Why are the grapes always sour? – Understanding Defense Mechanism
When the fabled fox walked away after failing to grab the grapes hanging from a vine, he told himself the grapes were sour anyway. If you aren’t aware of the story, here’s the gist:
A fox is hungry.
He sees grapes in a vine.
He tries to get hold of the grapes.
He fails all his attempts.
He walks away.
He tells himself that the grapes were sour.
This is a classic example of a defense mechanism.
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Why defense mechanism?
So why did the fox call the grapes sour? Because the fox did not want to admit his failure. Failing is a negative feeling and to protect itself from undergoing negativity, he projected his negativity onto the grapes. He was using one of the defense mechanisms called Projection.
We use defense mechanisms to protect ourselves from anxiety, stress and negative emotions. It helps us to avoid unwanted and unpleasant situations, it explains and smoothens the otherwise rough circumstances. It saves us from the hurt that we would have encountered in unexpected events. It fortifies our bubble and defends us from the big bad world.
What is a defense mechanism?
Defense mechanism is a mental process that occurs involuntarily as a response to cope with conflicting environments, both external and internal. APA Dictionary of Psychology defines defense mechanism as “an unconscious reaction pattern employed by the ego to protect itself from the anxiety that arises from psychic conflict.”
Sigmund Freud first used the word “defense mechanism” in his 1984 paper “The Neuro-Psychoses of Defense”. His daughter Anna Freud conducted further research and defined defense mechanisms in detail in her book “The Ego and Mechanisms of Defense”. She has mentioned about 20 different defenses in her book and worked extensively on 5 namely repression, regression, projection, reaction formation, and sublimation.
The 5 Defense Mechanisms
In this mechanism, people tend to push their thoughts, feelings or urges out of conscious awareness to repress a traumatic memory or event.
When people tend to go back to an earlier stage of development in order to avoid facing the present conflict, this is called regression. For example, a 13 year old boy starts wetting his bed after an unpleasant incident at school.
3. Reaction formation
People react completely differently to the situation they are in and form an opposite exaggerated reaction to what they are actually feeling. For example, a disgruntled employee buys coffee for his boss who he actually loathes.
Here, people project their feelings (or negative emotions) on others to escape their own feelings. Remember the fox?
5. Sublimation or Displacement
Sublimation is when a person channels their unacceptable urges and transfers it to some productive activities. For example, when a person is angry she starts painting or sculpting.
In displacement, people do not react to the ones who provoke them but pour it out on someone they can dominate. For example, a disgruntled employee takes out his frustration for his employer on his children.
The slippery slope
Looking at the brief explanations above, defense mechanisms seem less harmless and more helpful. It may be true especially in the face of real danger because it is our instinctual drive to always protect ourselves first.
But what if defense mechanisms happen even in the absence of real danger or in perceived danger?
What if defense mechanisms occur routinely and become a habit?
What if we stop recognizing our real feelings and emotions?
That is the slippery slope we must be aware of. As long as our defense mechanisms serve its purpose of defending us, they are helpful and harmless. However, we have to be aware when they cross over, in which case we must seek help.