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« Ozodi Osuji Weekly Series on Psychology 2006, #30 of 52: Christ as the Innocent Lamb? | Main | Ozodi Osuji Weekly Series on Psychology 2006, #32 of 52: The Purpose of Psychotherapy, Secular and Spiritual »

April 03, 2006

Ozodi Osuji Weekly Series on Psychology 2006, #31 of 52: The Ego and Its Defense Mechanism

by Ozodi Thomas Osuji, Ph.D. (Seatle, Washington) --- The word ego is Latin for self. The Greek word is Psyche. The ego is the idea of the self, the separated self, the self apart from other selves and apart from the entire universe.

The self is not tangible and cannot be seen and or touched. The self is an idea, a concept, a belief as to who the individual believes that he is. That belief, the compendium of ideas the individual calls his self, can be normal, neurotic and or psychotic. Wherever it falls on the mental health continuum, the individual believes that it is who he is and acts as such.

For our present purposes, the self is not self evident, it is not tangible, it is not objective; it is subjective. Does the self even exist?

What is self evident is that upon birth on earth each human child builds on his inherited biological constitution and social experiences and constructs a self for himself or her self. He does not appear to have come to this world with a preexisting self (?), for the self he constructs tends to reflect the biological and historical experience of the time during which he was born.

Okay, let us not play academic games and just state the truth, as I know it. We do not come to the world with a preexisting self-concept; we make our self concepts here on earth. However, what is self evident is that there is a force in us that we come to the world with, a force that does the construction of the self concept. That force that we came to the world with has been called many names: spirit, Henry Bergson called it life force; Christians call it the son of God etc. Call it what you like, it has no name and, therefore, we need not quarrel over a nameless force. All we need to know is that there is a force in the universe that manifests in animals and human beings and in human beings constructs a self concept (and translates it to self image).

The construction of the self concept begins in childhood. By age six, the self concept is pretty much in place. Let me put it this way, by age six, I was aware of my self concept. That self concept (in psychiatric terms, a shy boy, a boy who thinks that he is so bad that if other people come close to him that they would see that he is not good and reject him, a self that feared rejection, so much so that he avoided other people and kept to himself while hoping that other people would come to him and accept him, in a word, an avoidant personality has been stable with me all my life. Of course, I have studied and understood it and made changes to it, so that that shy boy is now the most assertive, not aggressive, not passive aggressive, person on earth).

The self is formed in childhood and is observable by age six and is fixed by age twelve, the end of childhood. Who the individual is in his adolescence is who he is in old age. People do not change their self concepts, self images and personalities, unless they were involved in organic traumas that affected their central nervous system or underwent religious and or ideological conversions. (On the way to Damascus, Syria, St Paul was converted to Christianity and became a changed man, a man who had persecuted the followers of Jesus became the foremost teacher of Christianity; I was a shy scholar and experienced the reality of our oneness and feel emboldened to talk about it.)

The idea of the self is defended with ego defense mechanisms. These defenses make the defended self seem real to the individual. Even if what is defended is not real, it seems real to the defender.

Consider the manic person (bipolar affective disorder) who, during his manic episode, thinks himself Bill Gates, the richest man in the world, even if he has no food to eat. As long as he believes that he is the richest man on earth, that is, defends that idea of his wished for self, he acts as such. Of course, his self concept, here, is false, deluded. (There is always delusional disorder in mania, as it exists in schizophrenia.).

For our present purposes, the idea is that the self is an idea that the individual defends and in defending it makes it seem real in his awareness. It is defense that makes the ego seem real. Without defense the ego does not exist, at least, it does not exist in the form that we currently know it.

Do you want to find out? Okay. Here is an experiment for you. Do not defend the self that you think that you are. Do nothing. Do not respond to other people from your habitual self, your personality. Do not think at all. Just keep quiet. Tell yourself that you do not know who you are, who other people are and what anything in the world means at all. Do you know what? If you did this for one hour, just one hour, my friend, you would first feel inner peace. If, in addition, you loved all the people around you, you would suddenly escape from the self concept you have and enter a world that words cannot explain.

