‘Hard’ and ‘Soft’ as Character Traits

I haven’t written a post in two weeks — unusual for me — because during that period, I have felt almost overwhelmed by the events in my life, mostly enjoyable and of great meaning to me: my oldest son’s 21st birthday, my middle child’s high school graduation, my daughter’s promotion from middle school, two flights (one to Chicago, one to Los Angeles), followed by the drive cross-country to Colorado, where I will continue to work throughout the summer. My fatigue levels have been made worse by some poor choices I’ve made along the way, and I’ve watched myself “hardening up” in response. Now that I’ve recovered a bit, I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk about the importance of choice “after psychotherapy,” and what can happen when you don’t respect your limitations.

At the beginning of May, I had set as a goal for myself to complete a rough draft of my book on defense mechanisms before leaving for Colorado; that way, I reasoned, I would have an entire month to review and revise it at leisure, before my summer break. I really wanted to achieve that goal. At the same time, I wanted to keep up with this blog as well as the one on PsychCentral, and especially to continue practicing piano. I can become very cranky if I have to forgo my practice; I normally get up at 5 a.m. in order to make sure that I have uninterrupted time alone, so piano doesn’t impinge on work and family life. Even before May became truly hectic, I knew it was unlikely that I’d be able to accomplish everything I had set out for myself. I probably should have accepted that piano would have to take a back seat if I were going to finish my book.

Instead, I drove myself onward and refused to accept that I couldn’t do everything. As I discussed in this early post, there’s a very bratty, entitled side of me who can throw big internal tantrums when he doesn’t get what he wants. Instead of standing up to him and facing the rage — sorry, no piano — I let him have his grandiose way. The days went by and I grew increasingly tired. Although I did my best not to let it intrude on my therapy practice, one of my clients sent me an email after her session, asking if I were all right!

As I grew more tired, I also became harder and harsher. I tried as much as I could to keep it to myself, but even so, my temper grew shorter and I became testier. Normally, when people submit comments I find irritating, I approve them without responding, but during this time period, I replied in haste and quite harshly to one of them. Later that day, I wrote the commenter a personal apology and deleted my harsh reply. As my stress levels rose, I “coped” with it by drinking more than is good for me.

I use the word “hard” to describe myself because it’s an almost physical sensation, as if I’ve tightened up all over and feel my whole body to be hardened and taut. I have a mental image of myself with my jaw set and my teeth clenched. When I finally noticed this hardness and began to view it as a defense, to wonder what I might be defending against, I soon realized I was exhausted, sad and ashamed of myself. My eyes welled up; as I came into contact with my shame, I felt much “softer”, but also shaky, as if I were on the verge of something quite threatening to me. In an early post about my sole experience with a panic attack, I discussed the anxiety of disintegration under psychic pressure; as I softened up, I realized that my “hardness” was also holding me together, but in a defensive way.

It’s not an obvious thing, but I had made a choice, a poor one, when I refused to take my own limitations, as well as the limits of time, into account. I indulged an unhealthy, omnipotent side of myself and paid the price for that indulgence, then tried to manage the resulting stress with alcohol. People around me unfortunately paid the price, as well. After I softened up, I accepted that I couldn’t keep going at the same driven pace. Thoughtful writing took more energy than I had available so I stopped work on my book. I stopped writing posts. I even cut back on piano practice. All the same, by the time we reached Colorado Sunday night — after that +&!#$@ flat tire on I-70 — I was exhausted. Two nights of good sleep and I’m feeling better, but still tired, still in need of recovery. I’ll get back to my routine and resume work toward my goals only slowly.

Last week in session, my thoughts about hardness came to mind during session with a long-term client, a woman who has had a sort of merged relationship with me for many years. Only recently has she begun to emerge from this fusion and to see me as a separate person. In recent sessions, she has worn what I’ve called her “dead face” — quite hard, without any smiles or warmth — and talked about how enraged she has felt with me for being separate. Over the years, she has shown a remarkable intuitive ability to gauge my states of mind; during the session, I began to wonder what she might be sensing about me, and whether her “hardness” might be a defense against something else.

