(1989). Recent Contributions to the Theory of Defense Mechanisms: A Comparative View. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 37: 865-891
Recent Contributions to the Theory of Defense Mechanisms: A Comparative View
Steven H. Cooper, Ph.D.
Some of the most recent contributions to the theory of defense mechanisms are critically reviewed including theories of complex motivational properties of the ego (Schafer, 1968); (Kris, 1984), a functional theory of defense (Brenner, 1982), an object-representational theory of defense (Kernberg, 1976), a "two-person" theory of defense (Modell, 1984) and a self-psychologically based theory of defense (Kohut, 1984). These recently proposed theories of defense mechanisms utilize differing levels of analytic observation and theoretical discourse. One of the major differences among theorists involves the variety of referents of defense mechanisms (i.e., what is being defended against) including impulse, drive derivative, object loss, or environmental failure. Another fundamental difference involves the variety of ways theorists regard the relation between internal homeostasis and the external world. Questions are raised about the recent tendency in psychoanalytic theory to develop or invoke different theories of defense to explain a broad range of clinical phenomena.
WITHIN THE PAST 20 YEARS, diverse trends have emerged in psychoanalytic understandings of the defense mechanism concept, involving elaborations of both the intrapsychic and object-relational contexts. The variety of conceptualizations emanates from the widening scope of patients treated by analysts, changes in other aspects of theory, and technical innovations regarding defense interpretation generated by both theory and practice.
Faculty, Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute. Assistant Professor in Psychology (Psychiatry), The Cambridge Hospital, Harvard Medical School.
An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association, Chicago, May 9, 1987. I am grateful to Drs. James Frosch, Stuart Hauser, and Anton Kris for their extremely helpful comments on this version and earlier drafts of the paper and to Drs. Daniel Jacobs and Arnold Goldberg who discussed the paper when it was presented. Accepted for publication June 16, 1988.
- 865 -
This paper will critically discuss some recent contributions to the theory of defense mechanisms, and attempt to identify and clarify some of the resulting conceptual and clinically related problems. One group of theorists, including Brenner, Kernberg, Schafer, and Kris, despite important differences in their theories, define defense within a strictly intrapsychic context. Other theorists, such as Laplanche and Pontalis (1973), Modell (1975), (1984), and Kohut (1984), emphasize that the function of some defense mechanisms is to maintain or preserve an object relation that, without it, would signify overriding anxiety. Briefly stated, theories of defense proposed by Brenner, Schafer, Kernberg, and Kris, on the one hand, and Modell and Kohut, on the other, use differing levels of clinical observation and theoretical discourse. They refer to the concepts of defense mechanisms, compromise formations, and symptoms in varying and overlapping ways. One corollary of this conceptual problem relates to the way theories focus on varying referents or content of what is being defended against by defense mechanisms—impulse, drive derivative, object loss, environmental failure, or an "enfeebled self" (Kohut, 1984). A second corollary involves the degree to which instincts and objects are regarded as separate or inextricably linked concepts. Finally, different theorists describe the mechanisms of defense with reference to a wide variety of patients. A resulting question pertains to whether a unified theory of defense can explain a broad range of defensive phenomena. To what extent has theory needlessly or usefully become diversified (usually bifurcated) by invoking different theories of defense to explain different levels of adaptation to conflict or trauma?
The following historical sketch selectively focuses on several threads which have become points of emphasis in the most contemporary developments in defense theory. These threads are related to the classification and taxonomy of defense, the
- 866 -
mechanisms of defense as part of a broad array of ego functions, the role of object representation in the theory of defense, and the relation between the external world and intrapsychic processes in the theory of defense.
As many have pointed out (e.g., A. Freud, 1936); (Rangell, 1985); (Wallerstein, 1985), Freud's use of the term "defense" overlapped with and was largely subsumed by the more general concept of repression, until he distinguished the two concepts with his introduction of the structural model. Freud's most systematic metapsychological discussion of defense prior to the structural view (Freud, 1915) relied exclusively on economic propositions regarding the withdrawal of preconscious cathexes from anxiety-producing content; countercathexes were directed against this undesirable content. Freud (1926) articulated a theory of signal anxiety in which defenses were clearly seen as a general process functioning within the ego to maintain the unconscious status of forbidden impulses and thereby mitigate anxiety. With the introduction of the structural model, the motive for defense, anxiety, became clearly articulated as did a definition of symptom as a compromise formation between instinct and defense. In the same paper, Freud made explicit that repression as well as several other defenses, including isolation, regression, reaction formation, and undoing, were special methods of defense.
Anna Freud (1936) subdivided the larger concept of defense even further, citing specific clinical examples of a group of other defenses, and proposed a classification of defenses according to the source of anxiety (e.g., superego, external world, strength of instinctual pressures) that gives rise to them. In detailing the clinically complex and varied manifestations of defense, she helped to underscore and clarify the contribution of defenses to the genesis of conflict. She also replaced the various terms Freud used for defense, including "defensive techniques employed by the ego" or "defensive methods" (Freud, 1926) with the term "mechanisms of defense." Schafer (1968) argued that Anna Freud's discussion of the term mechanism
- 867 -
was not systematically conceptualized and instead remained on the taxonomic or descriptive level of discourse. At the most basic level, the term mechanism was used to denote the automatic triggering of defense by an anxiety signal. Wallerstein (1985, p. 205) articulated what may be the clearest definition of the term defense mechanism: "a construct that denoted a way of functioning of the mind, invoked to explain how behaviors, affects, and ideas serve to avert or modulate unwanted impulse discharge…"
In contrast to Anna Freud's emphasis on the defensive functions of the ego, Hartmann, Kris, and Loewenstein (1964) underscored the ego's broader functions. They emphasized the ego as an organ of adaptation and accomodation that had access to the use of defense, among a variety of ego functions, to cope with exigencies of the external world as well as drive demands. Brenner's (1982) emphasis on the functional approach to defense may be viewed as an extension of this work. He focuses on the ego's breadth in accomplishing the reduction of anxiety or depressive affect associated with drive derivatives or superego functions. In another development related to the work of Hartmann, Kris, and Loewenstein, Schafer (1968) suggests that while the former authors emphasized the ego as an organ of biological adaptation, relatively less attention was given to the dynamic properties of the ego. Thus one of the frontiers that awaited the attention of defense theorists working within the framework of ego psychology such as Schafer (1968) or Kris (1982) was the explication of propositions related to complex motivational properties of the ego and the ego's functions such as defense.
