From Intellectualization to Depersonalization: A Spectrum

[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.



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.

By Joseph Burgo

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


  1. What you’re saying about defence mechanisms reminded me of a striking book I read a number of years ago about the “Gentle Art of Verbal Defence” or something along those lines. The author covered a number of defence techniques for defusing situations and avoiding falling into verbal pattern traps and avoid internalising unvocalised assumptions. They were called Satir (sp?) modes, I believe.

    One of the modes was the Distraction mode, which is what triggered the association cascade for me early in this article. Then the depersonalization you speak of (the “just a pair of eyes”) reminded me quite forcefully of my childhood impression that I was looking at the world through a large shop window–that huge plate of glass where they set the mannequins. It also connected to the element in the Verbal Defence book called Computer mode, where the goal is to use passive voice and state only generalised facts (“A situation in which one has lost a limb could be considered painful”). Almost, rather, in an academic tone.

    I have been following your blog for some time and find it rather helpful. Thank you for sharing your expertise.

    1. I read Virginia Satir in graduate school, during my Marriage and Family Therapy studies. If I recall, she identified different communication styles within family dynamics: The Distractor, etc. Thanks!

  2. Case in point – I dissociated or spaced-out yesterday in therapy. When I came-to, I had a hard time recalling what the questioning was (I still can’t recall), but I was fully aware of where I was. It was a little scary. I froze.

    I really wish I could stop doing this.

    1. You’re protecting yourself from some kind of pain. Just remember that and be kind, but also try to direct your attention back inside when you can. It’s hard.

  3. “When pervasive, however, the continual breaking of attention as a strategy for evading pain will eventually impact our overall capacity to pay attention.”

    Joe, this really got me thinking. My brain was worn out, and I started having concentration problems after x number of years. I think employing defenses, when pervasive, is too much stress on the brain.

    But in reflecting on my session today, I think the opposite occurred with me. The concentration problems seemed to start when, as a result of psychotherapy, I could no longer use isolation of affect. So I wonder if undoing of the defenses somehow leads to dysfunction of cognition before we are able to restructure and adapt? Especially for those of us who use less defenses, in terms of variety rather than degree.

    I also to view ADD as a symptom of something else rather than some type of stand-alone neuro disorder, but I also see it as a symptom of insecure attachment and wonder why so many psychiatrists are comfortable with medicating the symptoms rather than addressing the over-arching problem. I have mixed feelings about that. Maybe both approaches are better in the long run, as opposed to zero intervention? Or are patients getting short changed in the end?

    1. I do think there’s a difficult point when you begin to relinquish your defenses but haven’t yet developed something new to take their place. I don’t know if I would call it “dysfunction of cognition” as much as pain and discomfort.

      As for your last point, writing a prescription is easier and quicker, and with the way health care has gone, providers don’t have the time to look more deeply into ADD symptoms.

  4. “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.”

    THANK YOU, Dr. Burgo, for describing and helping me understand something I have experienced for years. I am a survivor of multiple traumas – narcissistic mother, narcissistic 1st husband and sociopathic 2nd husband. I am also a hyperempath which brings with it its own struggles. I have more issues than a magazine stand! I am currently in intensive therapy and 20 months post-sociopath. I work hard every day to overcome the nightmare that was my life and to try and break down all of these defense mechanisms that no longer serve me well. Dissociation is one that I have not been able to crack but I think recognition of it is the first (and possibly biggest) step towards unlocking that door. This article just turned the key a bit more!

    1. I’m sorry to hear about all the pain in your life, but glad this post helped. I agree that recognition is the first and most important step.

  5. I noticed during rare moments in therapy – it only happened with two different therapists -that I could no longer hear them. I knew they were talking and I could hear their voices but not the words. If I thought what they were saying could be important I would ask them to write it down for me.
    It was only for brief moments – but I found that it would happen if I expected to hear a criticisim of me – if I felt that I was being attacked – a way of putting up a wall of protection. I think it happened only 3 or 4 times over the years – but it was very strange.

