Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Saving Face – Emotions and Ego-Defence Mechanisms

Photo Copyright Janet Cameron
As a writer, it's useful to know a few things about emotions and how we - and our characters - can fool ourselves.

Many of the ego-defence mechanisms we use are unwitting distortions of reality. Keeping up appearances is a matter of personal pride and human dignity. While self-deception blinds us to both our flaws and our underlying motivation, we allow emotions to get the better of us. Under duress, some people become more aggressive, while others become passive. Some might try to compromise or substitute.

Compensatory Behaviour

Some people compensate by acting up, exhibiting odd behaviour and wearing strange or provocative clothing. Of course, not all eccentrics or colourful characters are necessarily covering up for their inadequacies, but those who do may be trying to avoid their problems and responsibilities by over-compensation.

Imagination and fantasy can also provide an escape for many people. Unable to fulfil their needs within their social network, they resort of fulfilling themselves within their personal fantasy world. Yet another version of this need for escape is the person who over-identifies with a high-achieving person, thereby basking in their friend’s success, while merely “coasting along” themselves and content to avoid personal effort.

Sublimation means that those painful energies are channelled into some other, less challenging, activity. Such people may suddenly become good Samaritans, helping out wherever they can, and in doing so, managing to avoid the problem situation. A variation on this is reaction formation, when we focus on the very opposite of a preferred behaviour. Maybe you’d really like to slob out for a day or two. Instead, you clean your house from top to bottom, wash the curtains and polish all the furniture.

Passing on the Pain

Projection occurs when those properties we dislike in ourselves are attributed onto others. If we are sometimes untruthful, we will look for falsehood in our associates. We might blame others for faults we know we have been guilty of in our own past. We may imagine we are being criticised and take offence when none is intended. This projection of fault is the reason for the term “scapegoat” which comes from the Bible and represents a goat, symbolically laden with the sins of the Israelites and sent into the wilderness. (In Biblical terms, Jesus took on the role of scapegoat by dying for our sins.)

Displacement is a dangerous ego-defence mechanism. When angry about someone’s action towards us, instead of confronting the person we may turn our wrath on someone else. (Like the man who got a parking ticket – on arriving home, he kicked the cat.)  The same may happen after a row with a partner or a superior at a business meeting. People who are in control of others may vent the irritation they already feel against spouse or boss on their own staff who are, of course, less able to retaliate.

Rationialisation and Repression

A common defence mechanism is to rationalise, digging deep down inside ourselves to find good, solid reasons for our actions – even though we may not have thought of them before we acted.

Alternatively, we may “selectively” forget. This is the when something is so painful or repellent to us, we cannot bear to think about it, and so we repress it. This can be a serious problem, as it prevents us from addressing our difficulty and learning from it.

The Need to Save Face and Learn

It’s helpful to be able to identify these ego defence mechanisms, both in ourselves and in others. We all need to save face sometimes. Understanding this most basic of our emotional needs, it helps to be able to put ourselves in another’s situation. “Least said soonest mended,” is, on occasion, much the best policy in my opinion. At other times, especially in teaching or therapy situations, it may be possible to tactfully address the issue in a way that is helpful and unthreatening. Change can happen, more smoothly, if the adjustments suggested are small and achievable. Calling for too great a shift in thinking and behaviour may further alienate the other person as it challenges existing life patterns and might, therefore, increase their resistance.

Mostly importantly, for teachers in Adult Education, is to convey to students that they can make mistakes without being humiliated or put down. “If you are trying something and it doesn’t work – stop and try something new,” says Colin Rose in Accelerated Learning. If people are embarrassed by a mistake, they will not want to try again. Also, it can be a good thing to help people see “The Big Picture” so that they understand the relevance of what they are learning and become fully engaged in the learning experience. It’s a great aid to have a framework, so we can see clearly how the many parts fit into the whole.


Teaching Adults, Alan Rogers, Open University Press, Milton Keynes, 1986.

Accelerated Learning, Colin Rose, Accelerated Learning Systems Ltd. Aylesbury, Bucks, 1991



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