What Do Therapists Mean When We Talk About Defences?

Posted 30/06/2022

Defences and Acting Out. It's important to clarify what's meant by these terms, as they're commonly misunderstood and miss-used, not just outside of counselling, but also by therapists.

To think about defences psychodynamically, we need to go back to Freud. Freud said that our ego is the seat of anxiety; the ego defends that's it's job. Our ego is alert to its own annihilation, so a red flag to the ego, for example, could be a perceived criticism at work, or an interaction with someone that reminds us of something or someone from our past. When we think psychodynamically about defences, we're thinking about our unconscious defences; those which are not yet known to us, but drive our behaviour.

How might these present themselves? Acting out (remember this is done unconsciously) is where we show the other what's going on, but we don't consciously know what's driving the act.  When this happens our behaviour is often an attempt to re-create an early distressing experience. It might be something that happened when we were very young and didn't have appropriate  language to talk about it, or our body remembered something that our mind locked away.

If we're thinking about this as an unconscious acting out of something; that which isn't or can't be known about, it can be useful to ask ourselves these questions:

1) Am I doing or feeling something that doesn't match the situation?

2) Is this a pattern of behaviour that appears in my life outside of counselling? For example, regularly cancelling plans at the last minute, or ignoring friend's messages, feeling angry when someone says a particular word, or phrase to you etc.

3) If in counselling, do you want to end it without talking to your therapist about ending?  What's important about ending the counselling there and then?

4) What's your relationship with other endings in life? Death, relationships, work etc.

What drives us to do the things we do is interesting, and if we examine our decisions in more detail we can often find we have more choices next time we have to make a decision.

Sometimes, when we find being challenged, or questioned about a choice we're making difficult, it can be due to our ego defending its position in our psyche, because it fears annihilation.  Our ego's job is to defend and it can sometimes impact on our daily lives in unhelpful ways.

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