Chapter 6:  Anna Freud – Ego Psychology

Part 2: Anna Freud and Ego Psychology

Anna Freud (1895-1982) was the youngest of Sigmund and Martha Freud’s six children, and the only one to pursue a career in psychoanalysis.  However, this did not come about immediately, and Anna Freud never attended medical school as her father had. Therefore, she was one of the first lay psychoanalysts, which is an important consideration for all mental health practitioners today (since Freud and most other early psychoanalysts were actually psychiatrists who had attended medical school).  In 1971, a survey conducted among psychiatrists and psychoanalysts identified Anna Freud as the most outstanding colleague among both groups (see Peters, 1985).

Anna Freud lived with her parents until Sigmund Freud’s death in 1939.  She was a lively child, with a reputation for being mischievous. Although she always enjoyed a good relationship with her father, it was her older sister, Sophie, who was her father’s favorite daughter (Peters, 1985).  Anna was quite intelligent, but never attended college. She did, however, attend private schools, eventually entering the Cottage Lyceum in Vienna during fifth grade. She soon entered the Cottage Lyceum’s high school, graduating in 1912.  Since she had not chosen a career, she traveled to England to improve her English, one of several languages she had learned. Upon returning to Vienna, she became a teacher at the Cottage Lyceum’s elementary school. She was very popular among her students, one of whom described her as “such a marvelous and simple figure that I loved her deeply at that time” (cited in Peters, 1985).  Her popularity likely resulted from her own love of teaching and for her students (Coles, 1992). Anna Freud considered this experience as a teacher to have been very valuable for her later career as a child psychoanalyst.

This is a black and white photograph of Sigmund Freud and his daughter, Anna, walking outside in the grass. Sigmund is on the left and Anna is on the right. Sigmund is carrying a walking stick in his right hand and a pipe in his left hand. Anna is holding her father's left elbow with her right hand. She is wearing an ankle length dress with an apron.
Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Division. (2007, January 3). Sigmund en Anna. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons at Licensed under CCO.

Even before she graduated, Anna Freud had begun reading her father’s works.  But it was not until 1918 that she entered into psychoanalysis. A father psychoanalyzing his own daughter would be considered inappropriate today, but at that time, the entire field was still quite new and many aspects of it were still experimental.  In any case, Anna Freud subsequently became one of her father’s most unwavering supporters and an important psychoanalyst in her own right. In 1920 she attended the International Psychoanalytical Congress with her father, and 2 years later, she was a member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society and began presenting her own papers.  In 1923, Anna began her own practice treating children.

As Anna Freud was developing her theories regarding the psychoanalysis of children, Melanie Klein was developing her theories in England.  There were significant disagreements between them, including a symposium in 1927 organized specifically to provide an opportunity for Klein to publicly attack Anna Freud’s theories (Peters, 1985).  After Anna Freud arrived to stay in England with her family in 1938, the conflict between them threatened to split the British Psychoanalytic Society. However, during World War II, a series of discussion forums resulted in the establishment of parallel training courses for the two groups.

After the war began, Anna Freud helped to set up the Hampstead War Nursery to provide foster care for over 80 children, a number that rose to a total of 190 children over several years (Peters, 1985).  In addition to simply providing care for the children, she hoped to provide the children with continuity in their relationships with staff and family. With her long-time friend, Dorothy Burlingham, she studied the effects of stress on young children in wartime.  This work continued after the war when she had an opportunity to help provide care for six orphans who had survived the Theresienstadt concentration camp (Coles, 1992; Peters, 1985).

Throughout the rest of her life, she remained devoted to her work at the Hampstead War Nursery.  She helped to establish the Hampstead Child Therapy Course (in 1947) and a children’s clinic. Eventually, the nursery became known more simply as the Hampstead Clinic, and Anna Freud became one of the major figures in psychoanalysis.  She often traveled to lecture in the United States, and in the 1970s she was a co-author, with two professors from Yale University, of two books about governmental involvement in the lives of children who have been emotionally deprived and socially disadvantaged.  She received many honors, including honorary doctorates from Clark University (where her father had lectured during his trip to America), Harvard University, and Vienna University. The honorary medical degree she received from Vienna University was awarded in 1972, only 1 year after she returned to visit her native city for the first time since the Freuds had escaped the Nazis in 1938.