If you’ve read this early post, you’ll remember the client I’m discussing, and the way she used hatred as a kind of psychic glue, to hold her together in the face of disintegration anxiety. In this recent session, the idea came back to me and I thought I understood. I had a hunch, I told her, that all this anger and rage toward me were really a way of warding off her sense that I’d recently been feeling overwhelmed in my life. (Normally I wouldn’t talk about my personal life but I had a sense she had intuited this about me.) I thought she felt so frightened by the experience of me as a separate person and in pain that she had to “harden up” against it. Her transformation in response to my words was dramatic. She softened up and told me that last week, when she had been thinking about me, she envisioned me with a sad face and recoiled in fear from the image. For the remaining minutes in the session, she no longer wore the “dead face”; she seemed quite soft and vulnerable, but also a bit afraid and worried about my state of mind.

Anger, rage, harsh judgment, righteous indignation and blame — all of these “hard” emotional states may serve as a defense — for me, a defense against shame as well as disintegration anxiety; for my client, a defense against terror. While we normally value softness over hardness as a character trait, it’s useful to remember that the experience of being soft isn’t always such a wonderful experience for the person who feels it. Softness means you’re vulnerable. Softness means you can easily be hurt. And if if you rely on hardness to hold you together, softness sometimes means you might fall apart.

By Joseph Burgo

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


      1. Me too. Got most of it but not all. I think the discussion about your client threw things off a bit.
        I can understand how we all, at times, think we can do more than what we can actually accomplish. Sometimes when I get my heart set on doing something for myself that I enjoy, or just “need” to do in order to feel less stressed or to bring more balance to my life – but can’t get to it – I get more irritable. Cheated out of personal time perhaps?
        Life is full of the demands of other people (some demand that you return emails for instance ­čśë ) so it makes sense that when you want to practice piano and you can’t that you would feel more hardened to things.
        Did I get any of that right?

        1. Yes, you got that right. I also re-wrote the post this morning to clarify the points I made. It wasn’t my best effort but I hope that it’s clearer now.

  1. I actually am feeling some sort of wonder, at my therapist’s softness yesterday. There was something I found on Google that was something about his family, and I knew I needed to clear it out of my head by asking him about it so it wouldn’t be the elephant in the room. There were other reasons to ask about it as well, real, justifiable reasons, but I don’t want to go into the nature of the problems and why I had justiiable reasons to ask about his situation.

    I was prepared for defensivenesws, shame, awkwardness, and other things, even though he hasd always been kind, thoughtful, concerned, compassionate (as I can see even when he’s confronting me w/something it’s for my own good, and thus compassionate) and things like that. So why am I so surprised, and filled with wonder, that he would be that way about this thing?

    I guess it’s because I have a hard time imagining anyone could be not only professional about it, but kind of beyond professional, even; being open (but not in an inappropriate way or degree, but much more open than many people might guess), inviting of questions, and encouraging of them . . . about something so personal, embarassing, sad, and potentially full of shame. Not because of anything my psychologist had done, however.

    Anyway, his softness, his lack of “hard” defenses, his lack of any kind of a hard shell or protection, really has me feeling this sense of wonder that I’d be deserving of such . . . a level of kindness, consideration, and openness that it’d be hard to imagine anyone having, and GIVING, on this kind of a matter.

    It’s no wonder that I’ve been with this therapist for 8 years. Because there’s skills and insight I still need to learn, but also because he’s a good, gentle fit for me.

  2. Dr. Burgo, Your comments reminded me immediately of a Rumi poem. You may have read it if you know him at all but I thought it was relevant to your discussion of hardness and softness. Opening and closing, expanding and contracting…


    Your grief for what you’ve lost lifts a mirror
    up to where you’re bravely working.

    Expecting the worst, you look, and instead,
    here’s the joyful face you’ve been wanting to see.

    Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes.
    If it were always a fist or always stretched open,
    you would be paralyzed.

    Your deepenst presence is in every small contracting and expanding,
    the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated
    as birdwings.

    I do not profess to understand the mystical realizations of Rumi but it seems to me he is saying something about hardness and softness, both telling us something about ourselves, our shame, our grief, our overwhelm our truth and our ability to become open. How we need all of our human experience whether we label it good or bad. How brave and truthful you are. I truly hope you can take a bit of a break although I completely selfishly hope you take the time to read this particular reply and respond to it immediately!!

    1. Not immediately, but within 24 hours! I love that poem; I know Rumi but wasn’t familiar with this one. He seems to be saying there’s a value in “hardness” (that fist) but not if it’s chronic. It’s a question of balance; hardening up when necessary, but opening up so you can get something that you need. Thanks!

