Are ego defenses bad or good to have? Is the goal of psychotherapy to remove defense mechanisms or strengthen them? Can mental health be defined as the absence of ego defenses? Or are some ego defenses better to have than others? Questions like these are posed frequently by graduate students, clinicians, and even psychotherapy patients who want to better understand this crucial topic.
For over 100 years, the psychoanalytic literature has explored and catalogued the various methods people use to manage their sanity. Even psychoanalysis’s harshest critics have implicitly endorsed the importance of recognizing defenses, albeit, by renaming them as cognitive appraisals, thinking errors, or some other term for automatic mental gymnastics. The point remains that how a person manages and “massages” thoughts and perceptions greatly influences how the world is known and how relationships are handled.
Breaking down or taking away a person’s ego defenses would leave the individual vulnerable and frightened. The task of psychodynamic psychotherapy is to help the patient be more deliberate (conscious) and flexible (adaptive) to the demands of everyday life. The capacity for tolerating anxiety makes the reflexive defense against fear and tension unnecessary. Ego defenses, when conscious, can become effective coping processes. Once understood, they can become cues that something is feeling threatening and needs attention. When under one’s control, they can allow for a more realistic perspective on how to manage life’s challenges.
Ego defenses evolved because, at some point in a person’s life, they were helpful. They can continue to provide emotional safety throughout one’s life as long as they don’t become overused or too rigid—overuse or rigidity cause problems themselves, interfering with a person’s ability to deal effectively with the world. Minimizing the impact of a difficult situation, as in denial, may allow a child to function in an abusive home. Continuing to deny unhappy realities as an adult, however, can stand in the way of resolving problems. The cons of defense mechanisms come when they interfere with a person’s ability to work effectively with reality.
What is the verdict–are ego defenses bad or good? Defense mechanisms can become problematic if they are rigid and overused. If a person learns about the defenses they tend to use to manage internal or external stress—whether by seeking organization, wanting to hide under the covers, seeking others’ reassurances, etc.—they have a source of information they can use as a signal for constructive action. “I see I’m spending a lot of time reorganizing things this week… Is something bothering me?” Having insight into oneself is an invaluable resource.