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Psych Cents

What Are Defense Mechanisms Anyway?

Primary Defense Processes

Defenses or defense mechanisms, begin as healthy adaptations to deal with anxiety, grief, fear, anger, hurt, etc.  They are used to defend the self against threat and to avoid or manage powerful, threatening feelings.  Defense mechanisms help maintain self-esteem and a postiive sense of self.
Psychologists and psychoanalytic thinkers assert that we all have preferred defenses that have become incorporated into our individuals styles of coping.  Our preferences for particular defenses develop from an interaction of several factors including one's inborn temperament, the defenses our parents modeled for us, the types of stress we were exposed to in early childhood, and the reinforcement or consequences of using the particular defenses.
There are categories of defenses ranging from primitive defenses (meaning that the defenses originated in infancy and function on a global, undifferentiated level in a person's total mental/behavioral/feeling experience), to more mature, advanced defenses, which make specific transformations of thought, feeling, behavior, or some combination.
Primitive defenses include withdrawal, denial, omnipotent control, primitive idealization and devaluation, projective and introjective identification and splitting of the ego.
Primitive defenses will be focused on first.  These defenses  involve preverbal development as exhibited by a lack of reality orientation as well as a lack of the awareness of the separateness and constancy of those outside of the self.
For example, denial is more primitive because it is thought to be an instant, nonrational process.  "This is not occurring" is a more infantile, magical way of dealing with an unpleasant reality than for example, repression, which involves:  "This occurred, it is too painful, so I will forget about it".
Splitting is another primitive defense mechanism where the person relegates experiences and/or people into all-good and all-bad categories with no room for ambiguity.  It is believed to derive from a time before the child has developed object constancy.  Infants are thought to perceive mother as all good when they are gratified and perceive her as a bad mother when they are frustrated.  They have not yet developed the capacity to appreciate that she is the same person in each situation whose presence feels good and bad at times.
Primitive withdrawal is a defense employed as a self-protective response that is seen in infants.  It is automatic and is often seen when the infant is overstimulated or upset, where the infant will fall asleep.  It involves a psychological withdrawal into a different state of consciousness.  Adult versions of this defense can be seen in individuals who retreat from social situations or intimacy with another, substituting the stimulation of internal fantasy for the anxiety of relating to others, in oversleeping, in becoming bored easily, and resorting to daydreaming.  Some drugs perform a similar function.  It involves a psychological escape from reality.  On one hand it is not conducive to intimate relationships in that others feel the individual is unreachable and cold, but on the other hand, it requires little distortion of reality.  When one relies on this defense heavily, the person will generally prefer solitude to relationship.
Omnipotent control is an infantile state of grandiosity, where the fantasy is that one is in control of all they come in contact with.  This is a normal stage of development for children but as they mature, they transfer this defense into a phase where the primary caregiver is believed to be all-powerful, evolving into the real but unattractive fact that no one's power is unlimited.  It is speculated by psychologists, that the feeling that one's power is not boundless is necessary developmentally, where the infant can freely enjoy the illusions of one's own omnipotence and next, that of the caretakers on whom one depends.
A healthy amount of this omnipotence should remain in us all and contributes to feelings of efficacy and competence in life.  The belief that one can accomplish anything one sets his or her mind to, is an example of this positive but fantasy-driven belief.  For some people, the need to feel this omnipotence and to interpret experiences as a result of their own power, is more attractive than reality.  This exaggerated belief can be seen in the sociopath or psychopath, where the personality is driven by this defense.  Exerting power over others is a central goal of individuals with omnipotent control as the primary defense used and they gravitate to areas in life where the potential to wield power is high.
Idealization and devaluation is believed by psychoanlaysts, to derive from the child's need to believe that the caretakers, mommy or daddy, can protect one from dangers in life.  Children are frightened to confront the realities of hostility, illness, mortality, and other terrors for the first time, and idealization of the caretakers protects them against overwhelming fear and allows them to feel protected, cushioned from too severe a blow from reality.
All of us idealize.  We carry residues of idealization into adulthood and often idealize our significant others on whom we depend emotionally.  It is a normal and necessary aspect of mature love.  The tendency over time to de-idealize those on whom we depend is also a normal component of development of individuation and mature love.  In its mature form, it allows one to appreciate others for the reality of who they are; imperfect humans who are special to them in spite of their flaws.  It allows one to share and identify with others based on the acceptance of our own imperfect humanity.
When we see persons who live life seeking to rank others or objects according to comparative value in contrast to flawed or defective others, and there appears to be a search for perfection both through merger with the idealized objects/persons and/or with efforts to perfect the self, the individuals are considered to be narcissistic.  While there are other characteristics of narcissistic personality traits/disorder, their dependence on the defense of idealization is one of the more obvious characteristics. (Other familiar aspects of narcissism that follow from use of this defense are:  seeking of fame, notority, or popularity, constant reassurance of one's importance to others, the desire to associate only with individuals who are recognized as being highly important, exceptionally attractive, extremely intelligent, or 'special' in some publically recognized fashion, their need for recognition of their own often contrived superiorority or expertise, and their propensity to deprive others of any such recognition or reassurance, as if they are the only ones worthy of such deference.)  The idea that one must perfect the self rather than accept what one is, in order to love it, results from over-reliance on the use of idealization as a defense.
Devaluation is the expected outcome of the need to idealize.  What goes up on the pedastal must come down, or be knocked down if any flaws are perceived.  And the more the object was idealized, the more radical the devaluation to which it will eventually lead. A typical example of this kind of behavior is in the partner who worships his/her lover, only to wake up one day and feel nothing for him/her once their lack of perfection is noted. Another example would be the partner who believes that the significant other should meet his/her needs, caretake and nurture, with no reciprocation.  (This particular form of devaluation where the other is exploited by the narcissist, leads to failed relationships due to the inevitable resentment by the marginalized partner, who has been exploited and devalued.  This ultimate disatisfaction with the narcissist by the devalued partner, is often experienced by the narcissist, who feels entitled to preferential treatment, as being devalued himself/herself which leads to rage, rather than seen as the natural consequence of the narcissist's exploitation of the other, ie; devaluation.  It has been observed clinically, that narcissists do not learn from failed relationships but continue to seek a partner who will recognize their superiority and provide them with what they feel entitled to.) 
Devaluation does not always involve insult and reproach, it often is reflected by ephemeral or fleeting regard for others, where the one idealizing becomes disenchanted or disinterested with the other, quickly, as seen in narcissistic, borderline, and histrionic personalities where feelings are not reciprocal in narcissists, unstable with borderlines, and shallow in histrionic types.
While it is attractive to others to be idealized, as small children idealize their parents, it is necessary that the parents are eventyually de-idealized.  As all mothers have experienced when their idealizing children go through their teenage years, de-idealization will always follow.  Mature de-idealizing leads to healthy reality checking and appreciation for others.

Psychoanalytic Diagnosis: Understanding Personality Structure in the Clinical Process by Nancy McWilliams
A Primer of Freudian Psychology by Calvin S. Hall
The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud (Psychopathology of Everyday Life, the Interpretation of Dreams and Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex) by Sigmund Freud and A. A. Brill