On a very different front, though of central importance to contemporary defense theorists such as Kernberg and Modell, Melanie Klein (1946) placed the concept of internal objects at the very center of her contribution to defense theory. Klein, stimulated by Freud's discussion of the relation between an introjected parental figure and the development of the superego as mental structure, expanded on the concept of the internal
- 868 -
object. She maintained that the infant initially introjects parts of the parents' bodies and eventually internalizes the parents as separate, whole objects. The internalized objects, however, are never exact replicas of real external objects; they are always influenced by the infant's instinctually based fantasies and projections. Klein believed that defenses such as splitting of the ego, splitting of the object, idealization, projective identification, and omnipotence came into operation during the paranoid-schizoid position (first three months of life). According to her descriptions, defenses are instinctually based, but for certain defenses, such as projective identification, impulses, as well as fantasies of parts of the self or bodily products, are projected onto the object. For Klein (1930), from the earliest stages of life, impulses had accompanying fantasies revolving around parts of the self. Kernberg (1975), (1983) working within an instinctually driven, intrapsychically based model of defense has extended Klein's work by delineating more clearly the relation between drive and object representation while rejecting some of Klein's hypotheses about the earliest manifestations of internalized fantasies of part objects.
In contrast to Klein's instinctually based theory, Fairbairn's (1954) notion of defense grew out of his theory of object relations. For Fairbairn, instincts were secondary to internalized objects as endopsychic structures. While for Klein, repression related to impulses, albeit distorted by fantasy, for Fairbairn the target of repression was the bad internalized object. Modell, while rejecting Fairbairn's comprehensive minimization of drives, has argued that there are defenses organized against instinctual conflict, and defenses organized against object failure. His position is perhaps closest to that of Winnicott's (1965) theory of object relations. Winnicott focused less on the internalization of objects and more on the etiological effect of the object's response to the instinctual vicissitudes of the individual. For example, Winnicott (1965) described how id satisfaction becomes a very important strengthener of the ego when the infant is met with an object's response which, implicitly through
- 869 -
its tolerance, reassures the infant that he cannot injure the object. Winnicott's developmental focus was to detail how id excitements can be traumatic when the ego is not yet able to incorporate these excitements—i.e., when the environmental response in some way communicates that id excitement is injurious to the hoped-for strong, protective object, thereby preventing the development of id satisfaction and consequent ego strengthening. For Winnicott, the good-enough maternal response to the child's id excitement is a precondition for "ego defense organized against id-impulse" (1965, p. 147). Winnicott's observations have been represented in the theories of Modell (1975), (1984) and Kohut (1984). However divergent their perspectives with regard to the role of drive as well as the technical handling of defense interpretation, both Modell and Kohut have argued that under certain conditions of emotional object failure the nature of what is being defended against is not necessarily or not exclusively unpleasure aroused by an instinctual derivative.
Motivational Properties of the Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense: Contributions of Schafer and A. Kris
Schafer (1968) examined the mechanisms of defense with special focus on what he termed a gap in theory relating to dynamic propositions of the ego as a structure. An aspect of this gap involved the relative neglect in theory of how defense mechanisms acquire and maintain a complex substructure of motives and wishes.
Freud (1923) and later Hartmann (1939), (1960) and Hartmann, Kris, and Loewenstein (1964) detailed how the ego, through neutralized energies, serves an adaptive function opposing unadaptive instinctual drives. Schafer suggests that these earlier formulations of the ego's function largely emphasized the ego's defenses as countercathexes in opposition to id wishes. Thus the energy of the ego is said to be unassociated with any particular aim. A relatively neglected area, according to Schafer,
- 870 -
lies in the degree to which the ego is part of the id. Schafer cites Hendrick's (1943) admonition that "the ego must be regarded as fundamentally dynamic." In this view the ego may be explicitly regarded as a system with an interrelated group of motives and wishes. Pointing to examples such as Anna Freud's (1936) discussion of defensive altruism, Schafer characterizes defense mechanisms as "double agents," simultaneously motivated to insure the gaining of instinctual pleasure and the avoidance of pain (the ego as part of the id) as well as to block instinctual gratification from direct expression. From this perspective, defensive activity insures the maximum instinctual gratification possible under conditions of danger. By emphasizing the unity of the ego and the id as a complementary concept to the more frequently discussed view of the enmity of the two, Schafer also offers a cogent argument for the unconscious nature of defense mechanisms—that is, that defenses remain unconscious because of their wish-fulfilling properties.
Schafer's argument relies theoretically on Waelder's (1930) discussion of the principle of multiple function. Waelder's seminal methodological contribution proposed that "the specific methods of solution for the various tasks of the ego must always be so chosen that, no matter what the immediate goal of solution may be, they will at the same time bring instinctual gratification" (p. 78). Specifically, part of Waelder's (1930) discussion elaborated how defensive projection may provide solutions to both anxiety resulting from passive homosexual wishes and gratification of these wishes. With reference to the latter, the individual is seen as constructing a partly wishful fantasy of being penetrated with the defensive method that enacts that fantasy. Schafer argues that part of what we call defensive projection involves particular ways in which the defense also expresses the wish to be homosexually penetrated through disguise, thus preserving the repudiated wish. What is transformed is the manifest content of the wish (id mode in Schafer's terms), not the actual mode of the repudiated wish. Wallerstein's (1985) distinction between defensive behaviors as observable phenomenal
- 871 -
events that can be conscious or unconscious and defense mechanisms as theoretical constructs invoked to explain how defensive behaviors fulfill defensive aims is applicable here. Schafer's contribution may be viewed as an elaboration of how defense mechanisms, at the level of theoretical constructs, may be invoked to explain how defensive behaviors serve dynamically complex (drive-modulating and drive-satisfying) aims.
