Freud for Thought

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The famous psychoanalyst's theories on defense mechanisms are on display all around us

By Kristine Keller

Sigmund Freud is a pervasive figure in popular culture and psychology. And although some believe his methods are antiquated or unable to be measured scientifically, there's no denying his theories' predominant influence on human interactions and behavior. Several years later one of Freud's greatest contributions to the human experience has been his exploration of defense mechanisms. You can find these protective processes firing from all sidewalks in New York City, which is why they deserve an in-depth look at now.

1. Denial: Ah yes, it's not just a body of water in Egypt. Denial is perhaps the most popular of the bunch and is used as a strategy for coping and delaying sad thoughts until you're ready to face reality. I use this mollifying mechanism whenever one of my favorite restaurants closes up shop downtown. I still haven't come to terms with the fact that my favorite coffee shop on Grand Street closed in November so I'll be showing up there today.

2. Reaction formation: This is when you exhibit behavior completely opposite from the values and beliefs you actually uphold. Years ago U.S. Congressman Gary Condit vehemently advocated family values and chastised President Clinton for his affair with Monica Lewinsky. It was later learned that Condit had been conducting an illicit affair of his own with an intern in Washington. People use this defense mechanism in order to conceal their own true desires and beliefs. Condit used reaction formation as a way of distracting others from learning about his own indiscretions. So, if you express extreme hatred towards The Vampire Diaries on the CW, I'm on to you. Chances are you've seen every episode.

3. Rationalization: This is where you make excuses to protect yourself from behavior deemed unacceptable. You might justify taking cabs home past 9 p.m. at night by telling yourself that the "subway is unsafe" when really you're just too lazy to walk the extra two blocks to the F train.

4. Repression: Placing undesirable or forbidden thoughts entirely in one's unconscious instead of confronting them. This mechanism has received the most amount of scrutiny over the years, especially in courtrooms where witnesses recount memories of a crime that they repressed or forgot, only to uncover years later. If only Freud could serve as an expert witness on this topic.

5. Regression: Reverting to earlier stages of development rather than handling misfortune or unpredictable situations like an adult. These people find it easier to reject responsibility and use childish behavior as a Peter Pan escape from reality. I'm pretty sure I saw Lindsey Lohan on Prince Street last weekend having a tantrum and sucking on a lollipop. Freud would have loved it.

6. Displacement: I witnessed this mechanism on Bowery Street last weekend. In displacement you transfer your anger or unhappiness from your original subject to someone more acceptable. I saw a dude try and cut the long line into a new night lounge only to be turned away by the brawny bouncer. Looking noticeably irate, the guy turned to his girlfriend and boiled over, erupting like Mount Vesuvius over Pompeii. His aspersions towards her were evidently his way of releasing his frustration and anger. Careful guys, unconditional love only goes so far!

7. Projection: This is when you project your own unacceptable or undesirable thoughts onto someone else. If you've flirted with the idea of having an affair but realize it's wrong, you might wrongfully accuse your significant other of cheating instead. Labeling your own illicit thoughts as someone else's, don't you feel better now?

8. Intellectualization: When reasoning and logic are used to block out emotional or depressing thoughts. If your boyfriend has just moved out of the apartment you once shared, instead of melting into a weeping mess, you might conduct a financial analysis to prove that this is better monetarily for you in the end. You favor pragmatics in lieu of hysteria and tell yourself that you'll actually save money since he won't be using all of your toothpaste and Bumble and Bumble surf spray.

9. Sublimation: Turning a less acceptable pursuit into something more mainstream. If you like to cut things it might be in your best interest to become a surgeon. Just make sure you stay in the lines.

If only Freud could witness these defense mechanisms working their way through the streets of downtown New York City today.

Kristine received her Master's in Psychology from NYU. She currently works at Vanity Fair. E-mail her at

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