It may seem foreign to you, God, in fact, exists. But to know that fact you must give up the self concept, the ego you invented for yourself and for other people and defend. No one who identifies with the ego self concept can come to God. The self concept is a shield against entrance into heaven. Until the self concept is given up one cannot experience ones real self, the Unified Self, the Holy Self, the Christ, the Son of God who is as God created him.

In the meantime, if one identifies with a self concept, as we all do, one can improve that self concept and make it as adaptive as is possible to the challenges of this world.

The original psychoanalysts: Freud, Adler, Jung etc talked about ego defenses but it was Anna Freud, Freud’s daughter, who collated them together into a book called the ego and its defense mechanisms. Today, psychiatry has accepted those ego defenses (see DSM four, section on ego defenses). All we need to know is that the self is an idea, an idea we defend with certain mental tricks and in defending it makes it seem real in our consciousness. When we do not defend the idea of the self, as Buddha correctly pointed out 2500 years ago, the idea of the self disappears, for the ego self is a smoke that does not exist. What exists is the source of the smoke, the fire, the God in us.

Many ego defense mechanisms have been listed. I will merely describe those that come to my mind as I sit here and type away. This is not a research paper. You can look up the rest of them, if you care much for the subject.

The ones that come to my mind are: repression, suppression, dissociation, denial, displacement, projection, rationalization, intellectualization, compensation, restitution, fantasy, avoidance, sublimation, reaction formation, anger, fear, pride, blaming, etc. Let me briefly describe them. If you desire thorough understanding of this subject, please take some courses in psychology.

Sigmund Freud was the one who first talked about repression. He said that some behaviors are so tabooed by society that we are forced to not even think or talk about them, and that if we insist on talking about them our society would punish us; in the past, would kill us. One such idea is incest.

In all known human societies, folks were killed for committing incest. Incest leads to passing pathological genes from one family member to another and the result is that (genes) diseases that were recessive would become dominant and the family would die off. For families to survive, incest had to be forbidden.

Yet most children, Freud told us, desire sex with their parents and certainly with their siblings. These desires are not tolerated and are repressed into what Freud called the unconscious part of our minds. From the unconscious, the repressed ideas still influence our lives, hence we tend to act irrationally, Freud says.

In psychoanalysis, the patient is encouraged to free associate, to say whatever comes to his mind, without checking what he says to make sure that it is reasonable and socially acceptable, and that way will drag from the dark unconscious to the open conscious what is repressed in it and the analyst analyzes them, and that way the individual feels freed from his guilty conscience (catharsis, release). For example, the patient tells the analyst how he used to want to have sex with his mother, how she used to want to have sex with her father etc and the oedipal complex is finally resolved, so that he does not have an urge to kill his parent to take his wife, and hide that desire and act irrationally from it.

For our present purposes, it is true that we tend to repress socially intolerable ideas such as our little desires to have sex with our neighbor’s wife or husband etc. Whatever society does not approve that we desire, we repress, we put out of our mind.

The Superego cannot even permit a repressed idea to come to our conscious mind or else we feel anxiety. The ego, the referee between superego restrictions and id desires, makes such that certain id ideas that are not allowed by society are not thought about.

We engage in repression in childhood. In adult life we consciously suppress (suppression) ideas that would get us into trouble. When I was an undergraduate, my dormitory room mate had a smashingly beautiful girl friend. I wished that she were my friend. But my Catholic upbringing forbid that wish so I went to confession and confessed my sin of avarice. Subsequently, I suppressed the wish.

We deny the presence of something that we do not want to change. Consider alcoholics. They drink a lot and are killing themselves with their alcoholism. They use the ego defense mechanism of (denial) to deny that they have a drinking problem. Or they may engage in minimizing (minimization), make light of their very serious problem and say something like: alcoholism does not kill any one. Or they may rationalize (rationalization) their self destructive behaviors by telling themselves that every body drinks.

