Although Sigmund Freud described defence mechanisms, it was his daughter Anna who offered a more comprehensive account (‘The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence’) of their number, kinds and functioning. Foremost, defence mechanisms serve the purpose of reducing anxiety produced from psychic conflict (see entry, conflict and compromise formation), including external threats to the self. For healthy functioning, impulses cannot without limit seek satisfaction; they must conform to the surrounding world and to the demands of the superego. For example, if the id expresses the desire or impulse for sex with a sibling, there may be conflict with a superego demand (i.e. social conventions against), and anxiety will be produced along with feelings of shame and guilt. If the anxiety is unbearable, the ego will deploy protective defences. Many describe the operation of defence mechanisms as unconscious blocking, transformations or distortions of unacceptable impulses and their transformation into acceptable forms. Others use these ideas to talk about the myriad ways that painful thoughts and feelings are kept out of awareness. Some argue that the defences are associated with specific developmental stages: denial, projection, introjection and splitting with the oral phase and undoing, reaction formation and isolation with the anal phase.
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