George Vaillant and Defense Mechanisms

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  • 0:00 Who Is George Vaillant?
  • 0:27 What Are Defense Mechanisms?
  • 2:12 Theory of Defense Mechanisms
  • 2:48 Hierarchy of Defense…
  • 5:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Gary Gilles

Gary has a Master's degree in Counseling Psychology and has been teaching and developing courses in higher education since 1988.

George Vaillant took Freud's initial work with defense mechanisms and shaped it into a new way of viewing how we cope with anxiety. Learn about his theory of defense mechanisms and test your knowledge with quiz questions.

Who Is George Vaillant?

George Vaillant (born 1934) is a living American psychiatrist who teaches at Harvard Medical School and is well known for his extensive work on defense mechanisms. Many consider his work on defense mechanisms an extension of the pioneering efforts of Sigmund Freud, who introduced the concept of defense mechanisms. Vaillant graduated from Harvard Medical School and then received his psychoanalytic training in Freudian psychology at the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute.

What Are Defense Mechanisms?

In order to understand George Vaillant's view on defense mechanisms, we first need to explore how Freud explained the purpose of defense mechanisms. In Freudian psychology, defense mechanisms are called ego defense mechanisms and serve a very important purpose.

Freud believed that there were three parts of the personality. He called these the id, ego and superego. The id is impulsive and seeks pleasure. The superego is moralistic and acts as a conscience for good behavior. The impulsiveness of the id and the moralistic nature of the superego are often in conflict. For example, a guy wants to party with friends and get drunk (id) but he also feels a sense of responsibility for an important meeting he is leading the next day at work and knows he needs a good night's sleep to be at his best (superego). The ego, which is focused on the practical reality of situations, is constantly trying to manage the conflict between the id and the superego. This creates a lot of anxiety for the ego.

Ego defense mechanisms are strategies that the ego uses to manage the anxiety that stems from the conflict between the id and superego and the realities of daily life. It is a way to protect the ego from paralyzing anxiety. For example, a woman is told by the police that her husband had a massive heart attack at work and died before emergency personnel could help him. She denies this report saying that her husband was in excellent physical condition, and they must be mistaken. She is using the ego defense mechanism of denial to help her cope with the anxiety the diagnosis creates. In this case, denial helps blunt the full impact of the distressing news and keeps the woman from being overwhelmed by the anxiety she feels. Over time, the denial will likely subside and she will to come to grips with the loss of her husband.

Theory of Defense Mechanisms

George Vaillant expanded on Freud's ideas. Freud simply viewed ego defense mechanisms as various ways that people manage the anxiety that the ego encounters. Vaillant took Freud's defense mechanisms and added some of his own and organized then into four levels, or hierarchies, ranging from the unhealthiest responses to ego anxiety (level 1) to the healthiest (level 4). Vaillant believes that the use of lower lever defense mechanisms reflects significant emotional impairment in the person using them. This impairment decreases with each level to the point that people using level 4 defense mechanisms can actually see admirable outcomes.

Hierarchy of Defense Mechanisms

Level 1: Psychotic or Pathological Defenses

The use of defense mechanisms at this level reflects a significant need by the person to distort reality and is the most serious and unhealthy of the four levels. Denial, or a refusal to accept reality because it prompts too much anxiety, would be considered a level 1 defense mechanism. A woman denying her diagnosis of breast cancer is a good example of a level 1 defense.

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