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Selfplex Defence Mechanisms

Updated: 10 May 2016

What the great Sigmund Freud termed ‘ego defence mechanisms’ are called ‘selfplex defence mechanisms’ in Integrated SocioPsychology. (The reasons for this are largely semantic: ‘ego’ has multiple meanings beyond the one Freud assigned it whereas ‘selfplex’ is used in a quite specific sense.)

Freud’s Ego, driven by the Reality Principle, firstly works to restrain the Id (if it feels good, do it) where there might be undesirable consequences to the Id acting out its instincts. It then tries to balance out the conflicting demands of the Id and the Superego (do what it is right). The implication is that the we are largely unaware of the Id bubbling away in our Unconscious – except where it leaks out in parapraxes (‘Freudian slips’ of the tongue which reveal your unconscious thoughts and desires) and in dreams. Also much of the conflict between the 3 parts of the mind takes place below the surface of the consciousness in what Daniel Siegel (1912) terms ‘non-conscious processing’. Consequently we may not understand why we employ the ego defence mechanisms we do.

‘Iceberg Model’ graphic copyright © 2004 Anthony A Walsh

‘Iceberg Model’ graphic copyright © 2004 Anthony A Walsh

This concept of conflicts in the Unconscious is reflected in the ‘Iceberg Model’ – see graphic above – on the basis that, as with an iceberg, only about 10% of the human psyche is visible – ie: the vast amount of what is going on in our minds is below the level of conscious awareness.

Freud saw ego defence mechanisms as strategies the Ego employs to protect itself in its conflicts with the other parts of the mind. (It was actually Freud’s daughter, Anna, who provided the fullest documentation (1936) of the ego defence mechanisms.) As short-term measures, Freud viewed defence mechanisms as advantageous, necessary and ‘normal’ – reducing anxiety and preventing us from being overwhelmed by temporary threats or trauma. They give us breathing space to come to terms with  the conflict(s) or find other ways of coping. However, as long-term solutions, they are usually regarded as unhealthy and undesirable – especially as they increase distortion of reality.

Integrated SocioPsychology reframes Freud’s 3-part mind in terms of the Gravesian 6-part mind of the 1st Tier. Thus, the Id tendency to self-express is reflected in the ‘warm’ vMEMES and at its peak in nodal RED. The Ego’s desire to avoid consequences becomes PURPLE’s drive to find safety in belonging. The Superego’s element of Conscience is reflected in BLUE’s absolutist take on what is right and wrong while the Superego’s Ego Ideal (how things should be) is reflected to a considerable degree in GREEN’s idealism about the achievement of human and planetary harmony.

Thus, ego defence mechanisms are now seen as strategies employed by vMEMES in their conflicts with each other to protect the schemas they value and to minimise disruption and distress in the selfplex.

There is much research to be done on how vMEMES work to produce selfplex defence mechanisms. However, based on Anna Freud’s descriptions of ego defence mechanisms, the following is more than possible in respect of the more common defence mechanisms…

Avoidance
Where an individual unconsciously avoids the anxiety-producing situation, in order not to experience stress.
This strategy could be employed by several vMEMES. PURPLE would use it naturally to escape confrontation unless that confrontation was concerned with threat to its close clan, rituals, traditions and/or resources. RED might use it in a situation where it feared being shamed. The strategic thinking of ORANGE might decide to defer a confrontation until a time more of its choosing. GREEN generally is shy of confrontation unless its ideals are compromised or the people it values are threatened – when it may take action in a vMEME harmonic with another vMEME.

Denial
This is the refusal to accept the existence of a threatening event, actuality or conscious memory – eg: patients suffering from life-threatening diseases often deny that their lives are affected. The refusal to accept criticism is often read as a mild form of denial.
Denial can serve positively – eg: the soldier about to go into battle is more likely to fight with gusto if he is in denial of the high risk of being killed or severely injured; the stroke victim in denial of the seriousness of their condition is more likely to keep on trying to regain command of their faculties. However, denial can also lead to real problems further down the line – eg: a woman who is in denial that the lump she’s found in her breast may be cancerous is unlikely to get help at an early stage.
Martin Willick (1995) cites the example of a woman was told her husband had died from a heart attack; but 2 days later she went back to the hospital convinced he was alive and, for some reason, being kept from her by the medical staff. Another example comes from work by Curt Griffiths (1999) who found that sex offenders were more likely to deny their offence than other criminals. Griffith analysed the case records of adolescent criminals for evidence of denial and found that this was much more frequent among sex offenders. He attributed this to their crimes being that much more unacceptable socially than other types of offence
Denial would seem to result from the conflicts between BLUE’s drive to think and do the right thing and either PURPLE’s fear of not being accepted and/or RED’s fear of being shamed.

