Freud’s levels of the mind and defence mechanisms

When Freud talked about the three levels of the mind, he attested that the unconscious, preconscious, and conscious mind can be in conflicts that lead to anxiety, which leads to the use of defence mechanisms. Essentially, this means that your anxiety and defence mechanisms are related.

While some defence mechanisms are healthy and aid your anxiety well, some are toxic. What we want is for you to adopt healthy defence mechanisms with long-term positive effects. We want you to face your anxiety and deal with it healthily.

The three levels of the mind

According to Freud, there are three levels of the mind. These three levels make up the structure of your personality. Namely, the Id, the Ego and the Superego.

The Id

The Id is a part of your brain concerned with pleasure. It operates in primary-processing thinking, which is what makes it illogical, primitive, instinctive, irrational and fantasy-oriented. This is the part of your brain that demands immediate gratification of your urges.

The Ego

The ego is a reality principle. A decision-making component of your personality. It mediates between the Id and the real world. While the Id demands immediate satisfaction, the ego takes in the world’s societal expectations and considers what passes as suitable behaviour.

The Superego

The superego is a morality principle. The superego is concerned with what’s right and what’s wrong. This is the part of the brain that takes in life long teachings about good and bad behaviour and social norms. What comes about during this process is usually internalised; sometimes too internalised.

The Id vs The Ego vs The Superego

The Id, the ego and the superego make up the three levels of the mind while existing on different levels of consciousness. The Id is unconscious. The ego functions in the conscious, preconscious, and unconscious level. And the superego is present in all three levels. When these three levels of the mind cannot work together, anxiety is induced, followed by the need to employ defence mechanisms.

The preconscious level is home to material that can easily become conscious.

The conscious is home to memories, thoughts, feelings and anything we are aware of

The unconscious is a bank of suppressed memories, thoughts, feelings, urges and hard to accept contents.

The Id, Ego & Superego interacts influencing your behaviour and personality. Taking strain from different factors, these three levels of the mind are constantly in conflict, especially if you, the human, have too little or too much ego that needs to hide behind defence mechanisms.

On a conscious level, the ego has to satisfy the Id’s desires while also submitting to the Superego’s internalized moral standards. A too much or too little ego will have trouble moderating the demands of your reality, your demanding desires, and your grounding superego.

Ideally, these entities must function together as one. Where the other lacks, the other should account for. According to Freud, an imbalance between the three levels of the mind leads to an extreme maladaptive personality which is sometimes witnessed through defence mechanisms.

For example, too much Id can mean giving into all your desires, including criminal urges. We can see too much superego through judgemental personalities that judge against anything ‘immoral’.

In these extreme cases, anxiety will definitely arise. And how you handle your anxiety will be evident in the defence mechanisms you take on.

Defence Mechanisms

Sigmund Freud was the first psychoanalyst to note defence mechanisms humans adapt in unpleasant situations. Since then, his daughter and other psychoanalysts have added to his list.

Defence Mechanisms are unconscious reactions that protect a person from unpleasant emotions such as anxiety, conflict and guilt. Because defence mechanisms want to separate a person from the true reality of a situation, they are self-deceptive and don’t deal with true feelings in a context.

Defence mechanisms arise when we feel threatened and the Id or Superego is too demanding. You should know that defence mechanisms are normal. However, when used often and to an extreme extent, they can have some negative effect on you.

Defence mechanisms we adapt

1. Repression

Repression is the unconscious process of keeping distressing thoughts, memories, impulses, and feelings buried in the unconscious mind. The reason for not wanting these things in the conscious mind is to avoid guilt and anxiety. While repression does work, in the long run, it can cause anxiety, depression and stress. It can also manifest into physical illness and phobias. Often, people who use repression have difficulty talking about thoughts and feelings surrounding their repressed thought or memory. They also become defensive when asked about that thing.

E.g. A traumatised soldier has no recollection of the details of a close brush with death.

2. Projection

Projection is attributing one’s own thoughts, feelings, or motives to another. This happens when an individual recognises their unacceptable traits and impulses in someone else but doesn’t recognize those same traits in themselves. This is an unconscious attempt to protect the ego against uncomfortable personality traits one does not want to consciously acknowledge in self. Projection is centred around the understanding of what is right and what is wrong in life situations.

