PSYCHOTHERAPY – The Story of Anna Freud

Anna Freud was the daughter of the founder of Psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. She was born in Vienna in 1895 when her fathers radical theories of sex and the mind were starting to make him famous across Europe. She became a school teacher and then a psychoanalyst and pioneered the treatment of children. Establishing clinics and nurseries for children who were war victims, survivors of the holocaust or just generally troubled by their lives. Perhaps most importantly for us. She is our finest guide to what we call DEFENCE MECHANISMS which she described best in her 1936 book The Ego and Mechanisms of Defence.

The book laid out for the first time the core idea. That we instinctively try to protect our ego (our acceptable picture of who we are) with a variety of defences.

The problem is that in the act of defending ourselves against pain in the immediate term. We harm our longer-term chances of dealing with reality and therefore of developing and maturing as a result. Anna Freud highlighted ten key types of defence mechanisms. Firstly, Denial-Denial is when we dont admit there is a problem. We think things like: I enjoy drinking very much and I sometimes get quite bad hangovers. But I can handle it.

If other people try to get us to face up to the problem, we tend to react very badly.

The Immediate Survival Mechanism

The short term instinct to feel alright about oneself means refusing to recognise our need for change. Projection In projection, you attribute a bad feeling you have in someone else. For example, you might develop the impression that your partner is going to be extremely critical if you dont make more money this year than last. But in reality they may be quite understanding and sympathetic. The harsh, bitter thoughts are not in your partner. They are in you and they came from, lets say, your mother. But you have given the negative feelings, which you dont want to recognise in yourself, to someone else. Thats projection.

Turning Against The Self

This is when we think badly of ourselves as a way of escaping from an even worse thought. That someone we hope loves us doesnt actually. Anna Freud learnt that children do this a lot. A child abused by a parent will typically seek refuge in a thought which, though grim. It is less awful than the alternatives. He or she will think: I must be bad and worthless thats why my parent is behaving this way towards me. So, really the thought goes I still have a good parent. Its painful to think were bad and worthless. Of course but for a fragile child especially. It can feel less catastrophic than the alternative: thinking were in the hands of a parent who doesnt care.

Read More: Carl Jung’s Theory on Introverts and Extraverts


We sublimate when we redirect unacceptable thoughts or emotions – often about sex or violence – into higher and finer channels. Many artists and especially musicians have used sublimation to turn negative life experiences, like – drug addiction, social ills, family problems, and so on into popular and resonant works of art. Sublimation is still a defence mechanism, but its one of the very best.


Anna Freud believed that when things become tough, we often regress to a way of behaving that we practiced when we were a younger. In particular, we do what children typically do, which is evade responsibility. It is – for the child – always someone elses fault, usually the parents – and they should put it right. IN regression, we adopt an infantile sense of our own purity and innocence: the rest of the world is to blame. They should sort it out. For Anna Freud, its normal for many otherwise perfectly sane adults to go through regressive moments when under pressure.

It only becomes a problem when it goes on too long.


Rationalisation is a smart sounding excuse for our actions (or what happens to us). But its carefully tailored to get the conclusion we feel we need: that we are innocent, nice, worthy. After being rejected for a job, for example, the defensive rationaliser will say: it was a boring company or I never wanted the job anyway.

They may have very much desired the job, but it can be agonising and deeply humiliating to admit this to the ego. Intellectualisation Intellectualisation is similar. The scarring sense of loss, guilt, betrayal and anger on breaking up with a partner might be neutralised by thinking about the history of the late Roman Empire or the governments plan to raise interest rates.

Many intellectuals are not merely thinking a lot. They are also guilty of intellectualisation; which means making sure their researches keep a range of more pertinent issues at bay.

Reaction Formation

Reaction formation involves doing the opposite of our initial, unacceptable feelings. Someone who has a strong interest in the sexuality of teenagers may, for instance, join a religion with a particular emphasis on abstinence among the young. We are often guilty of reaction formation in childhood. When we are embarrassed about being attracted to a classmate, we might be mean or aggressive towards them, instead of admitting that we like them.


Displacement is the redirection of a (usually aggressive) desire to a substitute recipient, usually someone who is less threatening or easier to blame. So a classic case is someone who may feel threatened by their boss, comes home and starts shouting at their partner.


Fantasy avoids problems by imagining them away or disassociating oneself from realityfrom daydreaming to reading literature to looking at porn.

Anna Freuds tone when writing about defence mechanisms is tender and generous. She knows these defences are natural, but she also observes how many difficulties they bring in their wake. She wrote her great book as a way of helping us see a little better what were doing, in the hope that we would, in future, be a little more mature and a little less – as we still say in unknowing tribute to her defensive towards those around us..


Freud, Anna.2018.The Ego and Mechanisms of Defence.London:Taylor & Francis

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