  3. I really do get so much from your postings. This one was especially rich and I have the feeling that I will continue to draw from it.
    This quote was recently sent to me via an email from a friend. I found it helpful . Maybe you will, too.
    ” I discover, I realize and I become wise. ├é┬áThere are no mistakes. ├é┬áThere is discovery, realization and wisdom. ├é┬áThen, the process begins again. ├é┬áDiscoveries, realizations and wisdom, allow yourself to have that process because after you become wise, then you can create. ├é┬áBut without discoveries and without realizations, you will not be able to gain your wisdom and a true creator creates out of wisdom.├óÔéČ┬Ł
    ~  MIchael Cavallaro

    1. Wonderful quote. I strive to keep learning, and learning about myself, and not to come down on myself for the “mistakes” I make. I understand what he’s saying about “there are no mistakes,” but I do believe it’s important to recognize that we sometimes make poor choices. As long as we learn from them, I suppose that leads to wisdom; but as he points out, some people just keep making the same mistakes, make no discoveries and have no realizations.

  4. Alittleconfused.did you mean to say in your last sentence that the experience of being emotionally “hard” OR “soft” was sometimes difficult for the person experiencing it?

    as a therapist myself I do share that feeling you expressed of how important it is to remember how intuitive our clients are about OUR state of mind .

    always love your blog / thanks!

  5. You have a wonderful way of expressing yourself. This post describes beautifully for me the inner conflict and self sabotage I imagine we all experience. You explain it in a way that anyone can understand and would be enormously beneficial to any reader in the therapeutic relationship. I think any therapist wanting to learn how to develop rapport with a client could learn a lot from reading your posts. I look forward to receiving your weekly notifications and just want to thank you for being you. Xavier

    1. Thanks, Xavier. Although it’s a little scary, I’ve come to realize that these posts where I reveal myself are the most helpful to people. Part of me doesn’t want to be so vulnerable but at the same time, I feel like I’ve found my way. I don’t believe in fate, but this feels to me like “what I was meant to do.”

  6. Great timing for me with this topic. I am helping extended family with a seasonal business. The disfunction can be overwhelming at times, and on some occasions my normally soft personality has yielded to Mr. Righteous and Appalled, especially surrounding the callous, selfish way an uncle has treated his kids, resulting in multiple generations of disordered personalities.

    After a few weeks I actually feel myself becoming more conservative, thinking how the root of all evil is bad parenting, and understanding why some people don’t want to pay taxes to support people whose parents didn’t give them the tools to help themselves. This is a major departure from my usual liberal view.

    At times I have not been able to stay quiet about the distressing behaviors I am witnessing, and my words have earned me animosity frome some family members. I am striving to regain my softness, or a least to stay silent.

    1. I don’t know if this rings true for you, but reading your description, I wondered if all that “hardness” is a way of warding off the pain you feel for the mess of your family, how sad it makes you, and probably how helpless you feel about it. Sometimes all that grief and helplessness can feel unbearable, and so we ward it off my becoming hard and judgmental. I know I do that.

  7. You have described what I have been doing lately. Going through a divorce and attending my grandson’s birthday party where the other woman was also a guest was much more than I could manage. But I didn’t want to accept it, and I didn’t want to miss the party. So I went, had to leave after ten minutes and have since been very hard and sharp. Thank you for speaking my mind and heart. In doing so you have helped me gain more insight.

    1. It’s very difficult sometimes to accept our limits, especially when it means forgoing something that we want. I do understand.

  8. Like Frans and others here, I identify with this hugely right now. More than usual even. I may have passed through hard to stunned. Possibilities I’ve considered this morning include: calling therapist, drinking a forbidden Coke, buying a cheap flight to Ireland. All in lieu of putting some kind of limit on what I take on. Maybe I’ll do all four. Quickly.

    1. You made me laugh, Peggy, although I suppose it’s not very funny. It’s awful, the way we can run ourselves down because we won’t, or can’t, accept our own limitations. I’m feeling quite a bit better today, but I’ve had B flat major arpeggios stuck in my head all morning.

  9. Your post illuminates new insight.

    My mother was a “hard” person with a soft (shame-filled) center. Her contempt for my “softness” (through and through) always left me feeling so vulnerable and timid, questioning my ability to handle the vagaries of life. It also fueled my desire for graduate school and training as a analytical psychotherapist (a profession, it turns out, for which I am not tempermentally suited). However, the ongoing desire to understand and support the individuality and gift of every person continues to be my vocation.