Schafer's analysis is in some ways an elaboration of Fenichel's (1945, pp. 187-188) remarks regarding the "reciprocal penetration" between an instinct struggling against a "defensive impulse." Fenichel divided "defensive attitudes" into occasional and habitual. He described the habitual defensive attitude as one in which "the instinctual temptation is continually present." He emphasized that defense and instinct should be regarded as relative terms. Fenichel suggested that nearly always rejected impulses break through defense and that there is also often further repression of the instinct-laden defense: "There are reaction formations against reaction formations. We see not only the three layer arrangement of instinct-defense-instinct breaking through again, but also instinct-defense-repression of the defense. For instance, a man who has become passively feminine through castration anxiety might overcompensate this attitude with a particularly accentuated masculine behavior."
Kris (1982), (1984), (1985), working in a complementary area to Schafer's (1968) work, has contributed to our understanding of the complex motivational structure of intrasystemic conflict. His formulations, derived from the viewpoint of the method of free association, delineate two distinct patterns of conflict—the conflicts of defense and the conflicts of ambivalence or, stated alternatively, convergent and divergent conflicts. While these concepts of convergent and divergent conflict refer primarily to observable patterns of association during analysis, they also have referents to "conflicts in the mind," that is, these are intrapsychically based phenomena because there are underlying determinants of these patterns of association.
Conflicts of defense, or convergent conflicts, are said to
- 872 -
involve conflicts between paired opposite wishes or motives. In these familiar conflicts a repressed member of the pair is either not expressed at all or, if expressed, only in a highly disguised manner. They are conflicts between drive and defense. In these conflicts, one element remains out of consciousness or is kept from expression through countercathexis. Thus an individual might demonstrate passivity in a salient or enduring fashion defending against hostile or aggressive feelings. Kris argues that psychoanalysis has focused largely on convergent conflict and the lifting of repression as the means to remove or mitigate resistances.
In contrast, Kris also describes conflicts of ambivalence, or divergent conflict, as involving tensions that result from wishes that pull in opposite directions. He maintains that these conflicts are not resolved through the lifting of repression and countercathexes as is the case for convergent conflict. Divergent conflicts are exemplified by an associative pattern which might reveal tensions created by simultaneous pulls for separation or dependence, progression or regression, or gratification of oedipal or preoedipal yearnings. In contrast to the example of convergent conflict cited above involving passivity defending against hostile impulses (with no apparent manifestation of hostility), an example of divergent conflict might be manifested by active and passive wishes which alternate more rapidly and saliently. Kris's contributions suggest that there are important distinctions between the complex and dynamic patterns of expression of wish and countercathexis, on the one hand, and the simultaneous expression of divergent wishes, on the other hand. He attempts to illustrate the technical consequences of working with resistance, insight, and resolution associated with the analysis of convergent and divergent conflicts.
From the perspective offered by Kris's work, Schafer's (1968) remarks regarding the complex motivational properties of wishes may be viewed as a partial explanation, applicable only to particular defensive phenomena. Kris might suggest that a group of familiar defensive phenomena are suitably explained
- 873 -
by the notion that the ego's defenses involve countercathexes in opposition to id wishes. He might agree with Schafer that the literature has underemphasized both the wishful aims of these defenses and the ways in which defenses, at times, simultaneously insure maximal gratification while maximally avoiding pain. However, Kris's proposals argue for a typology of conflict centered on nuances of expression or lack of expression of a wish. He would suggest that the defense model of repression (i.e., convergent conflict) does not capture instances of conflict resulting from simultaneous pull of two wishes in different directions. Thus Kris would suggest that there is no reason, a priori, to view the latter phenomenon (i.e., divergent conflict) as comprehensively explained by the defense model of drive countercathexis.
The work of Schafer and Kris raises many questions about the relation between defense and other clinical phenomena. For example, are the accompanying fantasies of projection, described by Schafer, usefully regarded as part of the defense mechanism concept? As will be elaborated below, Brenner (1982, p. 79) has suggested that Schafer's (1968) analysis of the wish component of defense often involves a complex amalgam of wish and fear inherent in symptoms and compromise formations secondarily related to defense. Brenner might also argue that Kris's elaboration of divergent conflict consists of nothing more than manifestations of unstable or faltering defenses, which if more stable, might better disguise various wishes. Thus Brenner might argue that Kris's elaboration of divergent conflict is a reflection of an unstable convergent conflict. Schafer (1968, p. 6), aware of the conceptual blurring among defense, symptom, and character trait resulting from his formulation, suggests that distinctions among these phenomena are inherently comingled in the work of clinical analysis.
The Functional Approach to the Mechanisms of Defense: Contributions of Brenner
- 874 -
Brenner's (1975), (1979), (1982) theory of defense mechanisms explicitly delineates a functional rather than motivational or content approach to the study of defense mechanisms. Brenner (1982, p. 73) argues that defense is an aspect of mental functioning "definable only in terms of its consequence: the reduction of anxiety and/or depressive affect associated with a drive derivative or with superego functions." Within this view, there are no special mechanisms of defense. Brenner regards anything in mental life that results in a diminution or disappearance of anxiety or depressive affect as a defense. Brenner argues that ego functions are all-purpose. They are used to oppose drive derivatives and to mediate or prevent drive gratification or to enforce superego prohibitions and constraints. But Brenner notes that no aspects of ego functioning are used exclusively for defensive purposes.