    1. Very interesting, too. An understandable defense, if you felt in danger of experiencing pain at criticism.

    2. You sound like my partner,Sheila A…i thought he is deliberately ‘deaf’…maybe he unconsciously became deaf upon hearing criticisms…cannot stand pain of imperfections…his mum similar,sometimes admits mistakes n apologises but halfway thru pulls up short n tell people she does not feel did anything wrong so stop the apology almost on the same breath…I was in major state of confusion til i stumbled upon this blog…Thanks Dr Burgo…

      1. Hi, cilpadi

        Growing up I had 3 older brothers – two of which could be very cruel. When ever I had a question or made a comment about something they would laugh or tease me. Actually, they teased me a lot. No one ever seemed to come to my defense, although I think I remember my father telling them to cut it out one time because they kept going on.
        My mother and I never actually had a conversation about anything. I wasn’t talked to I was talked “at”.
        Admitting mistakes is also very difficult for me because I am waitng to be teased and the laughed at. I don’t want to feel that humiliation again.
        As an adult my mother would call ,usually weekly, to see how her kids were doing. My husband never understood why I answered the phone or returned her calls. It was so I didn’t have to hear anymore stuff because I didn’t return the call – I just wanted to get it over with. When I got off the phone my husband would ask what she wanted. My reply was – I don’t know – I wasn’t listening. I think that is where the deafness came from in therapy. In particular, anytime I thought I was going to receive a finger point, a “you know what you “should” do – then I can feel this numbing of my hearing – it’s very odd indeed. I actually warned one therapist that that may happen. I found her to be a therapist who would work better for people who were more recoverd than I was, more of a life coach. She told me I controlled the session because I was doing all the talking. Maybe, too, that is part of my defensive mechanisim. But it was also my need to be understood. With my new therapist it doesn’t seem to be so much like that, but I am not as depressed either.
        I hope that this explantion of my deafness also helps you understand where it may be coming from in your partner.

    3. I’ve had that! Not in therapy, but at somewhat random moments, usually when I’m just completely exhausted or overwhelmed. I can see they’re speaking, I can hear noise, but it’s like they’re speaking a foreign language. No matter how hard I try to concentrate, I just have no idea what they’re saying…

  6. I wonder then, how does one distinguish between intellectualizasion as a defense, and simply an ‘intellectual’. For example, Gramsci, who while in Mussolini’s gulag wrote some of the most insightful economic analysis of the 20th century. All the while too keenly aware of his own god-awful physical suffering because of his deformity.

    I couldn’t help but notice your break in grammar in the first paragraph proper. And since you usually write with such care one is convinced that the incorrect tense is a classic Freudian slip. Later in the post you confess to exactly what the slip signifies which makes me all the more sure, did you spot it ?

    1. Are you referring to the sensitive-sensitize error (which I only noticed after I read your comment) or is there something else I missed?

      I’m not familiar with Gramsci’s experience in the gulag, but from the way you describe it, living in his thoughts would be a highly adaptive way of coping with his suffering. If he was able to find a space where he could “live” and function, as a respite from pain, it would be another example of how essential defense mechanisms are for all of us. We NEED them, and sometimes, relying on a defense mechanism can lead to immense creative achievements.

      1. Exactly so, only I notice now you’ve corrected it. The original scan would read as if you yourself were ‘too sensitive’ towards your own defense mechanisms.

        At the age of 14 I had a far more exotic errant slip. Church youth group, each of us with a sentence to read before the whole church. My sentence should have scanned: ‘When Mathew and Jesus arrived at Mathew’s mother’s house, they found her ill in bed, with a fever. And I, in my best projected voice said ‘I’ll in bed, with a fella’.

        Not sure I subscribe to the theory that Psychotic symptoms work as a dismantling defense. I read around the argument some time ago when a number of tedious, garden variety academics were kicking around the idea in articles between themselves. Much like the mechanic who tweaks your car with a trick they know thinking they have cause to revise the laws of motion.