    After reading your subjective experience of how being “hard” equips you to function when your goals are, perhaps, too ambitious for your normal (human and realistic) limitations, I finally understood more clearly how my mother (deceased) and my husband operate in the world to ward off shame. I “fold”: retreat, withdraw, nurture myself until I feel strong again; they keep pressing on, and on, becoming harder and harsher and more closed off.

    Neither strategy is particularly effective. Yet the awareness of feeling too “hard” or too “soft” certainly seems like an internal guide that can help one correct our course of actions.

    Thank you for continuing to share your journey so articulately and honestly.

    1. I think that in between the hard impervious shell at one extreme and the feeling of being unbearably open and defenseless, we might think of something like mental skin, firm and protective but not impervious.

      It’s very painful to live with people like your mother, especially when they project all their vulnerability into you and then feel contempt for you.

  10. Glad to hear you’re feeling and doing better.

    I’m curious to know if you think that the disintegration anxiety you felt was the *result* of feeling the shame or was it a concurrent feeling. I could certainly see feeling the shame then having it cascade into panicky feelings because shame can make us feel “soft” and vulnerable – as you say – but can also be a threat to our sense of self if such feelings aren’t acceptable to us.

    Thanks for another great topic.

    1. That’s an interesting question. I’m not certain but I think the disintegration anxiety was a separate experience — of being unable to manage the intense emotions I was experiencing and in danger of coming apart under the emotional pressure. If anything, I’d say that shame arose afterward, as a result 0f seeing myself so unable to cope.

      1. I think you make a really important observation about feeling shame *for* your feeling of not being able to cope. It seems like you could extend that idea to the shame of the broken self that you talk about in one of the videos.

        I know I’ve had many moments of, “what the hell is wrong with me? Why can’t I stop feeling like hell? Why can’t I help myself get out of this? I am weak and broken….” and on and on. For me, that’s a lot of shame as well as self-hatred.

        1. I think the shame I felt was more about having chosen poorly, going with my grandiose “I have no limits” self rather than facing ordinary human limits.

  11. This was a lovely post, thank you. I thought about what Carl Jung says, and I am paraphrasing: the experience of the self is always a defeat for the ego. I can relate to wanting to be or do something much more than what I can be or do at that moment, hardening up with muscular tension so that I can power past what wants to flow through me, either frustration, shame, other limitations. Last week I shared with a friend your blog. His replay, “impressive” especially how he replies to everyone. Your engagement is impressive. I wish I could have more of that quality but am so very limited in my physical and psychical ability–I am an introvert. I too often want more than what I am capable of…I’m glad too because its at those times life seems most meaningful/fulfilling even though I know I can’t take it all in. Enjoy your time in Colorado.

    1. I’m sorry that my “engagement” hasn’t been prompter — still recovering and settling in — but thank you for your appreciation, for sharing my blog with your friend and for bringing that paraphrased quote from Jung to my attention. I assume by “ego” he meant something like “ego ideal” rather than the way Freud meant the term “ego”, as the experience of “I” or who I am. In other words, my self. I guess I’d say that accurately perceiving the difference between who we are and who we’d like to be is almost always humbling.

  12. With no pun intended, you seem very hard on yourself.

    It seems to me that the same qualities that lead to “hardness” can also lead to focus, discipline, sacrifice, determination, and the ability to tolerate both anxiety and frustration. So, you slipped up a little and the hardness got a bit negative. So what? We’re all only human, and that hardness will prove egosyntonic another day.

    Have a great time in Colorado, and breathe.

    1. One of my next posts will be about the difference between “hardness” and “firmness” — the latter is what I think you’re actually talking about.

      1. I can relate to TPG’s comments. I also felt grateful for understanding that my brat is actually on that same continuum as the determined me. That resonated with me. It has kept me alive.

        I do think of my qualities on a continuum.

        Surely what went wrong was not that your brat exists (nice to know you are human … you should meet my brat!) but that you were tired, overwhelmed, and lost touch with yourself.

        I look forward to reading the post you refer to in your response to TPG.

  13. I like your metaphors of hardening and the one you used in a previous post of thinning out (I think) when overstretched. I have this too, I set myself so many goals and find it hard to understand my limitations at times, it is a blessing and a curse. I was wondering too if you heard about the new book by Oliver Burkemann, ‘Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking’. To me, it looks really good – have only read a review in a British ‘paper here but – as a sufferer! – like what Oliver says about reassurance making anxiety potentially worse, as opposed to Seneca-like facing up to reality helping, and it speaks about the correlation between perfectionism and suicide/ depression. It struck me you might be interested in it given your own realistic approach. Congratulations too on all your family’s triumphs.

