Undoing: A Defense Mechanism

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Undoing is a defense mechanism in which an individual tries to cancel out unhealthy, destructive or threatening thoughts or actions by engaging in contrary behavior to undo what has been done. The original term used by Freud was “Ungerschehenmached.” This term may be more literally translated as “un-make-happen” than undoing. Basically, the concept of this defense mechanism is the person tries to un-make the past, undoing a particular misfortune.

Sigmund Freud and Undoing

Freud made mention of a process of undoing in early writing on obsessional neurosis. However, it wasn’t until 1926 that he formalized undoing as a defense mechanism. Freud wrote that the ego defense of “undoing what has been done….it is, as it were, negative magic, and endeavours, by means of motor symbolism, to blow away not merely the consequences of some event (or experience or impression) but the event itself” (1926).

​In many instances of undoing, we may literally undo what we have done. In a fit of jealous rage, we may secretly vandalize an ex-lovers property, but then, turn around, without admitting guilt, fix what we have destroyed. Our hate is neutralized by our act of love.

Freud wrote that “​compulsive acts like this, in two successive stages, of which the second neutralizes the first, are a typical occurrence in obsessional neuroses.” Freud continues, “here each of the two opposing tendencies finds satisfaction singly, first one and then the other, though naturally an attempt is made to establish some sort of logical connection (often in defiance of all logic) between the antagonists” (1909).

Anna Freud

Anna Freud theorized that there is a connection between particular neuroses and special nodes of defense. Basically, she says there is am association between an identified psychiatric disorders and defenses used in that disorder. “Undoing,” she wrote is associated with “obsessional neurosis” (1936).

A Symbolic Action to Atone for the Behavior

Undoing does not require literally undoing what we have done. In the earlier example of vandalism, the perpetrator of the destruction, may send a bouquet of flowers the next day for the secret destruction he (or she) enacted in the dark of night. The flowers represent a symbolic undoing. We may ruthlessly gossip about John, destroying his representation, and then feel obligated to send a nice message, thanking him for his friendship.

“Undoing is essentially negating a previous behavior or thought viewed negatively by performing a behavior contrary to it. Sometimes undoing is used as a means of tacit apology”


Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder and Undoing

Both Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna associated undoing with obsessional neurosis, today, known as obsessional-compulsive disorder. One of the more familiar symptoms common to obsessional-compulsive disorder is the habitual handwashing. Consequently, many suffering from this disorder may wash their hands until the skin is raw and broken, paradoxically, making them more susceptible to germs.

Washing Away the Past

Many religions symbolically wash away the past through baptism. In effect, the waters represent a cleansing of the soul. Perhaps, this is similar to a behavioral symbolistic action to undo the past. Many people find relief from wrong doing by bathing. Somehow, the symbolistic washing removes the contaminates of their actions. 

Lady Macbeth infamously cried out “Out, damned spot! Out, I say! . . . who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him”

(Shakespeare, Macbeth. 5.1.25–28).

We scrub and scrub to undo the stains of what we have done, conflicted over righteous expression of our anger, and the lasting pang of our guilt.

Reaction Formation

Many of the internet definitions of the defense mechanism of undoing is a description of reaction formation. “Reaction formation is ​a defense mechanisms in which the person unconsciously replaces unwanted impulses with expressions of the opposite” (Murphy, 2022a).

The line between reaction formation and undoing is blurred. While reaction formation typically is acting opposite to an impulse, undoing is undoing something that has been done. However, one could argue that the evil thought may be the element in need of undoing, and the opposite action provides the symbolic cleansing.

What “Might Have Been” Scenarios

A lesser form of undoing is mentally undoing the past through counterfactual thinking. Counterfactual factual thinking literally means “counter to the facts”. In counterfactual thinking, we depart from known facts, create a new counterfactual supposition, and then, imagine how that would have created a more desirable end state. Basically, It is a simulation heuristic, creating could-have-been-scenarios.

T. Franklin Murphy wrote, “dredging up the unchangeable past through counterfactual thinking, we ruminate over the could-have-beens, bogging us down, overwhelming our minds with sorrow, and pulling us into those unforgiving emotional black holes” (Murphy, 2022). In these mental simulations, “a person can assume a starting point and manipulate subsequent event sequences” and thus, creating a more desirable end point (Wells, Taylor, & Tuttle, 1987).

Counterfactual thinking is a mental constructive of returning to a “once-possible but unrealized world” (Johnson, 1987). Counterfactual thinking typically is activated by distressing moments in the present. As a result, our minds magically travel to the past, create a what-if scenario by mentally undoing the past, and imposing new sequences of events that would play out in a more pleasing present.

Counterfactual thinking has an adaptive element that the undoing defense lacks, in that counterfactual thinking may provide beneficial insights to future action. “I’m never doing that again. Next time I will protest with a dignified remark and walk away.”

Undoing Is a Maladaptive Neurotic Defense

Roy Baumeister wrote, “defined as the literal attempt to undo the past, undoing is impossible and hence pathological” (1998).

According to the Defense Mechanism Rating Scale (DMRS) (Di Giuseppe & Perry 2021), undoing is considered a neurotic defense, listed under obsessional defenses.

A Few Word by Flourishing Life Society

In conclusion, anytime we are doing and then compulsively undoing what we have done we our demonstrating a pathological response to inner conflict. Perhaps, a cognitive dissonance that is battling on the stage of life. Since defense mechanisms operate in the unconscious, the best way to tame this beast is seeing the obvious, and seek help to untangle the mess of opposing feelings. With help, we set course on a healthier path to address life’s complex contradictions.

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Baumeister, R., Dale, K., & Sommer, K. (1998). Freudian Defense Mechanisms and Empirical Findings in Modern Social Psychology: Reaction Formation, Projection, Displacement, Undoing, Isolation, Sublimation, and Denial. Journal of Personality, 66(6), 1081-1124.

Di Giuseppe, M., & Perry, J. (2021). The Hierarchy of Defense Mechanisms: Assessing Defensive Functioning With the Defense Mechanisms Rating Scales Q-Sort. Frontiers in Psychology, 12,.

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

Freud, Sigmund (1909). Notes Upon A Case Of Obsessional Neurosis. 

Freud, Sigmund (1926/1993) On Psychopathology. Penguin Books India; New Ed edition​.

Johnson, J. (1986). The Knowledge of What Might have Been. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 12(1), 51-62.

​Murphy, T. Franklin (2022). Counterfactual Thinking. Psychology Fanatic. Published 8-7-2022. Accessed 9-18-2022.

Murphy, T. Franklin (2022). Reaction Formation. Psychology Fanatic. Published 4-4-2022. Accessed 9-19-2022.

Undoing. (n.d.). In Alleydog.com’s online glossary. Retrieved 9-19-2022.

Wells, G., Taylor, B., & Turtle, J. (1987). The Undoing of Scenarios. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(3), 421-430.

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