In agreement with Fenichel and Schafer, Brenner argues that any defense often can and does simultaneously serve the purpose of facilitating the gratification of a drive derivative. The individual attempts, at the same time, to avoid or reduce unpleasure or threat and to achieve pleasure and gratification. But in contrast to Schafer, Brenner takes as his central postulate that defenses are never specialized ego functions. The same ego functions may simultaneously serve drive gratifications, defense, superego demands, and adaptation. He points out that it is a mistake to define or identify defense by the mode used to achieve the purpose of defense, since each ego function has multiple modes serving multiple purposes. Brenner underscores that by defining defense strictly by the function it serves in the psychic economy as a component of conflict, we may dispense with the consequent ambiguity accompanying definitions of defense which include associated compromise formations, fantasies, and symptoms. Returning to Waelder's (1930) example of the paranoid man, Brenner, unlike Schafer, argues that the ways in which projection simultaneously "enacts
- 875 -
the fantasy" (Schafer, 1968) of being homosexually penetrated while limiting its expression and gratification may be best understood as a symptom, delusion, or compromise formation that accompanies, but does not define, the mechanism of projection.
Despite the theoretical parsimony proposed by Brenner (1982), his analysis of what the ego has at its disposal to use defensively is quite broad—so broad as to potentially overlap with some of what object-relations theorists such as Winnicott and Modell consider defensive phenomena. For example, Brenner suggests that the ego can use defensively such phenomena as ego attitudes, perceptions, alterations of attention, fantasy formations, and identifications. Brenner's aim then is to emphasize the ego's breadth in using diverse modes of defense while delineating quite specific functions of the ego that constitute defense—namely, the function of opposing or warding off a psychic tendency or impulse that has aroused or will arouse anxiety or depressive affect. An important question emanating from the object-relations theorists relates to whether the ego's use of attitudes, identifications, and fantasy formations as defense modes requires us to change fundamentally our definitions of defense or the context within which we observe defense (Modell, 1975), (1984).
Kernberg's Elaboration of Defense and the Intrapsychic Context
Kernberg's numerous contributions to the theory of defense mechanisms in some ways place him as a theoretical moderate poised between Brenner's view of defenses as exclusively embedded within the intrapsychic model and Modell's (1975), (1984) extension of the definition of defense mechanism to the "two-person context."
In agreement with Brenner, Kernberg defines the defense mechanism concept in exclusively intrapsychic terms. Likening Kernberg to other theorists, such as Brenner, who conceptualize the defense mechanism concept more exclusively in intrapsychic
- 876 -
terms, may seem surprising since the defense mechanisms Kernberg delineates rely on images and representations of objects. Among his many contributions to the theory and understanding of the defense mechanism concept, however, there is a broadening of the components of intrapsychic conflict to include the object representation concept. Kernberg suggests that all character defenses represent a defensive constellation of self- and object representations directed against an opposite, anxiety-producing, repressed self- and object representation. Thus Kernberg and Brenner differ in their view of the components of intrapsychic conflict, but are in agreement that the defense mechanism concept can be described in exclusively intrapsychic terms.
An important area of apparent disagreement between Kernberg and Brenner lies in Brenner's assertions that there are not separate or individual defense mechanisms, only ego functions which can serve multiple purposes. Kernberg not only clinically and theoretically elaborated such particular defense mechanisms as splitting and projective identification, but emphasized that a particular type of defensive organization may be helpful in diagnosing borderline personality organization. For example, Kernberg (1975) suggests that the predominance of splitting, defined as the active keeping apart of oppositely valenced self- and object representations in order to mitigate intense ambivalence conflicts, rather than repression, is usually indicative of borderline personality organization. This defensive organization of the borderline personality includes the subsidiary defenses of projective identification, denial, primitive idealization, omnipotence, and devaluation. Thus Kernberg, in contrast to Brenner, would argue that there are enduring, separate, distinguishable defense mechanisms and that these mechanisms have enormous diagnostic significance.
In many ways Kernberg (1975), (1976), (1983) and Modell (1975), (1984) view the components of unconscious intrapsychic conflict in overlapping terms. For both theorists, as is also true of Kris (1982), it is not enough to say that psychic conflicts are
- 877 -
simply conflicts between impulse and defense. Modell and Kernberg would agree that both impulse and defense are expressed through affects, and that objects are the "carriers" of affects (Brierly, 1937). They differ in that Kernberg (1976), (1983) views unconscious intrapsychic conflict inevitably as a conflict between two opposing units or sets of internalized object relations. Each of these units consists of a self-representation and an object representation under the impact of a drive derivative (clinically, an affect disposition). For Kernberg (1983) then, impulse and defense are expressed through an affectively imbued internalized object relation. In contrast, Modell proposes that there are some contexts (for example, the analyses of some narcissistic cases) in which defenses directly mediate affects between objects.
Modell and the Two-person Theory of Defense
Winnicott's (1965) conception of the false self and Modell's (1975), (1984) formulations of denial and self-sufficiency as a defense against affect seek to cast defense in a "new context"—a two-person context (Modell, 1984). Modell and Winnicott follow Balint (1950) in conceptualizing the core of the defensive process in relation to object ties, particularly with reference to defensive functioning in narcissistic patients. Modell has attempted to construct a theory of defense and affect that allows for the observation of nuances pertaining to the relation between instinct-defense and "defenses against objects" (Modell, 1984). According to Modell, this has a number of theoretical and technical ramifications for psychoanalysis that will be discussed.
Modell (1975), (1984), like Balint (1950) and Winnicott (1965), argues that the concept of defense has referents that extend beyond the realm of internal homeostasis. Modell (1984, p. 40) views his overall paradigm for defense as compatible with that of Laplanche and Pontalis (1973, p. 103) who define defense as: "a group of operations aimed at the reduction and
- 878 -
elimination of any change liable to threaten the integrity and stability of the biopsychological individual." This definition, in contrast to Brenner's (1979), includes behavioral (i.e., observable) operations related to attack or flight. Brenner views defense exclusively as a process within the psychic economy regulated by the constancy principle—i.e., defenses oppose, ward off, or reduce anxiety or depressive affect resulting from instinctual excitation. Modell describes defense mechanisms, namely nonrelatedness and self-sufficiency, which borderline and narcissistic patients use as defenses against a painful piece of reality rather than exclusively as a defense against internal sources of unpleasure. In contrast, Brenner would argue that the defense is against the anxiety (unpleasure) created by instinctual impulses or aroused by reality.