E.g. A girlfriend is attracted to her male friend and can’t admit this, so when her boyfriend speaks about his female friend she accuses him of being attracted to the friend

3. Displacement

Displacement is diverting negative emotional feelings (usually anger) from their original source to a substitute target. Usually, the substitute target as seen as less threatening than the original source. During this process, the mind is adamant on expressing the present anger but recognises the danger that may result from expressing the anger to the original source. So when it finds a safer outlet, that becomes the recipient of the misplaced anger.

E.g. After a parental scolding, the older sibling takes out their anger on the younger sibling

4. Reaction formation

Reaction formation is behaving in a way that is exactly the opposite of one’s true feelings. Often, reaction formation behaviour is exaggerated and attention seeking. Reaction formation takes form to protect the ego from thoughts and feelings an individual finds unacceptable due to internalized moral, familial, and societal standards. Over time, reaction formation grows the suppress the person’s authenticity, which is problematic.

E.g. A man craves romance but struggles to court women, so he protects his ego by expressing misogynistic beliefs.

5. Regression

Regression is a reversion to immature patterns of behaviour. Regression happens specifically when adults handle anxiety in relationships by behaving how they would have during their developmental stage (as a child). Regression reaction is usually seen as inappropriate and childish for that person’s age. Like the other defence mechanisms, regression is unconscious and the person displaying it can be fixated on the regressed behaviour they are exhibiting, e.g. sucking your thumb like you did when you were young. When a person regresses, it is hard to solve things and move forward constructively.

E.g. An adult has temper tantrums when they don’t get their way

6. Rationalization

Rationalization is creating false but plausible excuses to justify unacceptable behaviour. There’s a need to avoid real reasons behind the behaviour in question and so logic is preferred. Rationalization is also used to protect self from self-esteem wound and to protect own self-concepts.

E.g. A person stood up on a date insists it does not matter because they were not attracted to their date, anyway.

7. Identification

Identification is bolstering self-esteem by forming an imaginary or real alliance with some person or group. In varying degrees, a person taking on identification will change themselves to be like the person they are identifying with. Unconsciously, the individual ends up taking on the traits of the person they are identifying. They took experiences from the outside world on to create new ego.

E.g. An introverted, insecure girl joins a group of popular extroverted girls to boost their own self-esteem.

8. Sublimation

Sublimation is channelling unconscious, unacceptable impulses into socially acceptable or admirable activities. So instead of cursing someone out or beating them up for making you angry, you channel the anger into something ‘positive’ that will hurt no one. Sublimation is one of the few mature defence mechanisms and it works well in reducing the anxiety around whatever caused your impulses.

E.g. You are sexually attracted to someone who is not your partner, and you channel those feelings into your art over cheating.

9. Denial

Denial is refusing the acknowledge the truth and accept reality even when it is clear as day. The person using denial completely refuses to recognize reality for what it is. Despite the amount of evidence to support the reality, they refuse to accept it. Denial works to protect the ego from a reality a person cannot cope with.

E.g. A victim of sexual assault denies being sexually assaulted even though they were.

10. Humour

Humour is pointing out funny and ironic instances in an anxiety inducing situation in order to deal with it. It is used as a distractive tactic, especially in a serious situation happening at the moment. Instead of indulging in the scary and gloomy mood of a serious moment, you crack a joke about the situation. Humour is one of the good defence mechanisms, though the line between funny and cynical humour can be thin.

E.g. People call you by a horrible name and you adopt it to remove the negativity around the name.


These are just some of the defence mechanisms I wanted to touch on in talking about the anxiety induced by the three levels of your mind when there’s conflict. Beyond these, which the majority can be accredited to Sigmund Freud, there are other defence mechanisms that are healthy and some that are not i.e. Altruism, acting out, avoidance, aim inhibition, compensation, fantasy, disassociation, undoing, passive aggression, isolation, splitting.

I hope you loved the insight and it can help you reflect.

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