Anna Freud’s Concept of Defense Mechanisms

To understand Anna Freud’s contributions to the notion of defense mechanisms, we must first take a look at the work of her father. Sigmund Freud described certain defense mechanisms the ego uses when dealing with conflicts with the id and superego. He claimed that a reduction of tension is a major drive for most people, and that this tension was largely caused by anxiety. Furthermore, he broke anxiety up into three types:

  1. Reality anxiety: the fear of real-world events occurring. For example, a person is afraid of being bitten by a dog because they are near a ferocious dog. The easiest way to reduce the tension of reality anxiety is to remove oneself from the situation.
  2. Neurotic anxiety: the unconscious fear that we will be overpowered by and lose control of the urges of the id, and that this will lead to punishment.
  3. Moral anxiety: the fear of our moral principles and values being violated, resulting in feelings of shame or guilt. This type of anxiety comes from the superego.

When anxiety occurs, Sigmund Freud claimed that defense mechanisms are used to cope with the anxiety and shield the ego from reality, the id, and the superego. He said that oftentimes these mechanisms unconsciously distort reality and can be overused by a person to avoid a problem. It can, therefore, be beneficial to understand and uncover these defense mechanisms so that a person may manage their anxiety in a healthier way.

But where does Anna Freud come into play? Most notably, she is responsible for identifying the specific defense mechanisms that the ego uses to reduce tension. They are: 

  • Denial: refusing to admit or recognize that something is occurring or has occurred
  • Displacement: taking one’s feelings and frustrations out on something or someone else that is less threatening
  • Intellectualization: thinking about something from a cold and objective perspective so that you can avoid focusing on the stressful and emotional part of the situation
  • Projection: taking your own uncomfortable feelings and attaching them to someone else so it seems as though that person is feeling that way in place of you
  • Rationalization: while avoiding the actual reason for a feeling or behavior, a person will create credible, but false, justifications
  • Reaction Formation: behaving in the opposite way to hide one’s true feelings
  • Regression: reverting back to childlike behavior. Anna Freud claimed that a person would act out certain behaviors based on the stage of psychosexual development that they were fixated on. For example, a person stuck in the oral stage might begin to eat or smoke excessively, or become more verbally aggressive
  • Repression: moving thoughts that make us uncomfortable into our subconscious
  • Sublimation: converting unacceptable behaviors into a more acceptable form. For example, a person with rage takes up boxing as a way to vent. Sublimation, Freud believed, was a sign of maturity