Ego Defense Mechanism Stew
By Malca R. Gottlieb
We live with ego defense mechanisms the way that we live with all the extra stuff in our closets we have been meaning to get rid of: we know they are there, they take up more space than we have to spare and we tell ourselves that we can live with them as long as they are out of sight. But unlike the junk in the back of the closet, ego defense mechanisms are generally necessary. As the name entails, they help us deal with what is unacceptable to our sense of self, which in our society can be almost anything.
Here are a few of them. Reaction formation — turning an unwanted feeling into its opposite — can help us deal with the every day discomfort with interactions that we cannot control. Projection — attributing an unwanted feeling to someone or something else — can be a quick fix that gives us the space to move on to other things. We often use denial in the short term. Humor helps us deal with long term seemingly intractable aspects of our world and our lives. And in a society rife with divisiveness where a cacophony of view points compete for primacy, don’t we all need a little suppression to get through the 24 hour news cycle?
Ego defense mechanisms are challenging to work with on a clinical level because in some clients they tend to mix and compound together similar to the melding of ingredients in a stew. They can even seem to take on the flavors of one another. It can become difficult to distinguish them in some clients who are especially defended, employing multiple ego defense mechanisms at once: clients who suffer from an ego defense mechanism stew.
The important part of the work is not only recognizing the defense mechanisms but staying with the client in the moment, listening to their history, and learning how an ego defense mechanism stew fits into their history. In the Doris Lessing novel, “The Sweetest Dream,” set in the 1960s, Colin Lennox is mortified to realize that his psychotherapist has fallen asleep in their session. Colin is a fiction writer whose semi-estranged father thinks his writing is unimportant because it doesn’t advance any social causes. Overwhelmed by Colin’s ego defense mechanism stew of denial, repression and reaction formation, the analyst falls asleep.
A melding of ego defense mechanisms into a stew can have many causes. Often early traumas and the development of a personality that uses primitive defense mechanisms — as in The Sweetest Dream — can be a major factor. The defense mechanisms in and of themselves are less important than how they fit into the client’s history. Feeling sleepy or distracted as a therapist is often a signal that an ego defense mechanism stew is at play in a client. The question then becomes why is the ego defense mechanism stew a part of this client’s story?
We all studied the definitions of ego defense mechanisms, but neat and clean distinctions often seem to dissolve when we deal with messy clinical realities. Ego defense mechanisms with clear definitions give us a common language to use with colleagues for reflection in supervision and case studies, but they don’t always hold up in the moment with a client. Most ego defense mechanisms are more primitive or immature and the higher defense mechanisms only work until hey don’t. In actual clinical practice when the ego defense mechanisms meld together into a stew, the best practice is to redouble our attention to careful listening and empathy. We should take this challenge as an opportunity to ask questions about the client’s history and understand the unique circumstances of their story that led to ego defense mechanism stew.
Do you think you suffer from an ego defense mechanism stew? In that case, come talk to Malca.
Request an appointment today!