In an early post entitled Breathe More, Think Less, I introduced the idea that thinking, particularly verbal thought, can serve as a type of psychological defense. I’d like to revisit that subject today and explore it in greater detail as part of this series on the defense mechanisms. One recent email from a site visitor mentioned non-stop “chatter” in his head; because so many people seem to suffer from an uncontrollable word-flow in their
thoughts, it seems an important subject to discuss. Much of what I have to say appeared in an overly-condensed way in that earlier post.
As discussed in my piece on post-traumatic stress disorder, when the early experience of helplessness feels unbearable, for whatever reason, we may try to blot out awareness of that experience; that particular defense mechanism would be called denial, or more precisely, denial of psychic reality. Another response might be to take flight into precocious intellectual development, which also involves a kind of denial: I am not small, helpess and afraid; I’m really quite highly developed — just listen to what I can do with words! In such cases, intellectual and verbal ability develop prematurely, but detached from authentic experience as a defense against it; words take on a life of their own and are often felt to have a magical ability to ward off pain.
In my family of origin, one of the pieces of Burgo lore was that, when I began to speak, I right away started talking in complete sentences. During treatment, my own therapist took this up as expressing my hatred of feeling small and inexperienced, that I wanted to sound grown up right away and not have to go through that lengthy process of actually growing up. My precocious command of language also reflected a reaction to the emotional chaos of my childhood, felt to be overwhelming and unmanageable: by mastering words and language, I felt in control; through “thinking”, I believed I could escape from unbearable pain and confusion. As a result, I have always over-valued verbal fluency. Going through school, I wrote papers that sounded quite sophisticated; I had a facility with concepts and could manipulate them in persuasive ways, but the realm of words and ideas
existed apart from my personal experience, out of contact with and in denial of it. A big part of my journey as a writer has been to reconnect those two realms.
Many of my clients over the years came into treatment with similar defenses. I can usually recognize this process at work when I’m listening to clients speak, with apparent insight into their experience, but find that I feel disconnected. I may feel bored or unconvinced; it may begin to sound like a bunch of words without meaning. It’s sometimes difficult to recognize such a process at work because this type of client often appears devoted to therapy; he may quickly grasp the ideas I’m trying to convey, coming back in the next session to talk at length about it, making connections and applying it (at least intellectually) to his life. She may go away and try to learn more about this concept on her own through independent research. It took me a long time to understand that such patients actually want to defuse my intervention, keep it from having a real emotional impact, which is felt to be too terrifying. As long as a potential threat can be kept in the realm of words and ideas, they feel safe.
If you know many people who’ve been in therapy, you may recognize this person — the one who’s always talking about her therapy and what her brilliant therapist said but who never seems to change. He may be skillful at analyzing other people as well, and thinks about becoming a therapist himself. (Many future therapists enter the field for this very reason, as a defensive maneuver.) Unfortunately, “understanding” and the entire realm of words functions apart from true meaning and serves to ward it off, especially the painful parts. What can feel even worse, verbal thought takes on a life of its own, in perpetual defense against unbearable emotions, and can come to feel persecutory. So many clients I’ve known have talked about the agony of being unable to sleep because their mind won’t quit. I believe this dynamic lies behind most cases of insomnia. Non-stop “thinking” lies at the root of my own lifelong sleep issues; establishing mental quiet is the only thing that has ever made a difference.
As is usually the case, what begins as a means to protect ourselves evolves into a problem in its own right: pain isn’t the problem so much as what we do to defend against it. But that pain does explain why relinquishing the verbal defense and establishing mental quiet is so incredibly difficult for most people: as with all defenses, letting go means opening up to pain, finding out what you’ve been avoiding all these years.
Finding Your Own Way:
If you struggle with this problem, you should have no trouble recognizing yourself. As a fellower sufferer, I will tell you that nothing helps except a persistent effort to quiet your mind, and the courage to face whatever lies on the other side. I find that the “thinking” kicks into high gear in the face of extreme stress; it becomes all the harder to achieve quiet, but when I’m (briefly) able to do so, I often feel afraid. In the dark of night, it can become terror.
Mindfulness meditation has proven useful for some of my clients. I find that I need to make a more ongoing effort, minute by minute, to the extent that I’m able. It’s also important to approach this challenge without perfectionistic standards: recognize that you’re never going to be able to quiet your mind perfectly at all times. Also, in keeping with this earlier post, accept that there will be times that you simply won’t be able to do anything other than think-think-think until you drive yourself crazy. No doubt it will happen during a challenging time when you feel especially helpless.