Instincts, Desires and Ego Defenses

By Steve K.

I recently became fully aware of certain unconscious motivations that have been directing, to a degree, some of my behaviour. At a conscious level I was trying to help someone early in recovery and still believe that this motive was genuine, but underlying these efforts I was also being driven by powerful natural instincts and desires for connection and intimacy.

In the book, Alcoholics Anonymous (aka, Big Book), our basic instincts are identified as our needs for emotional and material security, social approval and acceptance (self-esteem), and the need for sexual relations. These are the natural instincts and desires that drive human behaviour and insure our survival as a species.

However, our needs in relation to our basic nature can be excessive and distorted by childhood developmental difficulties, trauma, neglect, and abuse. Unmet needs and desires can direct us unconsciously, and sadly, unethically at times. When our behaviour is unethical or against our conditioned values, we operate unconscious psychological “defences” in order to protect our self-concept or ego.

We operate defense mechanisms such as repression, denial, and rationalisation to protect ourselves from the anxiety, shame, and guilt that accompany our more unacceptable motives for behaviour. 

Defense mechanisms are associated with Freud’s model of personality structure, which consists of the id, ego, and superego. The id represents our unconscious instincts and desires and is unconcerned with morality. The superego is concerned with social rules and morals, and informs our conscience or “moral compass”, and is largely unconscious in its workings. The ego is the rational, pragmatic part of our personality and operates on both a conscious and unconscious level. The ego balances the demands of the id and superego in the practical context of reality.


When the ego feels threatened or overwhelmed by the conflict between the unmet desires of the id, and a very critical superego for example, it employs psychological defences in order to cope with these powerful forces.

In my experience the process of addiction, in all its expressions, enables our instinctual desires and unmet needs to become uninhibited by impairing the ego’s rational choice and decision making ability, and censoring our superego. The result was moral corruption in my case and severe damage to an already diminished self-esteem. The more punishing an individual’s superego is (the critical parent within the Transactional Analysis (TA) model), the greater the sense of shame, anxiety, and guilt one feels coming out of our addictive and hedonistic behaviour.

The structure of the human brain is another way of understanding our conscious and unconscious processes. The brain stem (reptilian brain) and limbic system (emotional brain) are responsible for our instinctual and emotional responses and operate at an unconscious level. The neocortex is our reasoning and decision making brain and where our conscious activity takes place. Contrary to popular belief, most of our behaviour is directed unconsciously by the instinctual and emotional centres of our brain. Brain science suggests that our conscious cortex just tends to rationalise and justify our unconscious desires and motivations.


Conscious Awareness Through Personal Inventory

An important aspect of 12-Step recovery for me is the emphasis upon taking a moral inventory and sharing it honestly with another person who understands the process. Step Ten is the regular practice of this self-reflective inventory.

I recently found myself in a situation which I felt to be unethical and largely of my own making. I was emotionally troubled by my relationship to another person and felt compelled to take a moral inventory of my feelings and actions. In doing so, I began to see mixed motives in my behaviour, but failed to fully understand how my actions were partly self-serving and dishonest.

I decided to share my thoughts and feelings about the situation with another person in recovery who knows me quite well. In talking through my actions and feelings, and more importantly receiving very honest feedback, I began to fully see through my defenses of repression, denial, and rationalisation. I can now see that I was consciously focused upon an acceptable motive in my relationship to another (which was genuine), while to some extent unconsciously using the opportunity to meet my needs for connection and intimacy. This greater awareness brought with it feelings of shame and guilt, and the realisation that my behaviour could have caused harm to a vulnerable human being. Fortunately, I’ve been able to correct the situation and be more honest in the relationship.

I think it’s important to be honest with, compassionate, and accepting of myself in relation to my natural needs for connection and intimacy with others, and not collaborate with my very critical superego in this respect. My needs for emotional security were not adequately met while growing up, and I’m aware of my tendency to feel ashamed of them as an adult, finding it now very difficult to get my needs met through intimate relationships. I’m realising the importance of being honest and vulnerable in relation to my emotional needs and that it’s ok to try to get them met. However, in saying this, I must always be respectful of others’ boundaries and vulnerabilities, and not attempt to get my legitimate needs met at the expense of another. I want to choose love over fear in how I relate to myself and other people.

Taking a fearless and balanced moral inventory in respect of my instincts, needs, and motivations helps me see through my ego defenses, hopefully guiding me to a loving connection with myself and others. I need help, though, from trusted friends to provide me with honest feedback, as my powerful unconscious drives and ego defenses are always attempting to run the show.

I’ve also learnt that it’s important to challenge my overly critical superego and the anxiety, shame, and guilt that it creates. My sense of shame can cause me to deny my natural needs and desires for connection and intimacy, resulting in a sense of isolation and disconnection, familiar to those of us who’ve suffered from the loneliness and spiritual bankruptcy of our addiction.









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