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Psych Cents

Secondary or Higher Order Defenses

written by Sandra Mannelli 

Repression is a frequently used defense mechanism and is considered to be a more mature defense in that it is conscious forgetting or ignoring.  It can be thought of as keeping certain thoughts or feelings at a distance, from conscious awareness.  Some forgetting and inattention are acts of repression.  When an idea, perception, or feeling is 'forgotten' because of its power to upset, then generally, repression has been used.  Repression can be somewhat consciously employed or unconsciously employed.  In a severe trauma such as rape, a victim may not later be able to recall the episode.  This would likely be unconscious repression.  There has been controversy over whether the above example is actually repression or a form of dissociation (which will be discussed later), or that repression is a form of dissociation.  Another instance of repression occurs in childhood, when children deal with the normal but frightening wish to destroy one parent out of anger in order to receive the total attention of the other parent.  This desire is eventually transferred to the unconscious when the child has attained more maturity and more effective methods of defense enabling them to repress disturbing feelings.
Regression is a defense that has likely been experienced by everyone when one tired, hungry, or in pain, and 'regresses' to a previous level of maturational development.  Most people will begin to whine when ill or tired enough.
Isolation is the technical term for ignoring or numbing a feeling out of necissity or defense.  For example, it is the act of isolating the feeling or emotional response to things that the rest of us have powerful feelings about.  For example, a soldier uses the defense of isolation, to ignore fear or the desire to run away when he needs to face the enemy and defend himself without the interference of his emotional responses.  The experience is not totally cut of from conscious experience but is rather very detached and emotionally absent.  This defense allows us to handle traumatic overload.
Intellectualization is a defense where the individual talks about feelings in a way that reflects that there is emotional detachment; as if the feelings are inhibited.  For example, a person may say "I care about you" while the listener is not convinced due to lack of emotional affect.  This can be a way to handle times of emotional overload.  It allows the person to deal with the issue at hand without the interference of emotions.  It is an effective defense provided the individual eventually deals with the emotions at some time.
Rationalization is also familiar to most and involves finding a "reason" for a failure to obtain what we desire or to find an acceptable explanation for an unfortunate occurance.  For example, we often hear the saying:  "Everything turns out for the best".  Of course, like all defense mechanisms, the user can defend in a maladaptive way.  An example would be aggressive behavior of a parent toward a child and rationalizing that it is for the child's "own good". 
Moralization is similar to rationalization. When one is using rationalization one is making behavior or feelings "reasonable".  When one uses moralization, one is making behavior or feelings "justifiable" or a moral obligation.  Mild forms of moralization are used in everyday life in regard to building character.  It may annoy or amuse others to observe someone moralizing.  In its extreme form, it can be used to justify destruction, as in the case of Hitler preaching justification for his method of getting rid of individuals whom he felt were immoral or undesirable members of society.
Compartmentalization is another defense that may be more closely related to dissociative defenses (to be discussed later) than to other intellectual defenses (rationalization, moralization, intellectualization).  It is a more primitive form of defense as is isolation.  While isolation is used to permit action without the interferrance of feeling, compartmentalization allows two conflicting beliefs or cognitive sets to exist.  The function is to allow two conflicting conditions to exist without conscious awareness in order to avoid anxiety, guilt, or shame.  It appears hypocritical to observers while to the individual using the defense, there is avoidance of conscious knowledge of the contradiction.  An example of this defense would be a minister preaching against pornography yet having a collection of pornograhic material himself.  Another example would be an individual telling his/her partner that open communication is very important while at the same time, keeping secrets.  When confronted the person using this defense may rationalize the contradictions.

See Part 2 of higher order defenses