Posts Tagged ‘Anna Freud’

Why Dumb Behavior From Smart People?!

August 20, 2009

Dumb behavior from Smart People

Sigmund Freud was the first to identify what he called, “neurosis”. The behavior patterns that he described as “neurotic” were thought to be motivated by the escape or avoidance of fears and anxieties–perhaps even terror–of accurate perceptions of one’s own self and the stressful events encountered in life. The idea was that some people engage in self-defeating escape or avoidance actions because such actions quickly reduced fear and anxiety. Of course, the big problem is that these unfortunate people only momentarily relieved their upset at the expense of ever solving the problems that threatened to harm or destroy them.

I like Albert Ellis’  more pithy modern definition of neurosis: According to him, neurosis is “dumb behavior from smart people”. I do not wish to ridicule or insult anyone. We all have done, and will continue to do, dumb things from time to time. The challenge for all of us is to learn to behave more and more effectively as soon as we can. Effective people learn to behave in ways that achieve greater happiness and less pain in both the short run and in the long run.

Habitual dumb (self and other damaging) behavior patterns nearly always involve defending ones-self against fear and anxiety by using methods that distort reality, temporarily relive stress, and predictably lead to more problems and failure in the future. Freud identified a variety of damaging self-protective strategies as “Ego Defense Mechanisms”. The following are some examples:


In spite of very strong evidence of a problem, the individual forcefully argues that it does not exist and there is really nothing to worry about. A corollary of this is, ” I don’t have a problem! Someone else has a problem and that is causing me problems!”


I do not have a problem–you have the problem! It is always the other person or people who is/are creating the difficulty: they are always wrong, stupid, selfish, unkind, hostile, untrusting, and untrustworthy, etc.. “I or we are never the problem”.


Our fearful and anxiety evoking thoughts are automatically sent to our unconscious mind and we don’t think or worry about them any more. A common example is that we have all, without knowingly making a conscious choice, just “though of lots of other things”. If we make a consious choice to think about other less upsetting or threatening things Freud called this strategy Suppression.

Displaced aggression

Frequently, when people are stressed, upset or hurt, they more easily become angry at innocent victims who are “handy”, easy to victimize and harmless to us. Most of us will admit to being unjustly unkind, irritable or harsh to someone who is close to us simply because we have had a bad day. The less of this displacement of frustration and anger we do to others , the better. Like all defense mechanisms, this one not only fails to solve the original problem, it creates even more problems.

Obsessive-compulsive behavior

People can keep themselves occupied by thinking nonstop about safe, but irrelevant ideas. They can also avoid upset by doing safe but irrelevant things ,over and over again, to avoid confronting the real fears and anxieties that should be dealt with effectively. Such individuals are ineffectual at managing their personal problems because they spend all of their time and energy dusting, cleaning, arranging, and planning, etc. They may also frenetically engage in various forms of entertainment (sports, gambling, or sexual activities, etc.). The bigger their personal problems are, the more intensely they engage in irrelevant behavior and the more incompetent they become.

Sigmund Freud’s daughter, Anna, devoted much of her career to studying these “Ego Defense Mechanisms”. There are several other self-destructive defense mechanisms that people use to avoid fear and anxiety and I will discuss these as they become relevant to our discussions later on.

In the final analysis, we all do some these kinds of things from time to time. But it is important that we try to be aware when we are acting in these ways, work to be honest with ourselves and others, and make the necessary self-corrections wherever we can. If we use the preceding ego defense mechanisms to excess, they are powerful impediments to effective problem solving and they normally generate even more complex problems of their own.

Individuals who over-use these incompetent coping methods generally live miserable and ineffective lives. The same is true for sociocultures, whose leaders and people have fallen prey to such psychological defense mechanisms throughout history. Perhaps the old saying about, and image of, “Nero at the fiddle as Rome burned” (actually Nero did not fiddle) can serve as a general warning to us individually and collectively.

We must identify our problems clearly and then have the courage to attack them intelligently.


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