Altruism, for example, is (contentiously) thought of as a form of sublimation in which a person copes with his anxiety by stepping outside himself and helping others. By focusing on the needs of others, people in altruistic careers such as nursing or teaching may be able to push their needs into the background. 1
I don’t think of myself as altruistic. I’ve always understood “altruism” as meaning, more or less, “unselfishness”; to be more precise, I’ve accepted the dictionary definition of “altruism” as “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others”.
I look in the mirror, and I don’t see an altruist. (I see a graybeard with store-bought teeth and a bad haircut.)
However, the good news (and the reason I'm addressing this topic) is that my psychiatrist recently told me that I am, in fact, altruistic. He praised me for having adopted, via my volunteer work, what he called the “more mature defense mechanism” of altruism: more mature, that is, than inferior defense mechanisms like denial, repression, and acting out—immature mechanisms which have characterized much of my life.
I have to admit, I did not realize that altruism was a defense mechanism. That is why—well, one reason why—I am not a professional mental health provider. If I had been properly educated and trained in the field of mental health, I would have known that altruism, admirable as it may seem to the untrained eye, is really “a form of sublimation in which a person copes with his anxiety by stepping outside himself and helping others.”
I was certainly aware that helping others is a great way to feel better about one’s self. I just wasn’t aware that altruism was clinically tagged as a “defense mechanism,” albeit one of the prestigious “high adaptive level” mechanisms (along with humor, self-assertion, self-observation, and several others). Such mechanisms, it turns out, “result in optimal adaptation in the handling of stressors. These defenses usually maximize gratification and allow the conscious awareness of feelings, ideas, and their consequences. They also promote an optimum balance among conflicting motives.” 2
Who knew? Here I thought that, working with the National Alliance on Mental Illness, I was just spending time doing things I enjoy and working for a cause about which I happen, for obvious reasons, to be passionate. Instead, I’ve been maximizing gratification and promoting an optimum balance among my conflicting motives; I’ve taken a long-overdue step towards psychological maturity!
Now that I’ve learned that altruism is a mature ego-defense mechanism, I can’t wait to find out what love—to take just one example at random—might be, psychologically speaking, and where it falls on the scale of ego defenses. What would we do without trained mental health professionals to explain to us what we’re really doing, as opposed to what we just think we’re doing?
1 http://outre-monde.com/tag/mature-ego-defence-mechanisms/ The quote is from Neel Burton, kudos to whom for the parenthetical "(contentiously)".