Gnothi seauton: Mature ego defences

The Oracle of Delphi

Whilst no one can escape using ego defence mechanisms altogether, some ego defence mechanisms are thought to be more helpful or ‘mature’ than others. For example, if a person feels angry with his boss, he may go home and kick the dog (‘displacement’), or he may go out and play a good game of tennis (‘sublimation’). Sublimation is the channeling of negative feelings into useful activities such as study, sport, or art, and is thought to be a far more mature defence mechanism than displacement, which is the redirection of negative feelings towards someone or something less important.

There are a number of other ‘mature’ ego defence mechanisms like sublimation. Altruism, for example, is (contentiously) thought of as a form of sublimation in which a person copes with his anxiety by stepping outside himself and helping others. By focusing on the needs of others, people in altruistic careers such as nursing or teaching may be able to push their needs into the background. Similarly, people who care for a disabled or elderly person may experience profound anxiety and distress once this role is removed from them.

Another mature ego defence mechanism is humour. By seeing the absurd or ridiculous aspect of an emotion, event, or situation, a person is able to put it into its proper context and thereby to diffuse the anxiety that it provokes in him. If human beings laugh so much, this is no doubt because they have the most developed unconscious in the animal kingdom, and Freud himself famously noted that ‘there is no such thing as a joke’. The things that people laugh about most are their errors and inadequacies, and the difficult challenges that they face such as personal identity, social and sexual relationships, and death.

Further up the scale of mature ego defence mechanisms is ascetism, which involves denying the importance of what people normally fear and strive for, and so denying the very grounds for anxiety. The Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Stekel (1868–1940) felt that ‘anxiety is fear of one’s self’; if the importance of the self can be denied, so too can the grounds for anxiety. If people in modern societies are more anxious than people from another time or people from traditional societies, this is perhaps because of the undue emphasis that modern societies place on the self. In the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu ‘Song of God’, the god Krishna appears to the archer Arjuna in the midst of the battlefield of Kurukshetra and tells him not to give up but to do his duty and fight on. In either case, all the men on the battlefield are one day condemned to die – as are all men. Their deaths are trivial, because the spirit in them, their human essence, does not depend on their particular forms or incarnations for its continued existence. Krishna says, ‘When one sees eternity in things that pass away and infinity in finite things, then one has pure knowledge.’

There has never been a time when you and I have not existed, nor will there be a time when we will cease to exist (…) the wise are not deluded by these changes.

– Bhagavad Gita

Arguably the most mature of all ego defence mechanisms is anticipation. Anticipation involves finding self-knowledge and, like the blind prophet Teiresias, using this self-knowledge to predict or ‘anticipate’ our feelings and reactions. In the Ancient World the greatest of all the oracles was the oracle at Delphi, and inscribed on the forecourt of the temple of Apollo at Delphi was a simple two-word command.

Γνῶθι σεαυτόν

‘Know thyself.’

Adapted from

Ego defence mechanisms

Being entirely honest with oneself is a good exercise.
- Sigmund Freud

In Freudian psychoanalytic theory, ego defence mechanisms are unconscious processes that we use to diffuse the anxiety that arises when who we really are (our unconscious ‘id’) comes into conflict with who we think we are or who we think we should be (our conscious ‘superego’). For example, at an unconscious level a man may find himself attracted to another man, but at a conscious level he may find this attraction completely unacceptable. To diffuse the anxiety that arises from this conflict, he may use one or several of a number of defence mechanisms. For example, (1) he may refuse to admit to himself that he is attracted to this man. Or (2) he may superficially adopt ideas and behaviours that are diametrically opposed to the fact that he is attracted to this man, for example, go out for several pints with the lads, speak in a gruff voice, and bang his fists on the counter. Or (3) he may transfer or ‘project’ his attraction onto somebody else and then berate him for being ‘gay’ (young children can teach us much through utterances such as ‘mirror, mirror’ and ‘what you say is what you are’). In each case, he has used one of three common ego defence mechanisms which are, respectively, denial, reaction formation, and projection. A broad range of such ego defence mechanisms are recognised, and the combination in which we use them reflects our personality. Whilst we cannot escape using ego defence mechanisms, we can gain some insight into how they are used and of how we use them. This self-knowledge enables us to better understand what is happening to us and around us, and, quite simply, to make the best of it.

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