Modell (1984, p. 41) contends that "affects are the medium through which defenses against objects occur." Once affects are linked to objects, "the process of instinct-defense becomes a process of defense against objects." He states that narcissistic and some borderline patients try to master their affects by manipulating "object carriers" (Brierly, 1937, p. 51). Modell focuses on a myriad of manifestations of noncommunication of affect which allow for omnipotent control of these affects, including complicance as observed by Deutsch (1942) in her description of the "as-if" personality, Winnicott's (1965) "false self," and withdrawal into a "cocoon" of self-sufficiency (Modell, 1975).
Modell's conceptualization of the cocoon involves the patient's illusion that he is omnipotently sustaining and self-sufficient; the patient believes he needs nothing from the analyst. Modell traces this defensive configuration to specific parental or environmental deficiencies, noting that children with this formation observe parental limitations in the ability to provide emotional holding. Based on reconstructions from the analysis of narcissistic characters, Modell notes that this may take the form of parents who have conveyed unstable, confusing, or sometimes even spurious views of reality, including physical or
- 879 -
emotional absence. The child, attuned to this failure in parental function, prematurely falls back on the self through compensatorily determined, omnipotent fantasies. These fantasies are unstable and vulnerable to disruption requiring the cocoon state of nonrelatedness in order to ensure, restore, or stabilize whatever precariously balanced homeostasis has been previously achieved. This sense of self implicitly involves only pseudo-separateness from the parental object, characterized by both dormant yearnings to resume merger and emotional holding from a parental object, with concomitant anxiety about fusion and merger wishes. Thus for Modell, the noncommunication of affects aids the illusion of self-sufficiency by protecting the self from objects believed to be faulty. Modell views the communication of affects as "object-seeking," which is anathema to the narcissistic patient.
The most striking revision in Modell's theory is his view of the role of the external world in the defensive process of the narcissistic patient, in contrast to the classical position regarding the role of the external world in neurotic conflicts. For example, Fenichel's (1945) discussion of the external world emphasizes that defense exists only in relation to an intrapsychic institution that both represents and anticipates the external world. A conflict between the id and the external world must undergo a transformation into a conflict between the ego and the id before a conflict can develop. Many different kinds of misinterpretation or falsifications of reality may occur as mediated by the ego. Among many different types of examples of such falsifications are mistakes in reality testing under the pressures of unconscious wishes, or fears, or their derivatives, or forgetting of external events in the service of wish fulfillment. According to Fenichel, none of these neurotic falsifications can be distinguished from repressions directed against one's own impulses. In the latter instance, the external world is renounced or warded off due to possible danger either as a potential root of temptation to unconscious drives or as a potential root of censure. The external world (i.e., the prohibitive feature of the
- 880 -
external world) may be warded off in order to deny that the instinctual act may be dangerous. In contrast, Modell's theoretical treatment of denial is predicated on the notion that denial is a "hybrid" defense that can be described in structural terms as a split within the ego, but that it also serves the purpose of preservation of an object relationship. In Modell's view, defenses may be organized, directly, against a painful piece of reality, without reference to internal sources of anxiety or unpleasure.
It is unclear whether Modell's critique of the classical definition of defense speaks, as he claims, to the faultiness of the theory itself or to a relative deemphasis in the theoretical and clinical literature on elaborating the variety of ways defenses are manifested in the context of object relations.
Self Psychology and the Concept of Defense: Kohut's Contributions
According to Kohut (1971), (1979), (1984), the classical approach to defense overemphasizes the function of defense as an attempt to both counteract superego anxiety and provide unneutralized drive demands as a regression from later forms of developmental conflict. Furthermore, Kohut (1984, p. 142) maintains that the whole concept of defense-resistance is bound to a cognitive emphasis in psychoanalysis that focuses on self-knowledge and the mechanics of mental processes to the exclusion of observing the vicissitudes of the patient's self-experience.
Self psychology views defense as an attempt to mitigate an awareness of painful affect associated with exposure (or reexposure in the analytic context) of structural deficits. As Newman (1980) cogently points out, self psychology, to some extent, focuses on defenses as involving "experiential deficiencies" rather than on the mechanisms of defense per se—this is consistent with the explicitly stated goal of "experience-near" observation. Psychic mechanisms are assessed against the
- 881 -
background of the patient's nuclear self: "Defense motivation in analysis will be understood in terms of activities undertaken in the service of psychological survival, that is, as the patient's attempt to save at least that sector of his nuclear self, however small and precariously established it may be, that he has been unable to construct and maintain despite serious insufficiencies in the development-enhancing matrix of the selfobjects of childhood" (Kohut, 1984, p. 115). Thus self psychology views the expression of drives primarily as an attempt to remedy a besieged self, in contrast to a view of unneutralized drives as indicative of drive fixations and regression from later forms of conflict. Paralleling this theoretical position, Kohut states that defense and resistance interpretations may at times interfere with transferences related to reactivated needs for mirroring of the enfeebled self.
Kohut (1984, p. 132) focuses on defensive structures as attempts to safeguard an enfeebled self, and notes the presence of an "innately present vigor of the self" which he defines as the "nuclear self's resistiveness to disintegration and capacity to fight noxious influences." While Kohut stated that both the biological and psychological factors associated with this vigor remain unclear, in case discussions (e.g., 1984, pp. 128-151) he describes this vigor as an innate capacity to maintain hope for a satisfactory selfobject that will help foster growth and consolidate earlier formed structures. Kohut speaks of particular defensive structures almost exclusively in the context of maintaining remnants of the self that will preserve the vigor of the self. He (1984, p. 143) formalized this operation as "the principle of the primacy of self-preservation."