Shortly after her death, the Hampstead Clinic was renamed the Anna Freud Centre, in her honor, and in 1986, her former home became the Freud Museum.  Although she has been considered by some to have done little more than continue her father’s work, she was a pioneer in both ego psychology and the psychoanalysis of children.  Accordingly, she deserves to be considered one of the most influential neo-Freudians. Much of the information in this biography can be found on The Anna Freud Centre website, as well as much more information on the center itself (

This is a color image of the Freud Museum in London.
Rup11. (2010, April 18). Freud Museum London 2. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons at Licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0.

Ego Psychology and the Defense Mechanisms

In 1936, Anna Freud published perhaps her most influential book, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense (A. Freud, 1936/1966).  She began by stating a redefinition of the field of psychoanalysis.  There was a general bias, in her opinion, among many psychoanalysts to focus on the deep instinctual impulses of the id at the expense of considering the ego.  However, since the id is always unconscious, it’s processes can never be observed directly. It may also be difficult to observe the processes of the ego as well, but at least the ego exists partially within the conscious mind.  Since it is the ego that observes both the impulses of the id and the restraints of the superego, and since the ego is available to the psychoanalyst, she concluded “this means that the proper field for our observation is always the ego.” (A. Freud, 1936/1966)

Although the ego is observable, that doesn’t mean that a person’s thoughts and behaviors always make sense.  As the id demands the satisfaction of its impulses, the ego attempts to restrain the id, in accordance with the external demands of society and the internal representation of those demands in the superego.  When these factors come into conflict, and the ego cannot easily resolve the conflict, anxiety develops. In order to help alleviate that anxiety, and to continue restraining the impulses of the id, the ego resorts to defense mechanisms.  In so doing, the ego transforms the conflict somewhat and attempts to keep both the conflict and the basis for the conflict unconscious. When an individual is suffering psychologically and has sought help from a therapist, according to Anna Freud, the psychoanalyst arrives on the scene as someone who disturbs this fragile peace.  This is because “it is the task of the analyst to bring into consciousness that which is unconscious…” (A. Freud, 1936/1966).

In order to understand how the ego uses defense mechanisms, it is necessary to understand the defense mechanisms themselves and how they function.  Some defense mechanisms are seen as protecting us from within from the instinctual impulses of the id (e.g., repression); other defense mechanisms protect us from external threats (e.g., denial).  When treating a patient, the goal of the psychoanalyst is to determine how much a given defense mechanism contributes to the symptoms and to the ego resistance of the patient (in other words, resistance to therapy).  To help understand these issues, Anna Freud identified and discussed ten defense mechanisms as being commonly recognized in the field of psychoanalysis: regression, repression, reaction-formation, isolation, undoing, projection, introjection, turning against the self, reversal, and sublimation.  See the table below for a description of some of the defense mechanisms most commonly discussed today.

The defense mechanisms are not all available to an individual at the same time.  As originally proposed by her father, Anna Freud believed that the defense mechanisms developed with the structures of personality (the id, ego, and superego).  For example, projection and introjection depend on the differentiation of the ego from the outside world, so they would not be available to the ego as defense mechanisms until the ego had sufficiently developed (and perhaps, differentiated into the superego as well; A. Freud, 1936/1966).  This became an important point of contention, however, with the English school of analysis that included Melanie Klein. Whereas Anna Freud and her colleagues believed that projection and introjection would not be available in early childhood, since the structures of personality have not adequately developed, members of the English school believed that projection and introjection were a necessary part of that development.  Although this debate and others between Freudian and Kleinian theorists became rather bitter (Mitchell & Black, 1995), Anna Freud did acknowledge the following:

These differences of opinion bring home to us the fact that the chronology of psychic processes is still one of the most obscure fields of analytic theory…So a classification of the defense mechanisms according to position in time inevitably partakes of all the doubt and uncertainty which even today attach to chronological pronouncements in analysis.  It will probably be best to abandon the attempt so to classify them and, instead, to study in detail the situations which call for the defensive reactions. (pg. 53; A. Freud, 1936/1966)

The final outcome of personality development, whether primarily normal or abnormal, depends on the overall process of these defense mechanisms throughout development.  It is natural that defense mechanisms are called upon by the ego during both waves of psychosexual development. Whether or not the ego develops as a yielding and flexible structure depends on the strength of the instincts during development and the environment in which the individual develops.  If instinctual demands are excessively urgent during development, the ego will redouble its defensive activities. This can stiffen the resistance of the ego to the instinctual impulses, leading to symptoms and inhibitions that remain throughout life (A. Freud, 1936/1966). At least, they might remain until the patient is successfully analyzed by a qualified psychoanalyst.

