Freudian Defense Mechanisms: Definition, Levels & Examples

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  • 1:10 Defense Mechanism
  • 2:38 Levels of Defense Mechanisms
  • 4:10 Pathological Mechanisms
  • 4:52 Immature Mechanisms
  • 6:00 Neurotic Mechanisms
  • 6:58 Mature Mechanisms
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

Do you think that defense mechanisms are what happen in the football field and coping mechanisms are what a team does when the quarterback is injured? Think again. These are just two of the list of Freud's terms used to categorize how we react to life's curve balls. Watch this lesson to get the whole picture.

Sources of Stress

So today we're going to talk about Freudian defense mechanisms and this is basically what Freud thought that you do when you're faced with stress. And he thought that stress and anxiety are basically caused by your three parts of your personality fighting with each other. He thought that there was basically an id, an ego and a superego, and that your id has lots of impulses and things it wants to do; it's kind of childish, it doesn't really have self-control. Your superego is all self-control, so it's always limiting what the id wants to do. And your ego is the conscious part of you that has to deal with this conflict. And what Freud thought is when this anxiety gets out of hand, your ego starts to feel like it's under attack and so it tries to do one of these defense mechanisms to protect itself from having to deal with too much stress.

It's important to know that these are actually unconscious, so these are different than a coping strategy, which is something you decide to do to deal with stress. A defense mechanism is something that you're doing without really thinking about it to manage the conflict between your three parts of your personality.

So as an example (it's probably easiest to illustrate with something concrete), if your id is telling you that you're attracted to your nerdy best friend, your superego might tell you that World of Warcraft paladins aren't really boyfriend material and this would cause anxiety. So what you might do to deal with this stress that you're feeling, because you're attracted to someone inappropriate, is you tell your friends that you're worried that your best friend is attracted to you. Now, you can see this is a little weird, right? You're the one who's attracted to him, you have no idea if he's attracted to you, but what you're doing is you're projecting what you feel onto him. That's one of Freud's defense mechanisms called projection, where you basically take your unacceptable desire and you project it onto somebody else. And that's a way to sort of deal with the stress that's caused by wanting something that society tells you you shouldn't have.

Levels of Defense Mechanisms

And there are a bunch of these defense mechanisms, there's not just a couple. And some were originally developed by Freud, like projection, and others were actually added much later to the model, including ones added by a psychologist named George Vaillant. Not only did he add a bunch, but he actually classified them into levels - healthy ones, ones that are prone to being overused, etc.

So his four levels of defense mechanisms were ones that were pathological. And these are kind of like it sounds like - if you mostly use these ones, that's bad; you're distancing yourself from reality so much that you probably are going to seem a little bit irrational or even insane to other people around you.

He also classified some as immature. These are ones that are prevalent in mainly younger people, adolescents. If you use them too much, you are maybe unable to cope so effectively with reality, and people who are depressed or have personality disorders tend to use these as well.

Then he had a level of neurotic ones, which are actually pretty common. They're semi-effective in the short term, they might get you to feel a little better, but they're really not that effective in the long term and they also can cause problems if you use them too much. Again, these are pretty common; a lot of adults do use neurotic defense mechanisms.

And then there are the mature ones. These are obviously the good ones. They're healthy, they help you solve problems, and you integrate the conflicting impulses and everything is great.

Examples of Defense Mechanisms

So just to flesh this out a little bit, we can take a look at a couple defense mechanisms that are in each of these levels to really get a sense of what the levels mean and really what a defense mechanism does.

So as an example of the pathological one, you have denial, which is really what it sounds like. Something happens to you and you're saying that it doesn't, it just didn't happen. So if you failed a math test and you're really upset by it - this is maybe creating a conflict with your sense of self as being good at math - if you just told people that you did fine, that you didn't fail, that would be a real refusal to accept reality, and that's denial. And it's pathological because you're totally disconnecting yourself with what actually happened. You're not interacting with reality if you use this defense mechanism and that can lead to some serious problems.

The next one would be an example of an immature one, and that's actually what we were talking about before with projection with your nerdy friend and World of Warcraft and all that; that's an immature one because you're kind of dealing with it, but again, you're getting away from reality a little bit because you're saying that he has a crush on you, which isn't...you have no idea. He might, but you don't know. So it's not quite as far from reality as just refusing to acknowledge that the situation exists (like with the math test) but it's still not...you're not quite there.

Another one - this is one of the ones that was added later, this isn't an original one of Freud's - is passive aggression. That's another immature one. You're upset with your roommate; let's say, you made a cake and she ate it. So you might forget to pick her up from work like you promised, but you really didn't forget, you just didn't do it. This is bad because you're expressing anger but you're not doing it in a way that's tied to anything that she can understand. You're not really dealing with the situation, you're just acting out.

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