There are things we simply don’t want to think about. We reject them from our mind in variety of ways before they even reach our awareness.
We do not wish to face certain aspects of ourselves, certain behavioral patterns, certain destructive relationships we keep getting into, certain ways in which we handle our jobs, our pastime and our life in general. Oh, the knowledge of these unpleasant aspects is there, all right, locked inside of our unconscious, taking away our energy. If you truly wish to improve yourself, to be a person who is in control of her or his life, you must become aware of them as uncomfortable as they are at first. The truth will indeed set you free.
In order to defend itself from the unpleasantness, our ego deploys a variety of mechanisms. You will have to be aware of these mechanisms in real time, as they are being activated. Ask yourself, what about you is it that you are really being protected against. We will list a few examples of common ego defense mechanisms.
Projection is perhaps one of the most famous defense mechanisms. It has entered our daily language. It is not uncommon to hear, in a heat of an argument, one of the sides involved telling the other one, “You’re pathetic!” But what does it mean? Basically, projection is when we attribute our negative traits of character to someone else, instead of noticing them within ourselves. If you begin complaining about your partner or parent that she/he does not pay attention to you, is annoying or wastes time on pointless matter – stop for a second and consider whether it is actually that person you are talking about? Maybe in this case you are seeing in him or her whatever you do not wish to see in yourself.
Another defense mechanism, intellectualization, takes place when we do not wish to handle strong emotions and focus instead on the purely intellectual or philosophical side of the things. Imagine that your favorite pet passes away. When someone asks you how do you feel, you start a long tirade about the circle of life in the Nature, about reincarnations or about the financial expenditures you might face if you are buying a new pet. Instead, you need to get in touch with your emotions and let yourself grieve over the loss. Don’t escape into the logic and the intellectualization; emotions are a part of ourselves just like the intellect is.
It goes without saying that an excuse can be made about any action and decision, although very often the excuse is not the real reason for that action or decision. Making up excuses is called rationalization.
A person in a desperate need of justification for his behavior will rationalize anything. A smoker, who knows that smoking is dangerous for his health and the health of his family, might claim that smoking burns his fat, relaxes him and that, in fact, a recent study showed that it is good for his teeth! This is his way of rationalizing a destructive behavior, instead of admitting to himself that he is addicted and that this problem needs to be addressed.
So you are now familiar with three types of ego defense mechanisms – projection, intellectualization and rationalization. Of course, simply knowing about them is not enough – you must apply this knowledge on yourself in real life, otherwise it will be just another form of intellectualization.
There is a defense mechanism that is a form of blindness. It is called denial. If you are a smart person with tons of potential, yet you are working for boss who does not appreciate you and pays you much less than what you deserve – or than what you can earn if you start your own business – then you are in denial, because you do not see that you are losing money and time with every hour you work for that person. You are denying yourself of the knowledge that you are only harming yourself.
Our ego also defends itself against memories, by using repression. There are parts of your life you probably do no remember and cannot directly access. These memories can be painful, embarrassing. Watch for them appearing in an indirect form, like in your dreams. This is probably the hardest defense mechanism to be aware of, along with denial. Repressed memories are not easy ones to recover, but they are there. Explore your past, do not be afraid. Many significant answers lie there.
Another ego defense mechanism worthy of mentioning is reaction formation. This refers to the times when we act in a manner which completely opposite to our true wishes and feelings. This mechanism can take some drastic forms of expression. Imagine a person who is a gay, yet in public he strongly makes many homophobic statements. Or imagine a woman, who has many unanswered sexual fantasies, publicly advocating abstinence and a ban of any sexual reference from a school library’s books. You must always be aware of your truest desires and don’t turn them into their opposite.
Fantasy can also be a defense mechanism. Sometimes we retreat into the inner world of the scenery, where everything is possible and easy, instead of dealing with the reality, overcome the real challenges and become more mature in the process. Television and video games are also virtual worlds of fantasy that people are becoming addicted to you. These fantasies occupy the mental place that should have been dedicated to making decisions about life itself. Always be attentive whenever you escape too quickly and too frequently into the world of fantasies and ask yourself, what is it that you are avoiding in reality.
Understand at this point that defense mechanisms are not something evil that you need to get rid of. They have their role in our development from babies to grown women and men. A small baby, for example, needs to escape into fantasies if the mother is not available at the moment to soothe him. But a time comes when these mechanisms hinder us instead of helping. Allow yourself to have an inner dialogue with them. Understand what parts of yourself you are not allowing to admit, to analyze, to become fully conscious.
After you do, you will definitely feel better about yourself.