Alfred Adler observed that all children begin their lives feeling weak, inadequate and inferior and compensate with the opposite desire to seem powerful and superior. Compensation defense is seen in every body. Igbos generally feel inferior and compensate with wish to seem superior persons hence they run around thinking that they are superior to other Nigerians, when, in fact, all Nigerians and all human beings, men and women, are the same and are equal. The Igbo likes his fiction of superiority. It motivates him to accomplish a lot. He is, in Adlerian terms, a neurotic (and in more precise terms, he is mostly narcissistic and paranoid in personality structures).

When I was a child, I can just see myself during my first year at school, at age five, feeling totally worthless and inferior to all the other children. Good gracious, I felt like shit. Why did I feel so? I was totally physically weak. I was born with a spinal disorder, spondilolysis. My feeling of inadequacy was caused by my inherited biological, medical disorder. It was not caused by sociological factors, for in the classroom none of my class mates was actually close to me in academics; I used to even teach them what the teacher taught us.

For our present purposes, we feel inferior and compensate or restitute with desire for power and superiority. All human beings do this. If one can compensate in the right manner, work for social interest, serve the common good, Adler says that one is normal, but if one seeks glory for one ones interests only Adler says that one is neurotic.

We sometimes see something in us and do not like what we see and dissociate from it (dissociation) or displace it (displacement) to other persons. If a girl is raped she may dissociate from her body and say that she is not the one raped. Prostitutes generally do not consider themselves the ones having sex with their johns; they dissociate from their bodily activities; they may see themselves as nice women and believe that it is another woman, a bad woman who is a slut. (In multiple personality disorder, dissociation is used to invent other personalities and identified with.) In displacement, an individual may feel angry at his boss for humiliating him but feels that if he shows his anger that he could be fired from his job, so he bits his tongue and go home. When he gets home, upon the slightest provocation by his spouse, he dumps his anger at her; she, in turn, dumps hers on their children, who dump their anger on the family pet. We displace anger to weaker objects.

When we are poor, we dream of wealth; when we are hungry, we fantasize of food. Human beings tend to use their imaginations to engage in fantasies, in wishing for ideal states. In schizophrenia, the individual over employs fantasy and invents an imaginary world where he is god and king and live there. In mild neurosis, such as is found in socialists, the individual uses his imagination to invent and ideal society where wealth is distributed equally and strive to bring that fantasy society into being, a futile effort for fantasy is not reality. In reality people have different aptitudes and interests and therefore must be unequal. In heaven we are equal but on earth we are different and unequal. We all employ fantasy when life is tough on us.

We all sublimate ideas that society oppose to useful areas. Society opposes nudity, so the artist paints nudes and hangs them up at museums and we go gawk at them (and satisfy our prurient interests). This is called sublimation.

We all engage in reaction formation. We preach against what we see in ourselves that society disapproves. A minister likes pornography but preaches and fights it.

We all have pride. Pride, as Karen Horney pointed out, is pride in the ideal self, the superior fictional self. One feels inadequate, constructs an adequate, ideal and perfect self and identifies with it and takes pride in it.

One feels shame to the extent that one does not approximate ones ideal self, the self society approves.

We all feel fear. Fear is actually the primary defense mechanism, for it defends the very idea of the self. Fear alerts us to danger to our physical and psychological selves and we either run away to survive or fight to survive. Without fear none of us would survive on planet earth.

Anger is another defense, for fighting whatever threatens our sense of self, particularly our ideal self, makes us survive. Paranoid and narcissistic persons tend to have grandiose self concepts and defend them and feel their vanity easily injured and engage in efforts to rehabilitate their injured pride, narcissistic rage and other acting out behaviors.

We employ intellectualization to defend our egos. I can speak from experience here. I am an intellectual and would rather talk about something than do it, for action is more difficult than mere talk. The talker is not always the doer, for doing requires courage to defy social opposition.

