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The Indifference Defense

indifference in therapyIn our first session following last week’s break, Julian began by speaking about a feeling of pointlessness at his job and went on to question the value of therapy: what had been accomplished so far, and was it unrealistic to believe he could really change? It’s not unusual for clients to minimize the importance of the work during breaks, as a way to cope with feelings of unbearable need or “abandonment” when the therapist takes a vacation, but I didn’t have the sense that Julian was devaluing me. I asked him what he thought had been accomplished, if anything. He acknowledged he had developed a deeper understanding of himself: “Of course, it’s nice and all, but does it really make any difference?” His manner and tone of voice seemed very flat.

We went on to discuss the email he’d sent me over the break: the way he’d turned authentic upset over his aunt’s death into a facsimile of real feeling, how “performing” appropriate emotion took the place of his genuine response. I felt as if we were connecting some dots: his fear of strong feeling has led to a tendency to flatten everything, to take the life out of his emotions and reduce himself to a safe but passionless existence. I said to him that, contrary to the way he usually viewed himself as unemotional and detached, I think he’s actually a very sensitive person underneath; his apparent indifference is a defense against feeling unbearably vulnerable. He seemed quite touched and linked this to being bullied during his school years, how he strove so hard to appear “cool” as a response, as if he didn’t care.

At that point, I thought back to the beginning of the hour — the way Julian had questioned the value of our work together. I said, “This is just my hunch, by I think you very much missed having your session last week and you’re really glad to be back working today, but instead of showing me how you felt, you began by questioning the value of the therapy and seemed almost indifferent.” He laughed in that way he does whenever he feels fully “seen” and admitted it was true. There were several times during the week when he’d wished we could have had a session because of what he’d been going through and he had very much looked forward to our session today. I pointed out that this was completely invisible to me, as if he didn’t want me to know.

In talking about what he might actually do to put these insights to work, I gave him two suggestions: first, in his everyday life, to try to become more attuned to the ways he “takes the life” out of his emotional reactions and hides himself (his feeling self) from other people; second, in our work together, to reach out to me in our relationship and try very hard to let me see him, rather than concealing his feelings behind a show of indifference. At this point, Julian was struggling to maintain eye contact and not look away from me, as he usually does. He said, “That sounds really frightening.”

It was a very good session.

Anxious young man photo available from Shutterstock

The Indifference Defense

Joseph Burgo PhD

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APA Reference
Burgo PhD, J. (2012). The Indifference Defense. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 10, 2018, from


Last updated: 21 Sep 2012
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Sep 2012
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