The roots of the term ‘defence mechanism’ are to be found in psychoanalysis, and refer originally to ‘a process whereby the ego protects itself against the demands of the id’ (Colman, 2001: 189). In other words, the primitive, “I want”, voice of the id is tempered and restrained by the civilised,“You can’t always have”, voice of the ego. In this sense, our defences constitute the compromise that has been reached between ego and id. More generally however, defence mechanisms can be defined as techniques ‘arising in response to a perception of psychic danger’ (Colman, 2001: 189), or, the ‘strategies which a person employs, either knowingly or unknowingly, in order to avoid facing aspects of the self which are felt to be threatening’ (Jacobs, 1999: 98). Our defences are therefore highly functional, in protecting us from perceived threat, and yet in this very act of protection, they may also be inhibiting us from growth and change.
In this paper I will be exploring, from a psychodynamic perspective, the role of defence mechanisms in the therapeutic process. I will be assessing the ways in which defences are expressed within the psychotherapeutic process (resistance), as well as illustrating some of the techniques that the therapist may harness in order to enable their client to ‘control defence use’ and move forward (Clark, 1999: 22). I will be drawing from clinical practice, as a means of highlighting the most important themes of this topic. Before discussing defences in the context of psychodynamic counselling however, I think it would be useful to first provide a summary and brief definitions of what are the key defence mechanisms.
Key Defence Mechanisms
Whilst over fifty defence mechanisms have been proposed by theoreticians over the past hundred years, some are more widely professionally accepted than others. In his book, Defence Mechanisms in the Counselling Process, Arthur J. Clark selects ten classic defence mechanisms on the basis of the following defining characteristics: ‘unconscious processing, subjective distortion, intolerable affect and conflict, and automatic and undifferentiated responses’ (1999: 8-9). ‘Unconscious processing’, Clark refers to as the concept that, when an individual employs defence mechanisms, ‘the conflicted source of the response is largely outside their conscious awareness’ (1999: 9). ‘Subjective distortion’ - an individual’s skewed perceptions, and the extent to which they are skewed, is revealed through their conflicted and contradictory actions. ‘Intolerable affect and conflict’ are what the individual is defending against; the intolerable affect being anxiety and/or other painful emotions, and conflict such as, for example, experiencing opposing feelings for the same person (i.e. love and hate). Lastly, ‘automatic and undifferentiated responses’ are those which do not change in relation to differing circumstances or contexts. All of these criteria are combined to create Clark’s definition of a defence mechanism as being: ‘an unconscious subjective distortion that reduces intolerable affect and conflict through automatic and undifferentiated responses’ (1999: 12).
On these grounds, Clark selects denial, displacement, identification, isolation, projection, rationalisation, reaction-formation, regression, repression, and undoing. I will provide definitions of these defences in the next section, as well as characterising introjection, fixation, splitting, sublimation, and turning against self. Whilst these defences may not conform entirely to Clark’s definition given above, they appear again and again in much of the literature I have read, and seem to me to be worth highlighting in this paper.
Lastly, it is important to remember that some of the defences overlap (for example, isolation and rationalisation), and may be seen to fit...