Kohut's formulations, here, are to some extent in keeping with those of Fairbairn, Winnicott, Guntrip, and Modell in terms of the emphasis on the degree to which the self may need to be safeguarded in its state of vulnerability. Guntrip's (1969) notion of the "schizoid citadel" and Modell's analogy of the self's "cocoon state" are defensive positions invoked to protect equivalents of Kohut's "enfeebled self." As Newman (1980),
- 882 -
among others, points out, Kohut's notion of the vertical split-off part of the psyche largely overlaps with Winnicott's (1965) description of the defensively motivated "false self," which involves compliance with an empathically faulty object. However, one of Kohut's points of divergence with Modell, in particular, lies in the former's broad minimization of instinctual processes and instinctual derivatives. As stated earlier, the notion of wish, from the self-psychological perspective, is largely conceptualized as an expression of motives to complete development and "thereby realize the nuclear program of the self" (Kohut, 1984, p. 148).
It is in the area of the technical handling of defense interpretation that Modell and Kohut differ most conspicuously. In many ways, Modell has argued that the patient's hiding of the needs of his defective self as it becomes activated in the transference is analogous to the ways in which the classical analyst views the analysand's opposition to anxiety or pain that would be faced if he more fully permitted his wishes toward the analyst to emerge. Modell, among others, believes that the interpretation of the patient's needs for "noncommunication of affects" and "defensive self-sufficiency" are largely congruent with the interpretation of other defenses and forms of resistance. In contrast, Kohut (1984, p. 148) argues that these defenses and resistances "serve the basic ends of the self" and do not need to be "overcome." The assertions by both Kohut and Modell about the technical handling of narcissistic defenses require considerably more clinical and empirical testing.
Despite considerable clinical contributions at the level of theory, Kohut's removal of defense from its association with resistance has left unclear what, if anything, Kohut believes is unconscious about defenses. The relation between defenses and the myriad of other unconscious processes is also largely unclear. Kohut's (1984, p. 115) definitions of defense as activities undertaken in the service of psychological survival and to preserve the "innate vigor of the self" are so broad as to incorporate a variety of other personality factors or other clinical phenomena
- 883 -
which may also have adaptive value. Thus these definitions offer little by way of conveying the unique or distinguishing aspects of defense and its relation to many other ego functions with adaptive value.
Many of the major contributions to the theory of the defense mechanism concept over the past twenty years may be viewed against the background of other debates and controversies in psychoanalytic theory and treatment. These include issues such as the widening scope of analytic treatment and the extension of analytic understanding to the preoedipal world, the relation between instinct theory and object-relations theory, and the dialectical relation between understandings of the theoretical ego and the experiential self.
The widening scope of analysis has brought with it the elaboration of the concept of adaptation and accompanying propositions about what is being protected or defended against through defensive operations. To some extent the literature reflects a bifurcation with regard to the referents of defense mechanisms in which one group of theorists places more emphasis on defenses against instinctual drives and drive derivatives while another group of theorists focuses more on the self as the reference point for defenses. Brenner, Schafer, Kernberg, and Kris have elaborated the complexities of instinctual drives and peremptory wishes within their definitions of defense. In contrast, recent contributions emanating from both object-relations theory and self psychology have emphasized the notion of defense in the context of protection of the self from potentially toxic external influences or internal threat that would endanger the self by negatively influencing an object attachment.
It is unclear how or whether the extension of analysis to a broader spectrum of patients requires a fundamental revision in the basic theory of the defense mechanism concept. Modell's
- 884 -
focus on the "two-person psychology" of defense provides a useful, possibly necessary clinical supplement to classical theory of defense (e.g., Brenner) by emphasizing the phenomenology of defense and the complexity of modes of interpretation of defense in the clinical context, particularly with reference to analysis of narcissistic patients. However, strict application of Brenner's theoretical assumptions subsumes the "two-person" defensive phenomena, such as nonrelatedness and defensive self-sufficiency described by Modell. For example, Brenner (1979), (1982) takes into account a variety of ways in which a defense may function to eliminate unpleasure, including defenses that do not oppose the drive derivative per se, but instead oppose the anxiety and depressive affect aroused by the drive derivative. Brenner cites Fenichel's (1939) description of the counterphobic attitude as the first example in the psychoanalytic literature that describes the way in which a defense can reduce or eliminate anxiety associated with a drive derivative rather than the drive derivative itself. One might argue that Modell's (1975) exposition of the narcissistic patient's self-sufficiency is a latter-day example of another kind of defensive attitude which takes as its target the affect (anxiety, depression, and feelings of vulnerability of the self) associated with a drive derivative. Within such a view one might also argue that Modell is describing a special constellation of symptoms, resistances, and compromise formations secondary to internal (intrapsychic) threat. It is suggested here that Modell's proposed revisions of the defense mechanism concept address the clinical and experiential referents that are less fully expounded in Brenner's theoretical explanations of defense. However, at the level of theory, Modell's attempt to extend the definition of defense beyond the realm of internal homeostasis is contingent on the acceptance of a different set of initial assumptions about the relation between the psyche and the external world.
The division as to the referents of defense mechanisms has also been mirrored by another aspect of dualism in the theory of defense. There is implicit association in the literature between
- 885 -
instinctually based theories and a greater emphasis on internal homeostasis, oedipal conflict, and superego anxiety, while theories emphasizing defense as experiential deficiency focus more on danger situations in which the individual is confronted with external trauma in the form of the not "good-enough" parent or "faulty selfobjects." While some theorists (e.g., Stolorow and Lachmann, 1980) explicitly propose a typology of defenses that qualitatively differentiates defenses erected against instinctual conflict versus compensatorily determined, quasi-defensive structures that protect against poor selfobject differentiation, this bifurcation in theory may well be an artifact of differences in the levels of defense interpretation used with different patients. For example, if precarious stability and self-esteem are strongly linked with perceptions and fantasies of greatness attributed to an object, the approach to defense interpretation, in early stages of an analysis, may be to emphasize the adaptive need for such an attachment. This technical approach to defense interpretation need not necessitate a theoretical typology related to the origin or nature of defense. At the level of theory, the need for sharp categorization between defenses that appear at a particular point in analysis to be related to structural deficits vis à vis an external object and defenses that are more conspicuously related to oedipal conflict is questionable. Furthermore, while the immediate or apparent stimulus for defense may be highly variable, this does not necessarily require the invocation of different explanatory theories of defense. I am in agreement with an integrative statement about the cause or origin of defense proposed by Gedo and Goldberg (1973), which suggested that defenses arise whenever there exists some psychic disequilibrium caused by either the inability for a drive to be gratified or discharged or an unsatisfactory or traumatic environmental situation.
