The topic of discussion today was Understanding Our Own Defences. Since the lesson, I have been researching this subject and learned that it was Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939) who first began to write about the mechanisms our brain uses to stop us from feeling anxiety, guilt or hurt. Freud believed that our psyche, which is not our physical brain, more our personality and the way we behave, is split into three. He called these parts the Id, the Ego and the Super Ego. He thought that the id was submerged out of sight in our subconscious, whereas the ego and super ego were in our consciousness. The id is the primitive and instinctive part of our personality that contains sexual and aggressive drives and hidden memories, the super-ego operates as a moral conscience, and the ego is the realistic part that mediates between the desires of the id and the super-ego. According to the theory, we are born with only the id part of our personality, and we go on to develop the ego and super ego at around 3 to 5 years of age. The Id, however, remains a personality trait throughout our life, one of its traits is that it demands immediate attention. Freud stated that the ego is ‘That part of the id which has been modified by the direct influence of the external world.’ It develops as a sort of negotiator between the id and the external world, however, as Freud himself observed, it developed as a mechanism to postpone satisfaction and to help the individual fit into societies expectations of them. The ego concerns itself with a more rational, problem-solving state of mind and will try to re-think solutions until the problem is solved. Freud made the analogy of the id being a horse while the ego is the rider. The ego is ‘like a man on horseback, who has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse.’
The main purpose of the superego is to control the impulses of the id, especially those which society forbids such as aggression or sex. It acts as a sort of moral compass for the ego, striving for perfection rather than simple realistic outcomes and consists of two components, the conscience and the ideal self. It is driven by unconscious values learned from parents and society, and because perfection is the goal, falling short can lead us to feelings of shame or guilt, so, in order to deal with these feelings, Freud declared that the ego employs a range of defence mechanisms. These defence mechanisms operate at an unconscious level and help ward off unpleasant feelings such as anxiety or guilt which may have arisen because we felt threatened, or because our id or superego became too demanding. Freud identified seven defence mechanisms, but there are much more.
- Repression: pushing away a thought or a feeling, saying to yourself ‘let’s forget about it’, Many things can be an object of repression such as painful memories of forbidden desires. Although, sometimes our true feelings can leak out in what is known as a Freudian slip, like the man who was introduced to a colleague who had got the big promotion he had applied for. His opening remark was “Hello I am David, pleased to beat you”
- Denial: Refusing to accept that something exists or happened. This can be a mechanism that is seen when someone refuses to accept the death of a loved one. Or making excuses for continuing unhealthy behaviour such as smoking, with phrases such as “my granny smoked forty a day and lived until she was one hundred and two”.
- Projection: This involves individuals attributing their own thoughts, feelings and motives to another person. Thoughts most commonly projected onto another are ones that would cause guilt such as aggressive and sexual fantasies or thoughts. For instance, you might hate someone, but your superego tells you that such hatred is unacceptable. You can ‘solve’ the problem by believing that they hate you.
- Rationalisation: Creating an acceptable but incorrect explanation of a situation, for example, the man caught stealing computers from the warehouse he works at “It’s not stealing, my company sells millions of computers for big profit, they won’t miss the two that I have taken.”
- Intellectualisation: Thinking about something logically without any attached emotion, for example, Counsellor: “Well Jane, your husband has left you, and you have been made redundant, how does that feel?” Jane’s response: “I now have a lot more time on my hands, I can get on with the gardening and catch up on some odd jobs around the house, as for my job I did not like it much anyway”.
- Reaction formation: Doing the opposite of what you would really like to do, being over-nice to someone you dislike is a good example of this. The best example is the person who mutters through gritted teeth “No, I am not angry.”
- Regression: Acting in the way a child might if they did not get their own way. Foot stamping, speaking in a whiney voice or storming off are good examples of this.
As we can see above, defence mechanisms are protective, coping, strategies adopted by the brain to shield us from painful feelings. The brain has said to itself “I’m too afraid to feel this so I’m going to make something up that I won’t be so afraid of.” As a counsellor, our job is to attempt to get through these defences to the core issue that is troubling the client and to provide the support the client needs to initiate a change within themselves. This may take some time as the client may not initially trust or feel comfortable with us. They may feel frightened or embarrassed to show their true feelings. The Oxford English Dictionary defines trust as “a firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.” Carl Rogers said, “a good counsellor will have some sense of how to match the pace of counselling sessions to the needs of their clients.”
So, in summary, when a client first comes to us, they will probably demonstrate some of the defences written about above, we will then carefully use our counselling skills to build a rapport and try to make the client feel comfortable enough to start to discuss why they feel the need to seek counselling.
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