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, involuntary, 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:
Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D., PsychologyToday.com
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.
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
George E Vaillant – “The Wisdom of the Ego”
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
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.