Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Undoing: Defense Mechanisms by Sigmund Freud

Undoing is a defense mechanism in which a person tries to 'undo' an unhealthy, destructive or otherwise threatening thought or action by engaging in contrary behavior. For example, after thinking about being violent with someone, one would then be overly nice or accommodating to them. It is one of several defense mechanisms proposed by the founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud during his career, many of which were later developed further by his daughter Anna Freud. The German term "Ungeschehenmachen" was first used to describe this defense mechanism. When translated, it literally means "making un-happen", which is essentially the core of "undoing". Undoing refers to the phenomenon whereby a person tries to alter the past in some way to avoid or feign disappearance of an adversity or mishap.

Freud used undoing to explain some obsessive-compulsive acts, such as a youth reciting the alphabet backwards to undo his sin of sexual thoughts and feelings.


A person may intentionally push past someone in a shop, but realizing that the person was frail, feel guilty with regards to their behavior. They may try to undo their action by apologizing or offering to help the person.

A girl sends a pleasant Valentine's Day card to an ex-boyfriend with whom she broke up. The girl who sends the card feels guilty about having hurt the other person's feelings. The message is, "I am really not such a bad person." A boy who received such a card thought his ex-girlfriend was being sadistic, trying to make him hurt. But Freud would probably say her unconscious purpose was to convince herself that she was not such a bad person.

Some other examples:
·         Lady Macbeth compulsively washes her hands after committing murder.
·         A man who has been unkind to his wife buys her flowers (but does not apologize).
·         A person who has barged in front of others in a queue holds the door open for them.
·         A teenager who has been rather noisy tidies the room without having to be asked.

Undoing in Grief

When a person has behaved negatively towards someone or had unpleasant thoughts about that person, they may feel guilt. Afterward, they may try and undo their actions by engaging in opposite actions or thoughts. For example, if I said something hurtful to my best friend I may feel guilty and try to balance things out by paying her four compliments.

Undoing can play a role in grief in a number of ways. People commonly feel guilty for the negative things they said or did towards the deceased loved one in the past. However, relationships don’t suddenly become one-dimensional because a person has died; they often remain as multifaceted in death as they were in life. Also, people sometimes die before their loved ones have a chance to make amends, and after they die there are very few opportunities to resolve or undo, what has been said, thought, or done.

Further Implications

Undoing can be used to 'explain away' habits or behaviors that are not in line with an individual's personality. For example, in the case of a person who is well organized in the workplace, yet always forgets to pay bills on time at home, Freudian psychologists could argue that his tardiness with bills is an undoing of his desire to be orderly, or vice versa. Freud has been criticized regarding examples such as this because his theory is so complicated that most problems can be explained by another part of the theory.

For some people undoing can be used to reduce cognitive dissonance, the uncomfortable feeling created when an attitude and an action, or two attitudes are in conflict with one another.

In criminal profiling the term refers to a pattern of behavior by which an offender tries to undo their crime symbolically, e.g. by painting the face of a person killed by the perpetrator, covering up and decorating the corpse with flowers, personal belongings and jewelry, or folding the hands, imitating a laying-out.

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