Displacement
A moving of impulses away from a threatening object and towards a less threatening object. For example, the boss has made you angry but you can’t respond as you would like to for fear of getting into even greater trouble. So you take it out on your partner or your children. Often called the ‘kicking the cat syndrome’.
This would represent PURPLE and/or BLUE restraining the RED from action that would precipitate disaster – only for the RED to vent its fury on someone or something else.

Identification
This is behaving in a similar way to someone you regard as a role model. For example, a son imitating his father in the garden with a toy wheelbarrow.
This could be interpreted as PURPLE seeking acceptance by being like the person you want to belong to, RED taking pride in mastering desirable behaviours and/or BLUE wanting to ‘do the right thing’.

Isolation
The separating out of contradictory thoughts and feelings into ‘logic-tight’ compartments so that no conflict is experienced – thus reducing cognitive dissonance. This may involve the separation of thoughts and emotions that usually go together. For example, talking calmly and clinically about a very traumatic experience without showing any emotion – or even giggling about it, as sometimes seen in Disorganised/Hebephrenic sub-type of Schizophrenia.
This effective dissociation can be interpreted as the consequence of vMEME conflicts – eg: BLUE being ashamed of something RED delights in. In addition to the possible schizophrenic split between thoughts and feelings such conflicts can cause, the dissociation effect might even lead to Dissociative Identity Disorder or, worse – if the contradictory thoughts and feelings produced by the different vMEMES are seen as belonging to irreconcilable ‘personalities’ – full-blown Multiple Personality Disorder .

Intellectualisation
This is the de-emotionalisation of a threatening event or painful memory – eg: rationalising the death of a loved one by statements such as “They’re in a better place now” or “At least they’re not in pain any more”.
This may be where PURPLE and/or RED are in trouble – perhaps distressed – and the selfplex as a whole is disturbed. As a strategy for focusing off the PURPLE/RED pain in the limbic system, BLUE (possibly with ORANGE) cortical analysis takes place to find an abstracted positive interpretation to feed to PURPLE and/or RED and thus soothe the troubled selfplex.

Projection
Where an individual may attribute their own undesirable characteristics (of which they may not be aware) to others – eg: someone who is unfriendly may accuse other people of being unfriendly. (An illustration I have often used with students is: “Aren’t the biggest bitches in the common room so often the ones busy badmouthing the bitchiness of others?”)
An example of projection in the literature is Leonard Newman, Kimberley Duff & Roy Baumeister (1997) describing individuals who actively suppress thoughts with undesirable characteristics; they see that others have such characteristics, not them.
This could well be the effect of the RED-BLUE transition or even a RED/BLUE harmonic where the BLUE recognises inappropriateness of the behaviour per se but the RED can’t accept the shame of admitting to such behaviour so deflects the focus onto others.

Rationalisation
“Why did I do that? It must have been because…” Or “Why do I think this?” This defence mechanism find reasons for seemingly-unexplainable or impulsive acts or thoughts.
Essentially this is a RED/BLUE harmonic – with cold BLUE logic being put to work to prevent RED being shamed because it escaped the constraints imposed on its selfish desires. If much is at stake and ORANGE is activated in the vMEME stack, then ORANGE strategic thinking may also be brought into play to minimise potential loss of status. If the impulsiveness that comes from the temperamental dimension of Psychoticism is behind the action, then it will be harder for BLUE (with ORANGE?) to find an explanation. If they are unable to find an answer, then RED, to avoid being shamed, may come in to deflect the blame onto someone else – even if it has to fabricate an explanation.

