From immature to mature defenses

We may change our ego defenses from immature to mature by meditating: taming the ego by interrupting its normal operations, and mental noting: identifying our thoughts and feelings on a habitual basis.  If we experience some sort of trauma or crisis, then the ego regresses:  immature ego defenses surface again, temporarily.  


Power, control and aggression

From the point of view of morality and ethics, there are (in my opinion) three main and most common ego defenses:  power, control and aggression.  They are sometimes a logical and understandable, although destructive, result of experiencing (perhaps chronic) trauma and powerlessness, or at least, of present-day weakness and insecurity.  Sometimes they just seem to be someone’s chosen method for dealing with life, and after all, life is difficult for all of us, some more than others.  

Look for subtle ways in which people try to exercise inappropriate power and control – often “passively”.  









Inappropriate power play, control and aggression tend to go together as they often seem to be produced by similar circumstances – feeling weak or upset and that things are not under one’s control.  The subconscious emotion, “I am scared / upset / without control” is transformed into “I am mighty, you are little”, or aggression; the conscience is largely ignored, and attempts can be made to repress people and control reality.  

It must be remembered that ego defenses are largely unconscious so the fact that they are being deployed tends to be invisible to the user.  If someone displays passive aggression “behind the smile, a knife” (Chinese proverb) – then they themselves are nearly always unaware of this fact.  

Natural selection is relative.  Sometimes we are angry with a person we are jealous of.  The feeling “I am less” becomes “I am more and you are less”, and we may deploy other defenses such as projection.  

Sometimes this happens:  


Mature ego defenses: turning sh** into gold



This is perhaps the most effective defense against pain and discomfort: figuring out what is going on.  It is most important to have an open mind instead of pre-conceived ideas; and to assume you know nothing, instead of complacently thinking you already know it all.  We can look at the elements of a situation and how they relate together; and at all the multiple causes.  “How it makes you feel” is one of the elements of the situation.  Understanding can bring acceptance and, possibly, the power to change things.  



Some people who have had an ugly time of it find their way out by replacing it with altruism and fair play, learning the lessons from the bad times and being determined not to repeat them.  



Some people react to pain and discomfort by using these as base material for creativity, expressing their difficult emotions in artwork of some kind.  



Humour is a great way to take the sting out of life and to manage and make sense of difficult situations.  Humour can be a harmless way to get pleasure out of life, and it does not have to be at someone else’s expense.  In fact, this is seen as cruel.  Pleasure helps us to cope with life, it functions as a relief, and a motivation, in both the short and long term.  



Spending time with friendly people who are good to us is an excellent coping mechanism.  



Breaking through ego defenses


By understanding defenses as a product of conflicting emotions, we can reattach lost affect to cognitions and ideas.  

George E Vaillant – “The Wisdom of the Ego”


To break through someone’s ego defense and get them to feel appropriately has to be handled carefully, as the defense is invisible to them and is there for a good reason.  If we understand that we are using a defense then it no longer works.  


Observers of such involuntary behavior are tempted to correct or blame the user.  The user’s first response to having a defense pointed out is usually to claim that the behavior just happened by chance.  Next, he may rationalize and “explain” why his behavior has a reasonable motive behind it.  Then, if confrontation continues, he may become anxious, angry, or depressed.  For to abandon a defense is to expose the conflict.  Without their defenses [the users] would have been upset.  

An observer may call the user of a defense stupid, or wicked, or mentally ill.  All such responses are as useless as scolding a child for sneezing.  We can neither condemn a tubercular patient for coughing nor ignore the internal disorder that the coughing portends.  Similarly, we must neither condemn the lawful eccentricities of the ego’s mechanisms of defense as sins nor dismiss them as mere chance events.  As with the cough of the consumptive, attention must be paid to the odd behaviors of people with emotional dis-ease.  The wisdom of the ego, like the wisdom of the body, must be understood before we are tempted to meddle.  

Understanding defenses is essential to any kind of counselling or psychotherapy, for by understanding defenses we understand why people behave irrationally.  Attention to defenses trains us to look beneath the obvious.  For example, if we know that displacement underlies some phobias, then we know that we are unlikely to find the source of phobics’ anxiety by questioning the phobics about the exact object of their fears.  Rather, we must look everywhere else for the source of their distress.  

Once we start to appreciate the existence of defenses, we will see them used by friends, neighbors, and relatives.  The proper response is neither to cry “Gotcha!” nor to worry that there may be something terribly wrong.  Rather, by understanding defenses, we can often master what disturbs us about other people.  When we understand the whys of irrational behavior, we become less judgmental and can offer social support.  If we insist on pointing people’s defenses out to them, we must be willing to share responsibility for their ensuing anxiety.  Nobody is comfortable being mentally undressed.  

George E Vaillant – “The Wisdom of the Ego”