We avoid certain situations. Shy children employ the ego defense of avoidance a lot; they see themselves as inferior and avoid people and in social withdrawal retain some precarious good self esteem. Actually, in social isolation they maintain a false fictional important self. (I have pointed out in theoretical papers that avoidance is a maneuver to retain a fictional important self, an effort to avoid accepting our sameness and equality.)

We all project what we see in ourselves and do not like to other people. Some white folks, for example, want to have sex with black folks (a perfectly normal desire) and project that desire to blacks and say that only black men want to have sex with white women. One does not need to deny the obvious, human beings do want to have sex with other human beings, black or white, and there is nothing wrong with that, though in the past that desire was opposed by society.

One can feel hostile towards other persons, deny it and project it to others and see others as feeling hostile towers one. Paranoid persons do this a lot.

By the way, each defense mechanism, or a cluster of them, is employed in certain pathological states, more than others. We are not doing therapy here and will skip this subject. But if you do project a lot you are probably paranoid; if you do compensate lot you are probably neurotic.

We all employ the ego defense of blaming. Why? We all would like to see ourselves as ideal and as perfect. If one is perfect, how come one makes mistakes? To avoid the ensuing cognitive dissonance one blames other people for ones mistakes.

If I can blame you for my mistakes, make you responsible for my problems, and then I can mange to retain the illusion that I am perfect. Thus, everywhere folks blame other people for their issues and in doing so mange to retain their false ideal self concepts and images. Obviously, the right thing to do is to accept that we are imperfect, and as imperfect persons do make mistakes. If one is imperfect one makes mistakes and takes ones mistakes as learning tools to enable one improve, knowing that as long as one is on planet earth one must make mistakes.

Do you blame other people a lot? If you do, you have a neurotic self concept and self image, that is, you want to seem ideal, perfect, superior and all powerful and need scapegoats to retain that illusory neurotic self of yours. You must reconceptualize your self concept and now see yourself realistically, as all too human, hence imperfect and capable of mistakes and live with that reality.

I want to keep his essay to five pages. What you need to know is that you and all of us employ the various ego defenses to protect your imaginary sense of I; you defend your idea of who you are, the self. As long you are defending your imaginary self, that self seems real to you. If you did not defend your self it would disappear from your awareness.

At a clinical level, when stress is too much for us our habitual pattern of defenses may fail and we experience temporary insanity (depersonalization, derealization, disorientation). We call it ego decompensation. Your defenses fail and you decompensate. If, for example, you are an Igbo woman and while in Alaigbo fancied yourself beautiful and desired by men and came to America and now realize that black is ugly and white is good, you feel that you are no longer beautiful. You have suffered narcissistic injury. You struggle to seem sexually desirable to men. You may decompensate and now recompensate and see yourself as the most beautiful woman on earth and imagine that all men desire you. Here, your desire for beauty has now become a belief in imaginary beauty. You have gone from mere neurosis to psychosis.

The neurotic wishes something to be true but still knows that it is not true; a psychotic believes in what he wishes as true.

We all wish to be powerful but know that we are weak. The psychotic now believes that he is all powerful, when, in fact, he is still weak.

I had an Igbo woman who experienced transient psychosis and imagined herself Cleopatra, the all beautiful woman because she felt ugly in racist America that denied the beauty of black womanhood. I helped her to accept herself as she is, a black woman, despite the larger society’s non validation of her beauty. One does not need other people to affirm ones beauty before one to accept ones self as worthwhile; one can accept one self as one is without reference to external others. (See Albert Ellis, Rational Emotive Therapy.)

Know yourself means know how you defend your ego self; and, ultimately, giving up your ego defenses. When the ego defenses are given up we experience our true identity, the unified self. In the meantime, the normal person is compensated, that is, well defended. The psychotic person is compensated at a fictional, unrealistic level.

Ozodi@africainstituteseattle.org.

Posted by Administrator at April 3, 2006 11:54 PM

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