    1. I haven’t seen that book but it sounds interesting — I’ll add it to my list, which keeps getting longer and longer!

  14. Right now I’m in Thailand, giving myself time on an empty beach. Time to do nothing. Sitting around, I notice in the local Thai’s that they have none of the focus on productivity we do. Work is sometimes as much a relaxation as lying down is.

    I’m here because somewhere along the way, my body said “no” to all the stresses I put on it. For me productivity and defence against inner emotions, including shame, were very entwined.

    Yesterday I spent a number of hours inside a cave, doing nothing. Listening to bats, breathing, lying down. It’s so easy for us to think even in relaxing, we have to be accomplishing something. We need to be an example for others. We need to get results. But there’s non-acceptance in that.

    I’m doing a 10 day retreat soon and we’ll see how much this line of thought continues.

  15. “Anger, rage, harsh judgment, righteous indignation and blame…” That pretty much describes me as a client in relation to my therapist.
    It’s a defense against the pain that he doesn’t love me, that I’m not special to him, that he doesn’t want me in his personal life, that he’ll never love me in the way I missed out on and needed as a child…all the needs I’ve had since childhood that the conditions of therapy triggered.
    I’m feeling the wishes and needs die…I cry…and I’m getting less hard as a client because I’m giving up.
    Giving up the fight for that love… the rage and blame are part of the fight to get it.
    Like “he’ll see…he’ll finally get it, that he should love me”.
    I’M finally getting it instead…I’ll never get that.

    My therapist said yesterday, “I’m seeing more of you.”
    Yeah, well, I was always there, just hiding behind rage and blame.
    I give up now. I’m softening. You can see me.
    Just a person who wanted love like a little kid, and you’re just a person who couldn’t give it to me.

    I can buy your limited care and empathy.
    That’s your consolation prize, dear, go on home.
    I’m going, I’m going.

    1. Therapy can never replace the love and care of a parent during childhood. That doesn’t mean you can’t get something of great value that can make a difference. It just isn’t exactly what you want.

  16. The more research I’ve been doing into shame, the more I realize how my whole family is shame-based, and the more I realize that shame leads to such extremes in behavior. Everyone is always either too soft or overcompensating against vulnerability by being too hard, with little middle ground. The past few years I’ve been too much in the “too hard” category because of fears about vulnerability that came about from past hurts. I do think hard and soft as character traits often is related to shame issues.

  17. Hi Joseph,
    Ten years ago, at age 34, I was diagnosed with BPD. It took me 8 years to acknowledge it and another year before I dared to mention this to a friend. I guess for 8 years I made very little progress. This spring my psychotherapist referred me to someone else, as he thinks I might benefit from EMDR. Since March I am seeing my new therapist. Second time round telling my story wasn’t much easier than the first time. I am not done with my story yet and don’t know when the EMDR actually will start.
    At the end of my last conversation with her I came to realize something about myself, I admitted her I feel ashamed. Since my childhood I am ashamed. The shame wraps around me like a blanket, which I cannot shake off. The weight of this shame has been at times unbearable, at times my posture is affected by this load I carry with me. Sometimes I feel unable to walk with straight shoulders, no matter how hard I try.
    Anyway, as my therapist is on vacation for a month, I thought to google ‘how to deal with shame’ and after some surfing on the net came across your website.
    I have read many of your posts and came to realize I experience basic shame. I can be very hard as well, but I feel it as being cold. Sometimes I physically turn ‘cold’. People around me find this quite terrifying when I turn ‘cold’. I do too, because I know I’ve entered a place no one can reach me…
    I want to thank you for your excellent posts, I feel there is somenone out there who understands me. A lot of the things I read here resonated with me.
    I wish I could undergo a metamorphosis like a caterpillar into a butterfly, but I guess I have to learn to deal with myself, and maybe just maybe, someday I will truly live.
    Kristina , a butterfly in the making (from Belgium)

    1. I’m sorry to hear about the depth of your shame but glad to hear that what I’ve written makes sense to you. I think many people experience this kind of shame but don’t know it because they’re so well-defended against it — by being hard, cold, arrogant, narcissistic, etc. And given your experience of how painful it is, you can understand why they defend against it so powerfully.

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