Your Best Defense Is in Your Head
Updated: Jan 5
Michelle, a secretary for a huge law firm, gets into a huge fight with her boss, Tom. She’s angry, so she begins to raise her voice. In an instant, he’s screaming back at her. Tom starts insulting her, and eventually she gets so nervous that she spills her cup of coffee on herself. Humiliated, Michelle takes the rest of the day off, unsure of how to handle the issue.
Famous psychologist Sigmund Freud identified the ego as the part of the mind responsible for balancing selfish wants with selfless morality. Not only is the ego the brain’s referee, but it also serves as a bodyguard for the sensitive parts of the mind. Freud believed that when a person experiences trauma, ego defense mechanisms kick into gear to prevent the person from acting in socially unacceptable ways.
One course of action that Michelle’s ego can take is removing the pressing memory of the event from her conscious memory. This is called repression, and it goes further than simply refusing to talk about an issue. Repression would prevent Michelle from acting on her feelings of anger by locking the memory away to a place where she would be unable to access it without therapy.
The humiliation of the fight at work may cause Michelle’s ego to seek to return her mind to a simpler, less traumatic state. Regression causes the mind to go back to childhood, so Michelle may feel the urge to call her mother to whine about her problems or curl up into the fetal position and cry.
Michelle’s ego may alternatively cause her to act in a way that is on the polar opposite of her original feelings of anger and humiliation. This is called reaction formation, and such a response may lead Michelle to act very friendly towards her boss the next day. Forming the opposite reaction towards Tom and being overly kind to her rude boss could help stop Michelle from being aggressive towards him, the latter of which could get her fired.
Another route Michelle’s handy dandy little mental bodyguard could take is projection. Because it’s not likely for Michelle to keep her job if she openly hates her boss, she may begin to believe that everyone else in the office hates Tom, too— even if they all like him perfectly well.
While Michelle cannot act on her feelings of rage against her boss, there are other people in her life over whom she does have power. Her ego may use displacement and cause Michelle to express her feelings of rage in other parts of her life. She may get into unnecessary fights with her best friend or scream at her boyfriend to get out her anger.
Michelle may also try to rationalize the anger she feels from her traumatic experience by looking for small reasons to justify her rage. It’s dangerous for her to accept that she still feels angry about the humiliating incident weeks after its occurrence, but she may feel less crazy if her fury is directed at the fact that Tom always takes too long making his coffee or the recurring number of times that he accidentally knocks pencils off of her desk as he passes by.
All of the above options may make Michelle feel a little better, but they’d ultimately make things even worse for her. Feeling like a child or getting into a fight with her best friend won’t help Michelle get over her humiliating experience. So instead, her ego decides to do her a favor and deal with her bubbling emotions through sublimation. Sublimation, like displacement, involves taking the unacceptable feelings and putting them somewhere else, but unlike displacement, sublimation turns bad impulses into something socially sublime and beneficial.
Michelle sits down with a pen and paper and writes down all of her feelings, and when she eventually invites Tom to see her perform her piece at a Slam Poetry night, she smiles at him, able to move on.