What are Ego Defense Mechanisms anyway? If you took a Psychology class, you studied them. They were first introduced by Freud more than 100 years ago; and they continue today to be in every Psychology textbook. So, they must still be important. Let’s look at how they work.
We all have an “ego,” which is our sense of self. When we accomplish something important or when someone gives us positive feedback, our ego swells with pride. We feel good about ourselves. However, there is another side to our ego. It’s when we’ve made a mistake, or someone attempts to give us negative feedback and our ego looks bad and feels bad. At the moment this happens, we are forced to make a decision. We have three choices:
1. Say nothing, remain silent
2. Admit the problem and attempt to find a way to work on or correct the problem. This approach involves little or no attempt to defend our ego. It is the healthy way to deal with life’s issues.
3. We find a way so that our ego will not look so bad. This is where Ego Defense Mechanisms come in. This is unhealthy. At the very instant we use a Defense Mechanism to come to the rescue of our desperate ego, we feel better. It is this feeling of utter liberation to which our ego responds with a relieved, “Thank you!” With that, the defended ego feels better. This instantaneous, positive feedback creates a reinforcing scenario in which we use Ego Defense Mechanisms again and again.
Now we have gotten some insight into how this works, let’s look at some specific examples of how our grief can be influenced by Ego Defense Mechanisms.
First, is Emotional Insulation in which the person keeps their emotions inside and acts as if nothing is wrong. Society often expects this of the “Rock” in the family who, in the face of a death, is expected to “hold it together.” Have you been designated the “Rock”? If so, welcome to Emotional Insulation.
Next is a related Defense Mechanism: Reaction Formation in which the person shows the direct opposite emotion they are presently feeling. You see this often. People at work, at church, and even at the grocery store expect you to put on a happy face despite the fact that you are miserable and can hardly put one foot in front of the other. Yes, just keep smiling and they won’t have to worry about you.
Denial is an obvious one. If you used the just-mentioned Ego Defense Mechanisms, those around you can deny that you are really doing “that bad” and, with time, they may actually believe that you are “getting over it” or “getting through it.” Sound familiar?
Displacement occurs when we take our frustrations out on an innocent person. You have a right to be angry—your loved one died. However, is there someone in your life that has become a scapegoat for your frustration? Who is this person? Here’s a question for you: If you recognize using this Defense Mechanism, should you find a way to apologize to this person and work on avoiding the use of Displacement? No? Oh, OK, sorry I brought it up.
Projection takes place whenever we “see” in another person what is actually inside of us. This is such a natural part of the bereavement process that it can hardly be considered unhealthy or negative. You are grieving the loss of a beloved person. The world around you—the people, the sky, the trees, the clouds, your home, your parakeet, all look different because you are different. The world hasn’t changed. However, you now “see” the world through grief-colored glasses.
Fantasy occurs when our ego cannot handle the present reality and we begin to have thoughts that are not true. Again, this is mostly a normal reaction during bereavement. Have you ever had the following thought about your loved after their death? “She’s over a friend’s house.” Or “He’s at work.” Or “I expect her to walk in the door.” Have you had any of the following experiences: you thought you heard his voice, you thought you saw her standing there, you felt him touch you, you received a “sign” from her? There are only two explanations for these occurrences: either your loved has contacted you or your brain was creating a fantasy. You decide which one to choose.
Repression refers to “forgetting” part of an event. We certainly see this at the funeral where, appropriately, people focus on only the positive things our loved one did with his or her life. However, Repression can become a problem when the memory of our loved one places him or her on a pedestal. It is often stated about widowhood, “We know she’s getting better when she begins remembering that she was married to a man and not a saint.” Bereaved siblings often find it frustrating to hear how their sibling was “so perfect.” As many bereaved kids have responded, “How do you live up to that?”
Sublimation is the only so-called Ego Defense Mechanism that always has a positive outcome. It occurs when we channel our negative thoughts and behaviors into something that is socially acceptable. Think of a man who wants to beat up people. He channels (sublimates) his negative energy into, for example, becoming a boxer, a football player, an MMA wrestler. We see examples of this when, in the depth of their grief, people channel their grief into something positive: planting a tree, volunteering to help others, or creating a scholarship fund in the name of their loved one.
So, there they are: eight ways that grief is related to the way that we defend our ego. The important thing to remember is: with the pain of grief comes the natural tendency to care for and protect our fragile, wounded ego. At this time in your life, don’t blame your ego for trying to take care of itself. Your ego does need care. It is a good thing to do. After all, it’s the only ego you’ve got.
Dr. Bob Baugher