A major contributing factor to the possible artificial separation of instinctually based defense theory from object-relations based defense theory may also derive from changing ideas about the relation between drive and object. For example, Kernberg
- 886 -
focuses on preoedipal phenomena while at the same time working primarily within the major premises of instinct theory. However, for Kernberg, as was true for Melanie Klein, the concepts of instinct and affect are virtually inextricably linked to the concept of the object. Kernberg's seminal work in the area of understanding the defensive organization of the preoedipal world does not suggest a major revision in our understanding of the relation between defense and the external world. Although it is possible to link the object-relational correlates of Kernberg's concept of defense to a more interpersonally based theory, he retains a basic agreement with the notion of an instinctually based theory of defense.
One of the major clinical controversies between self psychology and all of the other theories of defense discussed here relates to the types of interpretation in the analytic situation generated by the various theories. The technical handling of defense may be broadly differentiated by analysts who believe that all defensive phenomena, with appropriate timing, may be beneficially interpreted and the self psychologists who believe that some forms of idealization and other narcissistic defenses are not resistances to be overcome. While Kohut and Modell have each elaborated the relation between defense and experiential dimensions of the self, Modell retains the notion that protection of the self can become a form of resistance within the analytic situation, a proposal which is strongly disputed by Kohut and his associates. Modell's view of narcissistic defenses as a form of resistance is consistent with his assertion that defense has both instinctual and experiential referents. For example, despite their attention to the vulnerability of the narcissistic patient to experience interpretation as a potentially dangerous intrusion, Modell (1975) and Volkan (1973) argue that the function of certain defenses, such as those against relatedness, must be carefully understood with the analysand so that analytic work may proceed. Modell suggests that if we view the narcissistic patient's experienced needs for safety as defensive, then the analysis of the narcissistic patient's defensive maneuvers
- 887 -
precede the analysis of content, as is true for the neurotic patient (Fenichel, 1941). Along similar lines, Modell's (1976) elaboration of the holding environment as a component in the therapeutic action of psychoanalysis emphasizes that issues of safety and protection are invariably antecedent to the analysis of instinctual conflict. Perhaps in future years we shall be able better to integrate Kohut's emphasis on the vulnerability of the self with the contributions from ego psychology and object-relations theory which underscore the enduring and refractory nature of character defenses that impede more genuine transferential and relational experiences with psychoanalysis.
Brenner's functional definition of defense as an exclusively intrapsychic event identified by function rather than by motive, and the approach espoused by self psychology to focus more heavily on experiential deficiencies with relative deemphasis on drives as a major contributing factor to defensive functioning, are aimed at entirely different levels of analytic theory and analytic observation. Brenner's position, despite much genuine theoretical parsimony regarding his definition of defense, does not contain a comprehensive attempt to illustrate the experiential referents or the varieties of modes of particular forms of defense. A theory of defense such as his, aimed at describing ego functions, is not required to do so. In fact, Brenner argues that there are not particular defense mechanisms, only ego functions which may or may not have defensive purposes. However, in emphasizing a functional definition of defense and the mechanisms of the ego, what may be blurred is the rich clinical differentiation between particular defense mechanisms as studied through content approaches to defense in the analytic situation (Schafter, 1968); (Kernberg, 1975); (Kris, 1984). Recent empirical studies (Hauser et al., 1983); (Bond et al., 1983); (Vaillant and Drake, 1985); (Perry and Cooper, 1986) demonstrate further the benefit of content-oriented approaches to the study of defense. The self-psychological approach to defense has beneficially underscored the experiential aspects of defense in the clinical context, but appears quite incomplete in proposing its
- 888 -
own theory of defense. Kohut's notion that defense may function to maintain hope for a satisfactory selfobject hints at teleological reasoning that requires considerably more theoretical, clinical, and empirical justification. Furthermore, at a technical level, the observation that narcissistic defenses will dissolve without interpretation remains an empirical question, as does the observation that self psychology has been overly reluctant to interpret narcissistic defenses.
The past 20 years have generated enormous theoretical advances in the relation of defense to both internal homeostasis and the exigencies of the external world. As the scope of psychoanalysis widens, there is an integrative benefit to a conceptualization of defense that takes as its core the instinctual underpinnings of defense while attempting, through detailed clinical observation, to understand and integrate the roles of the external world and experiential aspects of defense. Recent notions of the defense mechanism concept point less to deficiencies in our current body of theory of defense than to the continued need to reconcile and integrate our theory with empirical and clinical observations.
BALINT, M. 1950 Changing therapeutic aims and techniques in psychoanalysis Int. J. Psychoanal. 31:117-124[à]IJP.031.0117A
BOND, M., GARDNER, S. & CHRISTIAN, J. 1983 Empirical study of self-rated defense styles Arch. Gen. Psychiat. 40:333-338
BRENNER, C. 1975 Affects and psychic conflict Psychoanal. Q. 44:5-28[à]PAQ.044.0005A
BRENNER, C. 1979 The components of psychic conflict and its consequences in mental life Psychoanal. Q. 48:547-567[à]PAQ.048.0547A
BRENNER, C. 1982 The Mind in Conflict New York: Int. Univ. Press.
