Being in denial, engaging in projection, rationalizing or intellectualizing events, regressing into childhood, displacing your anger, retreating into fantasy: who among us hasn’t been subject to accusations of doing these things at one time or another? And even if you haven’t, all of those terms surely sound familiar. They owe their place in the culture in large part to the psychoanalyst Anna Freud, who catalogued these and other “defense mechanisms” in her 1934 book The Ego and Mechanisms of Defense. In her analysis, we engage in these sometimes unpleasant and even embarrassing behaviors to protect our ego — another now-common term that, in Freudian usage, refers to our preferred image of ourselves.
As the daughter of Sigmund Freud, the “father of psychoanalysis,” Anna Freud’s name carried a considerable weight in the psychoanalytical world. We’ve previously featured an animated introduction to the work of Freud père from Alain de Botton’s The School of Life here on Open Culture, and today we have one from the same source on that of Freud fille.
Together they reveal that, though both Sigmund and Anna Freud worked in the same field, and indeed each did more than their part to develop that field, each of their bodies of work on the human mind stands on its own. And though many terms coined by Sigmund Freud — “Oedipus complex,” the “subconscious,” and even “id, ego, and superego” — remain in our lexicon, the names Anna Freud gave the defense mechanisms may well see even more everyday use.
You can hear all those mechanisms explained in the video above or read about them in the accompanying article at The Book of Life. “Anna Freud started from a position of deep generosity towards defense mechanisms,” it says. “We turn to them because we feel immensely threatened. They are our instinctive ways of warding off danger and limiting psychological pain.” Ultimately, her work teaches “a lesson in modesty. For she reveals the extreme probability that defense mechanisms are playing a marked and powerful role in one’s own life – though without it being obvious to oneself that this is so.” In other words, you can’t, for the most part, help it. That explanation may not get you off the hook the next time someone tells you to stop projecting, intellectualizing, or displacing, but bear in mind that when it comes to defending the ego, no one else can help it either.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.