What is the status of defense mechanisms in psychology today?  Clinical psychologists have always found the concept of defense mechanisms useful, but for a period of time, defense mechanisms did not receive much attention from academic psychologists (Cramer, 2000).  The primary reason for this was that early studies aimed at demonstrating the existence of the defense mechanisms and their processes were not promising. However, these are particularly difficult processes to study, since much of the processing occurs unconsciously (Cramer, 2000; Kernberg, 2004).  According to Cramer (2000), as the various fields of psychology developed, they began to examine psychological processes that received new names within the particular field, even though the processes being studied were actually defense mechanisms that had already been discovered within psychoanalysis.  For example, what cognitive psychologists describe as selective attention may involve the defenses of splitting and dissociation; in social psychology, scapegoating is a form of displacement; and in developmental psychology, a child’s verbal report of positive emotion while their facial expression clearly represents negative emotion is a classic case of denial (for a variety of examples and references see Cramer, 2000).  Therefore, one can conclude that defense mechanisms and defensive processes, have remained an important aspect of psychology and psychotherapy since they were first described by Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer in 1895 (Freud & Breuer, 1895/2004).

Common Defense Mechanisms
Repression Repression involves blocking an impulse from conscious expression.  Examples include forgetting a traumatic event, such as sexual abuse, or being unaware of hostile feelings toward family members.
Regression When faced with difficult situations that we cannot resolve, we may regress to behavior indicative of an earlier stage of development.  For example, when we are very sick, we may act as helpless as if we were an infant and hope that someone will take care of us.
Denial Denial refers to simply refusing to believe an unpleasant reality.  For example, when someone is told they have a terminal illness, they may deny it and refuse to follow treatment recommendations.
Projection Projection involves attributing our own negative impulses to another person.  If, for example, we want to see another person fail, perhaps to make us feel superior, we may claim that they are trying to interfere with our success.
Reaction Formation A reaction-formation is the process of suppressing unacceptable impulses and adopting an opposite course of action.  For example, a parent who resents having children may shower them with love.
Identification We often model our behavior after people we admire, or adjust our behavior based on people we fear.  Internalizing this process of identifying with others is primarily how the superego develops, how we adopt the rules and guidelines of our culture and make them our own.
Displacement Sometimes we cannot respond directly to unpleasant situations, so we displace (or transfer) our impulses onto another object.  For example, if your boss yells at you at work, you then go home and yell at people in your family.
Rationalization Rationalization is the process of finding logical reasons for unacceptable behavior or thoughts.  For example, a professor may constantly battle with administrators about policies, while claiming that he/she only has the best interests of their students in mind.
Isolation Isolation involves separating the anxiety-provoking aspects of an event from one’s other thoughts and behaviors.  For example, following the death of a child, one parent may set aside their grief in order to be able to provide support for the other parent.
Sublimation Sometimes referred to as the successful defense mechanism, sublimation is the process of channeling unacceptable impulses into socially acceptable forms.  It is often said that great artists must suffer before they can find the inspiration to master their craft.

Anna Freud believed that even normal personality development involved the common use of defense mechanisms.  Consider your own personality. Are there situations that make you anxious and, if so, can you recognize the defense mechanisms you rely on?  Do you have a common defense mechanism that you use more than others?

Supplemental Material

10 Psychological Defense Mechanisms

This video [4:11] describes the following defense mechanisms and provides an example of each:  Displacement, Projection, Rationalization, Reaction Formation, Regression, Repression/Denial, Sublimation, Dissociation, Intellectualization,  and Compensation.



Text:  Kelland, M. (2017). Personality Theory. OER Commons. Retrieved October 28, 2019, from  Licensed under CC-BY-4.0.

Psych2Go.  (2018, July 24).  10 psychological defense mechanisms. [Video File].  Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.


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PSY321 Course Text: Theories of Personality Copyright © by The American Women's College Psychology Department and Michelle McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.