BRIERLY, M. 1937 Affects in theory and practice In Trends in Psycho-analysis London: Hogarth Press, 1951 pp. 43-56
DEUTSCH, H. 1942 Some forms of emotional disturbance and their relationship to schizophrenia In Neuroses and Character Types New York: Int. Univ. Press, 1965 pp. 262-281
FAIRBAIRN, W. 1954 An Object Relations Theory of the Personality New York: Basic Books.[à]ZBK.103.0001A
FENICHEL, O. 1939 The counter-phobic attitude In Collected Papers, Second Series New York: Norton, 1954 pp. 163-173
- 889 -
FENICHEL, O. 1941 Problems of psychoanalytic technique Albany, N.Y.: Psychoanal. Q.[à]PAQ.007.0421A
FENICHEL, O. 1945 The Psychoanalytic Theory of the Neurosis New York: Norton.
FREUD, A. 1936 The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. Writings 2 New York: Int. Univ. Press, 1966
FREUD, S. 1915 Instincts and their vicissitudes S.E. 14[à]SE.014.0000A
FREUD, S. 1923 The ego and the id S.E. 19[à]SE.019.0001A
FREUD, S. 1926 Inhibitions, symptoms and anxiety S.E. 20[à]SE.020.0075A
GEDO, J. & GOLDBERG, A. 1973 Models of the Mind Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press.
GUNTRIP, H. 1969 Schizoid Phenomena, Object Relations and the Self New York: Int. Univ. Press.
HARTMANN, H. 1939 Ego Psychology and the Problem Adaptation New York: Int. Univ. Press, 1958
HARTMANN, H. 1960 Psychoanalysis and Moral Values New York: Int. Univ. Press.
HARTMANN, H. KRIS, E. & LOEWENSTEIN, R. M. 1964 Papers on Psychoanalytic Psychology. Psychol. Issues Monogr. 14. New York: Int. Univ. Press.[à]PPSY.009.0049A
HAUSER, S., JACOBSON, A. & NOAM, G. 1983 Ego development and self-image complexity in early adolescence: longitudinal studies of psychiatric and diabetic patients Arch. Gen. Psychiat. 40:32-33
HENDRICK, I. 1943 The discussion of the "instinct to master." A letter to the Editors.Psychoanal. Q. 12:561-565[à]PAQ.012.0561A
KERNBERG, O. F. 1975 Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism New York: Aronson.
KERNBERG, O. F. 1976 Object Relations Theory and Clinical Psychoanalysis New York: Aronson.
KERNBERG, O. F. 1983 Object relations and character analysis J. Am. Psychoanal. Assoc. 31:247-271[à]APA.031.0247A
KLEIN, M. 1930 The importance of symbol-formation in the development of the ego Int. J. Psychoanal. 11:27-34[à]IRP.011.0027A
KLEIN, M. 1946 Some notes on schizoid mechanisms Int. J. Psychoanal. 27:99-110[à]IJP.027.0099A
KOHUT, H. 1971 The Analysis of the Self New York: Int. Univ. Press.[à]ZBK.049.0001A
KOHUT, H. 1979 The two analyses of Mr. Z. Int. J. Psychoanal. 60:3-27[à]IJP.060.0003A
KOHUT, H. 1984 How Does Analysis Cure? Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press.
KRIS, A. O. 1982 Free Association: Method and Process New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.
KRIS, A. O. 1984 The conflicts of ambivalence Psychoanal. Study Child 38:439-458[à]PSC.038.0439A
KRIS, A. O. 1985 Resistance in convergent and in divergent conflicts Psychoanal. Q. 54:537-568[à]PAQ.054.0537A
LAPLANCHE, J. & PONTALIS, J.-B. 1973 The Language of Psychoanalysis New York: Norton.[à]IPL.094.0001A
MODELL, A. 1975 A narcissistic defense against affects and the illusion of self-sufficiency Int. J. Psychoanal. 56:275-282[à]IJP.056.0275A
MODELL, A. 1976 The holding environment and the therapeutic action of psychoanalysis J. Am. Psychoanal. Assoc. 24:285-307[à]APA.024.0285A
MODELL, A. 1984 Psychoanalysis in a New Context New York: Int. Univ. Press.
NEWMAN, K. 1980 Defense analysis in self psychology In Advances in Self Psychology ed. A. Goldberg. New York: Int. Univ. Press, pp. 263-278
- 890 -
PERRY J. & COOPER, S. 1986 A preliminary report on defenses and conflicts associated with borderline personality disorder J. Am. Psychoanal. Assoc. 34:865-895
RANGELL, L. 1985 Defense and resistance in psychoanalysis and life In Defense and Resistance: Historical Perspectives and Current Concepts ed. H. P. Blum. New York: Int. Univ. Press, pp. 147-174
SCHAFER, R. 1968 The mechanisms of defense Int. J. Psychoanal. 49:49-62[à]IJP.049.0049A
STOLOROW, R. & LACHMANN, F. 1980 Psychoanalysis of Developmental Arrests New York: Int. Univ. Press.
VAILLANT, G. & DRAKE, R. 1985 Maturity of ego defenses in relation to DSM-III Axis II personality disorder Arch. Gen. Psychiat. 42:597-601
VOLKAN, V. 1973 Transitional fantasies in the analysis of a narcissistic personality J. Am. Psychoanal. Assoc. 21:351-376[à]APA.021.0351A
WAELDER, R. 1930 The principle of multiple function In Psychoanalysis: Observation, Theory, Application ed. S. A. Guttman. New York: Int. Univ. Press, 1976 pp. 68-83
WALLERSTEIN, R. S. 1985 Defenses, defense mechanisms, and the structure of the mind In Defense and Resistance: Historical Perspectives and Current Concepts ed. H. P. Blum. New York: Int. Univ. Press, pp. 201-225
WINNICOTT, D. W. 1965 Ego distortion in terms of true and false self In The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment New York: Int. Univ. Press, pp. 140-152[à]IPL.064.0001A