[As I was about to publish this post, it occurred to me that its intellectual subject matter was a way to escape from the intensely emotional focus and interactions with readers from my last post — a defense mechanism at work!]
As I’m thinking ahead to the the participatory research project I have planned for early next year, I feel more and more enthusiastic about the central premise: that what defense mechanisms essentially do is divert attention away from sources of pain so that we no longer notice them. We’ll be focusing on methods of distraction, particularly the use of verbal thought, as they arise; the goal will be to sensitize ourselves to the moment when a defense mechanism kicks in.
As I’m reading the works of Sylvan Tomkins and Donald Nathanson, I’m also finding that affect theory sheds light on the process. Tompkins’ understanding of affects is fascinating and complex, beyond my ability to understand it fully much less explain it at this early stage. One point in particular seems especially relevant for the project, though: Tomkins holds that affects represent our body’s means of signaling that one particular stimulus, out of all the information entering through our sensory apparatus, needs special attention. Each affect heightens one particular set of bodily responses and focuses our attention upon them. The affect fear/terror puts us on our guard against external dangers, for example, preparing us to either fight or flee. The negative affect disgust intensifies our sensory awareness and saves us from ingesting a substance that might be life-threatening. In other words, the affect system serves varying purposes but it operates by causing us to pay attention.
What if paying attention brings us into contact with pain we’re unable to escape and which we can’t bear to feel? It seems obvious that one strategy would simply be to stop paying attention or divert our attention onto something else so that we no longer “notice.” Many of the defense mechanisms represent different ways we attempt to do just that. In projection, for example, we no longer notice the unwanted trait or emotion within ourselves but instead, we refocus attention on the outside world and find that trait inside of somebody else. (As an interesting side note, W.R. Bion felt that psychotic defenses — as opposed to neurotic defenses — took aim at the capacity to pay attention itself, attacking “vision” and “audition” when to hear or see clearly would bring up unbearable pain. Neurotic defenses shift attention away from pain; psychotic defenses dismantle the capacity to pay attention itself.)
In intellectualization, we divert attention away from our bodies — and in particular, those sites where we typically register affect — into our heads. Over the years, many clients have told me about the feeling that they live inside their thoughts and feel detached from their bodies. Part of our work together has been to refocus attention back into the body; with the help of mindfulness techniques, they learn to notice those sites in their bodies where feelings might show up. During my own therapy, I would occasionally have a peculiar experience I tried to describe to my therapist, and which I felt we never fully understood: sometimes, I would feel as if I were nothing more than a pair of eyes staring out of my head. In a way, it felt as if my “self” had relocated, gone out through my eyes so that I was strangely outside. Even now, during times of high stress and fatigue, I will very rarely have this same experience.
I think of it now as a type of depersonalization. Especially if I’m very tired and some painful experience is pressing for attention, I leave it behind and divert my attention away. It isn’t enough to focus attention elsewhere within my body, or even up into my thoughts; I want to leave myself entirely. I’m able now to understand that it’s a kind of defense and that my goal must be to bring myself back “inside,” to face whatever pain I want to flee. Not that I always succeed, not that I’m always so eager to give up my defense, but that’s the job.
(Which reminds me of a marginal note my friend Christina wrote when reading my book in manuscript form. It was in response to a passage where I was asking the reader not to get caught up in the specific name for a defense and to give over thinking about diagnostic labels, focusing instead on what might lie behind them. “In other words,” I wrote, “think more about unbearable pain than a specific mental process or diagnostic label.” On her copy of the manuscript, Christina wrote: “I don’t want to think about unbearable pain!” Funny, but true. Nobody does, not really. We’d rather distract ourselves and shift our attention elsewhere.)
In intellectualization, we shift that attention up into our heads; in depersonalization, we shift it even higher, so that we move outside of our bodies and feel detached from ourselves. I have one client who suffers from symptoms of depersonalization. As he describes it, several years ago, he was reading a self-help book when he came across some insight that made him realize he had entirely deceived himself as to who he truly was. At that moment, he felt himself abruptly lift out of his body; he now “lives” several feet above his head, observing himself from a distance. Interestingly, he can’t remember the insight and is no longer able to recall the name of that important book.
As always, I prefer to see things along a spectrum; in this view, intellectualization and depersonalization are simply markers for “how far away” our attention has shifted from the subject pain — up into our head or entirely out of our body. One would think that the farther away, the more intense the pain or the less able we feel to bear it.
Another defensive strategy would be to locate your attention elsewhere, shift your focus to a different location. In session today, for example, as we were talking about a difficult subject, one my clients told me that she suddenly began focusing on the two bicycles in the corner of the room: she shifted her attention away from her pain onto the bikes so she wouldn’t have to “notice” that pain. I think this is a fairly common defensive strategy, and something we all do at one time or another. Most of us will occasionally try to get our mind “off” of one subject and “onto” another, to get some respite from pain or discomfort. That seems like a normal and even adaptive response, assuming we’ll return to the prior subject at some point, hopefully feeling refreshed.
When pervasive, however, the continual breaking of attention as a strategy for evading pain will eventually impact our overall capacity to pay attention. I realize that many people want to believe attention deficit disorder is a genetic or chemical problem, but in my experience, it’s a by-product of distraction as the primary defense mechanism. Continually interrupting our attention (because maintaining a focus on pain is unbearable) eventually weakens our capacity to pay attention, even when we want to. Thus, attention deficit disorder in adults and children.
UPDATE ON STUDY PROJECT:
I now have an offical start date of February 1 — I need to complete the chapter-by-chapter discussion of my book with readers in that forum before I take on something new. I’ve decided to eliminate the Skype portion as a regular part but will make myself available to participants who feel they need a session to process what they’re going through. I’ll have a further update and a complete outline of the exercises after the first of the year.