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What Did Freud Really Teach Us?

When people think about counselling, what often comes to mind is Freud. Usually, when people think about Freud, they think about his crazy ideas of sex. Surprisingly, Freud has a lot to teach us.

One of Freud’s most important contributions to counselling was his work on defense mechanisms and how we handle emotions. So what exactly are defensive mechanisms and why are they so important? Let’s explore this.

Defense mechanisms are a way that our brain reacts to internal and external stress such as upsetting emotions or situations. It’s an attempt on our brain’s part to protect us. At first we feel that defense mechanisms protect us and help us cope, however in reality they can cause more detriment than good. We all have defense mechanisms. It doesn’t mean we are bad or wrong for having defense mechanisms. It means that we are human. What we do need to do is be aware of how defense mechanisms act in our lives so that they do not inhibit our functioning.

So let’s take a look at the types of defense mechanisms and what they do.

Denial – Here we ignore emotions from a situation because they are too painful. We then attempt live as though the situation did not happen or cannot be happening. If a partner ends a relationship, denial is a common reaction because we do not want to admit to ourselves that the relationship is over so we consciously or unconsciously choose to be in denial rather than realizing that the relationship is in fact over.

Projection – This defense mechanism occurs when we take our own undesirable thoughts and feelings and literally “project” (attribute) them on to someone else. This can be seen when we walk into a room and we feel really angry, maybe towards our partner. Instead of acknowledging our anger, we project it on to our partner and say that they are really angry at us. We then feel that we don’t need to acknowledge or deal with our anger.

Displacement – Sometimes we don’t know how to express our emotions in a specific situation or feel safe to express our emotions so we displace them somewhere else. If your boss is angry with you and threatens your job when you feel you haven’t done anything wrong, typical emotions that arise are anger and fear. You may not feel safe expressing your emotion of anger to your boss. This emotion however wants to be released and there are two ways we can displace it. You could go home and see your partner putting away the dishes wrong and take your anger out on your partner.  The reality is that your partner has done nothing wrong but the anger from earlier is now coming out on your partner. Another way to displace anger is on ourselves. You could be packing up for the day, walking out the door of work and stub your toe. The anger from earlier arises and says “You are so stupid. You can’t do anything right. Your boss is right, you are useless”.  Unfortunately, we and our loved ones become an easy target for our displaced emotions.

Now that you are aware of defense mechanisms, which ones do you see happening in your life? Here’s what we can do once we are aware our defense mechanisms:

  1. Be aware of your emotion and acknowledge to yourself that you are feeling that particular emotion
  2. Watch what you are doing with that emotion and for signs of defense mechanisms
  3. When a defense mechanism comes up don’t feel bad or wrong for having a defense mechanism. Acknowledge that it’s happening. Once we know it is happening, we can begin to change.
  4. Process with yourself why this is happening. Where are these emotions really coming from?

When we acknowledge that we are acting out of a defense mechanism, we can start decreasing these defense mechanisms in our lives. When we decrease defense mechanisms in our lives there are a variety of benefits which include:

  • Understanding our situations better
  • Having better relationships and interactions with others
  • Feeling more confident and love towards ourselves

When defense mechanisms are present in our lives we feel that they are protecting ourselves from hurt or pain. What it is doing is blocking our emotions from our conscious level of awareness and we can no longer act on what that emotion is trying to signal to us.  When we decrease the use of defense mechanisms in our lives we can start to move towards a life of feeling and functioning in a healthier manner.

Jenn Betts is a Registered Provisional Psychologist with the Psychologists’ Association of Alberta and specializes in the areas of anxiety, anger, guilt and self esteem as well as many others. For more information on Jenn, her work, or other articles she’s written for Living Well click here to link to her full bio page.