One of the central goals of yoga is seeing the world clearly. But when it comes to knowing ourselves, we often lack self-awareness about our real nature. In the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, this misperception is known as avidyā. It’s not just yoga, though, that is concerned with how we see ourselves.
Psychologists have long studied the ways in which our minds can unconsciously deceive us. These ego defenses, as they’re known, help us deal with the fear and anxiety that arises when our perception of ourselves comes into conflict with our true nature.
Here’s a quick summary of the many ego defenses we may turn to throughout our lives.
Repression is the unconscious “forgetting” of urges, emotions, ideas, or memories that you find unacceptable. You can repress traumatic events from your childhood or an interest in art that doesn’t fit with your “proper” career path. Repression relates to internal stimuli, while denial applies to external ones.
Distortion involves reshaping reality to suit your inner needs, such as seeing your childhood tormenter as a true friend.
Reaction formation is superficially taking on emotions or impulses that are opposite to your true ones. For example, a very religious man who unconsciously feels guilty for finding women attractive may lecture them about how they dress.
Projection is when you attribute your own unacceptable thoughts and feelings to another person. A man who fantasizes about having an affair with women other than his wife may suspect that she is cheating on him.
Splitting involves focusing only on the positive or negative aspects of beliefs, actions, or objects. This allows you to avoid the anxiety that occurs when faced with a complex problem or issue by dividing it into clearly opposing sides. Children of divorced parents may do this by seeing one parent as the “favorite.” This is also common in politics, where issues are artificially split into two opposing viewpoints.
Idealization occurs when you over-exaggerate the positive qualities of a person, idea, or object, and downplay the negative ones. This also involves projecting your needs and desires onto that person, idea, or object. For example, we may see our partner, job, or new car as perfect, and ignore all the “negative” traits, which can be a shock later on when we gain a clearer view of reality.
Intellectualization uses cold, abstract thinking to repress uncomfortable feelings. This may also involve describing emotional events in scientific or clinical terms. This is not the same as rationalization, which may include things like convincing yourself that you didn’t really want the job you weren’t hired for.
Displacement involves shifting your thoughts, desires, or emotions onto someone or something less important, like taking out anger at your spouse on your car.
Sublimation is similar to displacement, but the thoughts, desires, or emotions are channeled in a more socially-acceptable manner. For example, you may go for a run if you are angry, or clean your house when anxious.
Altruism is a more mature ego defense, like sublimation. With this, you channel your fear or anxiety toward helping others, such as by volunteering or becoming a doctor. This doesn’t eliminate the anxiety or fear, though; it just redirects your actions.
Humor allows you to diffuse anxiety or fear by seeing the ridiculous or absurd nature of situations, people, events, or emotions. This makes them less threatening to your ego.
Asceticism involves denying yourself material goods, emotional attachment, or other aspects of life that bring both joy and anxiety. For example, if you don’t own a house, you will never have to fear losing it. Likewise, if you never marry, you don’t have to worry about rejection.
Everyone uses different ego defenses to differing degrees, all with the goal of protecting their fragile ego from internal and external threats. In a post on Psychology Today, psychiatrist and philosopher Neel Burton, M.D., said that you could argue that “the self is nothing but the sum of its ego defenses.”
But our ego is not all that we have. According to yoga and other spiritual traditions, underneath our egotistical outer turmoil is an inner Self that doesn’t need protecting — just revealing.
“Established in Self-Realization, one is not moved even by the greatest calamity.”
~ Bhagavad Gita