Regression: A Defense Mechanism

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Life seen through a developmental model, is a slow advancement, maturing in response to the challenges of  life. We advance in knowledge, skill, and wisdom. Some theorist refer to this as ego development; others prefer moral development. The truth is we develop on many fronts, adaptively learning how to integrate new knowledge with our expanding understanding of the world. However, our development is not linear, moving directly from one stage to the next. Under distress, we may fearfully retreat, surrendering new developments for the securities belonging to the past. In psychology, this is referred to as ‘regression.’ 

What is Regression?

Ideally we progress, gathering wisdom from experience to develop ineffective defensive strategies into effective responses that help us achieve our life goals. With our development, sometimes circumstances outmatch our over stretched resources and we slip backwards. Pulling back can be an adaptive response but often it is a retreat for protection, giving up valuable ground gained during development.

George Vaillant defines regression as “the retreat from adaptive mechanisms at one level to those at a less mature level” (2012, location 3145).

These regressions can be seen as bedwetting for an older child or an adult returning to adolescent stages of acting out. On the road to recovery from addiction, a relapse would be a regression.

Key Definition:

Regression is when we cope with stress by acting in a childish or immature. We, basically, regress to earlier developmental stages of development.

Defense mechanisms have a hierarchy, a level of adaptiveness. Preferably, as we age, we develop more adaptive coping mechanisms as we age. Regression as a defense mechanism is moving from a more adaptive mechanism to a less mature reaction. moreover, regression can occur at any level (i.e. moving from a mature defense to a neurotic defense; or moving from a neurotic defense to an immature defense).

Regression and Stages of Development

Sigmund Freud referred to regression as moving back from one stage of development to an earlier stage. according to Freud “development flowed through five  different psychosexual stages (oral, anal, phallic, latent, genital). During a child’s five psychosexual stages of development, the erogenous zone associated with each stage serves as a source of pleasure, motivating behavior. Freud theorized that the psychosexual energy, or libido, was the driving force behind behavior” (Murphy, 2022).

Each of Freud’s developmental stages have a primary conflict for the child to master during the stage. For example, the primary conflict of the oral stage is for the child to become less dependent upon caretakers. However, when this normal development fails the child experiences issues with dependency or aggression throughout their lives (2022).

In Freud’s explanation of regression, the individual regressing would fall back to an earlier stage of development, i.e. regressing from the phallic stage back to the oral stage.

Freud saw organic instincts as the most basic element motivating action. He favored characterizing these instincts as drives motivated by sex and aggression.

Human development through the psychosexual stages was the individuals increased ability to navigate social expectations while still experiencing organic instincts to act in ways that were not acceptable in the world. This primary conflict was the basis for defensive responses and the development of neurosis.

Outward Focus and Regression

The child turns libidinal energy inward to satisfy organic desires. Only through interaction of the world does the child begin to focus outward. Freud explains that “all the results of organic development” must be credited to this outward focus (1920/1990). Freud describes this as turning the ego towards an object.

In regression, the outward focus regresses and libidinal energy is once again focused inwards. This regression leads to narcissism, masochism, and obsessive neurosis.

Freud explained that natural flow is to regress unless focus is placed outward. “The tendency to progress in development, adaptation, etc. is manifested only as against external stimuli” (1920/1990). 

Difficulty and Regression

During notably difficult periods of life, psychologists theorize we are more likely to regress in our development. Anna Freud specifically mentions adolescents as a specific life period of increased vulnerability.

​She wrote that during this period, “the rupture of former relations, antagonism to the instincts, and asceticism all have the effect of delibidinizing the external world.” She continues, “the adolescent is in danger of withdrawing his object libido from those around him and concentrating it upon himself” (1936/1992). Erik Erickson also refers to the possibility of regression during development. During the toddler and early child development, the youngster begins to construct a conscience. “​This is the cornerstone of morality in the individual sense” (1959/1994).

However, outer circumstances, such as overbearing parents, may curtail development of this moral compass that drives dependability, causing the child to regress. Erickson writes, “we must point out that if this great achievement is overburdened by all too eager adults, it can be bad for the spirit and for morality itself.” He continues, “for the conscience of the child can be primitive, cruel, and uncompromising, as may be observed in instances where children learn to constrict themselves to the point of over-all inhibition”   (1959/1994).

Instead developing autonomy the child either retreats into blind obedience or active rebellion.

Regression and Security

Another theorized cause for regression is retreating to protective childhood states rather than facing the fears of uncertainty.

​Erich Fromm (1900-1980) wrote that people are “torn between two tendencies since the moment of his birth: one, to emerge to the light and the other to regress to the womb; one for adventure and the other for certainty; one for the risk of independence and the other for protection and dependence” (1964/2010, Kindle location 1,319).

​Fromm theorizes that the driving force is our need for belonging. All our strivings is to answer the problem of “the sense of separateness and to gain a sense of union, of oneness, of belonging” (location 1,610). Fromm suggests there are only two answers to solve this fundamental problem—a regressive answer and a progressive answer. The regressive answer is to abandon developmental progressions, deny the elements which makes us “human and yet tortures” us. Fromm is suggesting we deny possession of Freud’s organic instincts by repressing self-awareness. 

Fromm’s regression is returning to womb of complete dependence, seeking escape from Erickson’s conscience through blind obedience to outer forces of society (religious groups, political parties, romantic relationships, etc…).

In Fromm’s regressive answer we deny self autonomous development to solve the problem of separateness (location 1,615).

“The alternative to the regressive, archaic solution to the problem of human existence, to the burden of being man, is the progressive solution, that of finding a new harmony not by regression but by the full development of all human forces, of the humanity within oneself” (location, 1,625).

Fromm warns we only have two choices: to regress or move forward. We “can either return to an archaic, pathogenic solution, or he can progress toward, and develop, his humanity” (location, 1,641).

A Few Final Words From Psychology Fanatic

Through the last 150 years, several psychologists and philosophers have addressed the concept of regression. The differing concepts covered in this short examination of regression only represents a small splattering of the concept. I find each of the approached different but interrelated, giving us a more complex understanding of the overall defensive motivation to regress in response to difficult problems encountered during development.

Some regressions are adaptive, giving us space to heal and rejuvenate; other regressions may stagnate growth, with enticing comfort zones from the past rather than exploring rich new environments that are only available to the courageous adventurer, willing to brave the unknown, trusting personal resources will be sufficient to conquer whatever may come.

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Erickson, Erik H. (1959/1994). Identity and the Life Cycle.  W. W. Norton & Company; Reissue edition.

Freud, Anna (1936/1992) The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. Routledge.

​Freud, Sigmund (1920/1990). Beyond the Pleasure Principle. W. W. Norton & Company; The Standard edition.

Fromm, Erich (1964/2010). The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil. American Mental Health Foundation; Revised ed. edition​

Lokko, Hermioni N.; Stern, Theodore A.(2015). Regression: Diagnosis, Evaluation, and Management. Primary Care Companion CNS Disorder. 2015 May 14;17(3):10.4088

Murphy, T. Franklin (2021). Defense Mechanisms. Psychology Fanatic. Published 6-12-2021. Accessed 10-2-2022.

Murphy, T. Franklin (2022). Developmental Theory. Psychology Fanatic. Published 6-11-2022. Accessed 10-3-2022.

​Vaillant, G. E. (2012). Adaptation to Life. Harvard University Press

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