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Are Ego Defenses Bad or Good?

Ego Defenses

 

Are Ego Defenses Bad or Good?
Are ego defenses bad?

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.

Therapy’s view

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.

Pros of defense mechanisms

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.

Cons of defense mechanisms

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?

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.

You can find more information on psychoanalytic theory regarding ego defenses in the online courses, Classical Psychoanalytic Theory or Ego Psychology.

Are There Really No Psychological Accidents?

Psychological Determinism

Psychological Determinism
Slip of the tongue?

Perhaps the single most representative concept of psychoanalysis is that of psychological determinism.  By this I mean a fundamental belief that human behavior, consciousness, and experience are determined or explainable.  Freud followed in a scientific tradition that was dedicated to uncovering the laws and mysteries of life, hopefully to lead to a comprehensive theory of the mind.  

Is Action Accidental or Random?

Such an approach would never be satisfied with a conclusion that suggested that a certain action was “accidental” or “random” or that a thought occurred strictly from a spontaneous, meaningless neurochemical action.  Unlike radical behaviorism or even social learning theory, which propose to account for some behaviors as incidental contingencies or fortuitous accidents, psychoanalytic thinking would tend to view such explanations as naïve, simplistic, or superficial.  

What Does Psychoanalysis Tell Us About Action?

Psychoanalysis proposes to describe mind and behavior as meaningful and understandable.  Thus, our lives are the products of our being.  Our intentions, as well as our accidents, are worthy of understanding.  While critics may argue that psychoanalytic theories make too much out of too little, the supposed error is committed in the pursuit of knowledge, with an implicit expectation and respect for the complexity of life.  It should also be noted that such an attitude is reflective of an appreciation for the humanism of psychology, not its mechanization or reduction to biochemistry.

What is the Focus of Psychoanalytic Explanation?

Even if one could demonstrate, once and for all, that the universe and life are random, nonsensical phenomena, this would not contradict the view of determinism.  The focus of psychoanalytic explanation is on the human experience of life.  What is characteristically human is our mind’s proclivity for making sense out of nonsense.  We cannot tolerate being in a state of uncertainty or confusion.  Psychological determinism addresses this characteristic of being human by suggesting that all human knowledge, no matter how sophisticated, abstract, or profound, is always, ultimately, human.

Freud and Breuer’s Studies in Hysteria

Freud’s and Breuer’s Studies in Hysteria are classic examples of the humanity inherent in a view of psychological determinism.  In their investigation and treatment of hysteria, they stressed how patients’ peculiar behaviors stemmed from important but forgotten episodes of their lives.  Hysteria, understood in the context of a person’s life, represents a meaningful continuity of being, such that the mental life of the patient is respected as relevant and the patient is further accepted as exhibiting psychological processes common to humankind.  The “logic” of symptoms soon led to an appreciation for the logic of dreams, mistakes, jokes, and slips of the tongue.  With acceptance of determinism, we can never take life’s events for granted again!

For more on psychological determinism and other psychoanalytic concepts, see the course Classical Psychoanalytic Theory.  If you would like to receive a specialization Certificate in Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy and learn more about issues of interest, please see our home study psychology continuing education courses, available online.

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