Reaction Formation
Other thoughts and/or feelings, which are diametrically opposed to the deeply held thoughts and/or feelings, are substituted. A classic example of this has been the repressed homosexual man who tries to bed as many women as possible to show what a ‘hetero man’ he is.
Here we have RED’s ‘unacceptable’ thoughts and desires being kept in check but refashioned by PURPLE and BLUE (and possibly ORANGE) into a form that’s considered acceptable – usually the opposite of what you really are/think, the maximum distance providing the unconscious cover-up.
One of the most famous examples in research illustrates this point exactly. Henry Adams, Lester Wright & Bethany Lohr (1996) assessed male participants for homophobia. The participants were then shown explicit heterosexual, gay and lesbian pornographic videos. Their level of sexual arousal was measured using a penile plethysmograph – a pressure sensitive penis ring connected to a dial. (As the penis grows, the resultant pressure on the ring is seen on the dial.) Over 80% of the homophobics were aroused by the gay porn, compared to only 33% of the non-homophobics. There was no difference in the 2 groups’ rates of arousal in response to the heterosexual and lesbian porn. This study suggests that the homophobia of the 80% was a form of reaction formation.

Regression
This is the concept of going back to an earlier – more childish? – form of being and behaving.
Freud’s idea of regression to the earlier is certainly paralleled in the work of both Abraham Maslow (1954) and Clare W Graves (1978/2005). However, whereas, Freud saw the earlier as a sequence of stages, Graves saw the development of stages as the emergence of systems (vMEMES) while Maslow focused on the needs we now see drive those systems. Additionally, Freud saw regression as pressure to the whole person driving you back to a weak point in your development. However, Maslow saw regression as going back to sort out problems at a lower level in the needs hierarchy because it impacted at a higher level – eg: self-esteem collapsing into a depressed state because the lower belongingness needs were compromised by your spouse or partner ending the relationship. In Gravesian terms, this would be RED being undermined by PURPLE being in trouble – with the selfplex becoming unbalanced to focus on PURPLE needs.
The understanding of why a sort of regression can take place entails some differences between Freud and Maslow/Graves; nonetheless, the behaviour change does take place and is adequately explained by the Maslow/Graves approach.

Repression
This is an non-conscious strategy of keeping threatening thoughts and memories out of consciousness and into the Unconscious. The kinds of thing that can be repressed range from a potentially painful dental appointment to memories of physical and/or sexual abuse in childhood. Repression is arguably the most contentious of Freud’s concepts after the Oedipus Complex and many of the more science-oriented psychological researchers reject it on the grounds it is untestable in the sense of being able to measure it. However, there are a number of studies which do appear to demonstrate repression.
One of the most famous of these is that of Linda Mayer Williams’ (1994) follow-up on women who had been sexually-abused as children. Williams’ study used the records of 206 girls who had been admitted to a city hospital emergency room between April 1973 and June 1975. The victims had been between the ages of 10 months and 12 years at the time of admission. 129 of the victims, now aged 18-31, agreed to participate in a follow-up study ostensibly about the lives and health of women who had received medical care from the city hospital during childhood. The interviewers did not know the true purpose of the study – ie: it was a double blind. The interviews lasted about 3 hours and included questions about childhood experiences with sex. 38% had no recollection of the abuse. Of those who did remember, 16% had been unable to recall at one time but had ‘recovered’ the memory. Those who had no recollection tended to have been younger (0- 6 years) at the time of the abuse and were more likely to have been abused by a perpetrator with a close relationship to them. 68% of the 38% were able to recall times of other abuse. 12% of the total sample reported they had never been sexually abused.
Freud mostly saw repression as the result of the Ego and the Superego repressing the Id and memories that are unacceptable to the Superego – such as abuse by a parent. In Integrated SocioPsychology terms, this would be the vMEMES of the self-sacrificial/conformist side of the Spiral dominating over the express-self vMEMES – especially RED which is the fullest expression of Freud’s Id.
According to Freud, in spite of the repression, the unacceptable desires and memories will leak out from time to time during dreams and in the form of parapraxes. Such ‘leaks’ will then require rationalisation!

Sublimation
This is the transformation of aggressive and sexual desires into some socially acceptable expression – eg: artists and musicians expressing such desires in their work, rather than carrying them out in actuality. This is similar to reaction formation in that RED’s ‘unacceptable’ thoughts and desires are being kept in check but refashioned by PURPLE and BLUE (and possibly ORANGE) into a form that’s considered less unacceptable. The difference is that, in reaction formation the refashioning is done to you; in sublimation, the change is made to something external to you yourself – a canvas, a piece of clay, a song played to others.
Freud expressed the view that all art and literature resulted from sublimation of the sexual instinct.

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