“Why Do I Do That?” is the title of a new book by fellow blogger Joseph Burgo which deals exclusively with the ways we try to deal with difficult feelings and situations in life: It’s our defense mechanisms that make us look away when things get dicey or hard to deal with. The book is released on October 29th and will be available on Amazon in print-on-demand and eBook versions. In this interview, Joe Burgo explains how he got fascinated by the topic.
What do people defend against?
In the broadest sense, they always defend against pain. Donald Melzer said that defenses are lies we tell ourselves to evade pain, which is a very elegant way of saying it.
There are different kinds of pain. In my book I divide it into three areas. We are primarily concerned with what it’s like to need and depend on other people, which can lead to frustration, hurt and disappointment. Secondarily, we are concerned with being able to manage a lot of intense feelings that come up in relationships. And we try to develop some sense of personal self worth, to feel that we have value, and when we don’t, that leads to shame, a deeply painful experience. So need and dependency, strong feelings and self esteem, those are the areas where pain comes up and we rely on defense mechanisms.
What are the classic defense mechanisms?
Well, there are repression and denial. All defenses rely on repression, even though it’s a defense in its own right. Displacement, reaction formation. Splitting, idealization. Projection. And then there’s a bunch of other ones that are secondary, like defenses that involve ideas of control, and lastly defenses against shame.
What are these?
Narcissism is the primary defense against shame.
Narcissism is a defense?
Pathological narcissism is a defense against shame. There are people who are currently writing about this connection, its kind of out there in the profession right now.
How do you work with patients in terms of defenses?
As I was writing the book, I didn’t really think that I am working on defenses but I guess that’s what I’m always doing. But I don’t necessarily think about it that way, I think more about what’s painful that this person is trying to get away from, and that means they must be relying on defenses. I’m always trying to help them recognize the pain that they can’t bear and to help them better to tolerate it.
Do you find that you focus on defenses a lot now that you’ve written the book?
Yes, I do, I always did, now I just know it more.
Do people find it helpful?
They don’t necessarily like it, I mean — who wants to be introduced to the pain they’re trying to avoid?
How do you respond when they don’t like it, when they say, why do you have to poke at this?
I usually say something sympathetic, I know it doesn’t feel good to feel pain, but I think its better to recognize what the pain is. Recognizing it causes fewer problems than when you defend against it the way you’re doing.
What is the garden variety defense that comes up every day?
Denial. Everybody is in denial about a great many things. So many of us are in denial about our needs and the way we are in pain. We deny it entirely, repress it or split it off.
How did you come up with the book idea?
I’ve been writing this website for a couple of years, Aftertherapy.com, and a friend of mine said you should write a series of posts about different defense mechanisms and explain to people what they are, which I enjoyed doing and thinking about them. Then I wanted to do a book and the people at New Harbinger didn’t like the original idea I submitted and they said, come up with a different one. I submitted several ideas and they liked the one about defenses best.
That’s something not really explored in the mass market.
Well, I think the idea of an unconscious mind isn’t explored so much in the mass market literature. The unconscious has been written out.
What does the title mean, how did you come up with that?
I didn’t have a title but my editor Melissa Kirk came up with it. Nobody liked it at New Harbinger, but I do. The subtitle is very long: “Psychological defense mechanisms and the hidden way they shape our lives.”
Do you mostly use clinical vignettes?
I use clinical vignettes, and one of the things I really enjoyed was finding examples from pop culture and movies, or things people could recognize from everyday life. And then I also talk about myself and my own experiences and my own dealing with defenses. In the self help literature, there is so much idealism. “Learn How to Feel Loved”, and “Conquer This” and “Conquer That”. And I think even if you understand your defense mechanisms, they don’t just go away. They’re like the first resort, they are built in and you have to recognize that they’re built in and will always be there.
Are they always pathological?
No. I give lots of examples in the book where defense mechanisms are normal and necessary. For example, the constant awareness that we are going to die would make life pretty much unbearable. I think most of us live in denial about that. That’s a useful thing. Another example is reaction formation. Take the reformed smoker. The person who used to smoke and quits and then gets completely disgusted by people who smoke, can’t bear to be around the thing they used to love. That’s pretty adaptive. It helps them. Life without defense mechanisms is impossible, and it’s only when they’re maladaptive that we need to challenge them.
What’s your favorite defense mechanism to talk about?
Right now I’m really interested in shame, so I love talking about narcissism and blaming, these are defenses that are about shame. That and projection. The way we locate things outside of ourselves in other people and think they’re not inside of us, I find that fascinating.