  7. Very interesting. And it feels right. I was casting about in my mind for different folks I know well who are, or self-label as, ADHD, and every one of them has had a higher-than-average painful childhood. What you say really does make sense. My own personal experience of depersonalization has been that I don’t exist, that I am an empty shell walking around that everyone else thinks is normal, but my guilty secret is that I’m completely hollow inside, that there is no me there. Inside the outside covering of skin, blood vessels, etc., which is about an inch deep, there is a black hollow space. I really look forward to your upcoming study. I have been reading your posts for somewhere around six months or perhaps longer, and they challenge and inform. Thank you.

    1. I’ve heard other people describe this “black hollow space.” I wonder if it’s a way of talking about basic shame, the kind that comes from failed attachment.

      1. I wonder that too. I have had this black hollow space the commenter mentions and it normally comes straight after something I am ashamed of happening (with me, shame comes from appearing to others as helpless, emotional, weak, or when I believe I have behaved in such a way as to suggest I have less value than I actually have (lost self-respect)). My first response is to have the unsettling feeling that ‘something else’ took over my body in the shameful moment, a complete inability to relate to myself in that moment, so that I get the horrific feeling I had become possessed or my body had been taken by an external or alien force. This comes with a fear that the alien force might still live within me and could throw me out and take my body at any point in order to use it to do/say/feel shameful things – this is actually a fear I remember having when I was a young child and was all to do with the idea of losing control of oneself. As a child I was a terrified that elves would inject me with drugs in the night which would cause me to ‘not be myself’, taking away my control over myself. The fear has extended into adult and very occasionally is realised when, under the influence of extreme emotion, I suddenly act in a way that is unacceptable to me (irrationally, you could say).

        After a while, I begin to feel that I am a fragmented being, an automaton, a machine, or in some way ‘not a real person’ – more just a ‘thing’ that has been created or patched together. I get that exact feeling of a black space inside of me, and that I am only an outer layer of tissue within which there is nothing but hollow space – that I am only pretending to be human.

        I had this feeling for several months last year and by the end of it I decided myself that it must be a kind of shame, as well as the dissociation of unacceptable behaviours to an alien imposter outside of myself.

    2. msmerlin,

      Your description of your depersonalization sounds so painful and horrifying. Does this cause you terrible anxiety, or are you able to somehow cope and function? I can only imagine how disconnecting and terrifying this must be.


  8. I have ordered your book, which I meant earlier but got distracted, which happens a lot to me and brings me back to your ideas on intellectualization. I have had derealization, dissociation. But I think after reading this intellectualization is by far the one I have relied on the most over the years. I wondered in the past about why, when I started feeling I would fall apart, lose my mind, I could research, write up a storm about an issue, have discussions, and apparently sound rational when inside I was falling to pieces and terrified. It helps me get through the crisis. Yes, I see I do it to run away from unbearable pain. Or insurmountable pain, as I feel it is. Funny, in years previous to that what I did instead was a lot of physical work. I kept busy, away from my thoughts and collapsed at night exhausted. What’s the body version of intellectualization? That obsessive physical workout to run away… I guess connecting body and mind, not using one or the other to run away from the pain, is important. But man, I always feel that the pain is unbearable and will drive me into total complete madness.

    1. I have a client who suffers from extreme anxiety and is constantly exercising, riding his bike, on the run. It’s a focus on the body, but not on the places where anxiety shows up. No doubt endorphins play a role. And physical exhaustion can be an escape, too, as you point out.

  9. I an not my diagnosis , I am not sure this pertains to this subject, but after reading a book that talks about distorted thinking and constructive thinking the first attempt to handle painful
    thoughts from reacting to other’s behavior made me aware that I must not look back but stay in the present as my past after 40 + years was overwhelming. I am now taking little steps to
    forgive myself and recognize the cruelty of others came from their own hells.
    Thank you- your messages and the blogs are deeply moving. I wish the best to all who
    answer your messages.

  10. Dr. Burgo,
    Thank you for this post–it is quite rich.
    I do wonder if it would be more appropriate to re-frame the language, though, from “defense” mechanisms to”protection” mechanisms. That is, moving away from the idea of holding a harm at bay versus protecting my self that feels or is threatened. This might be a difference without a distinction, however.
    The Bion ideas re psychotic defenses got me thinking about how that would play out in BPD (and I’m a civilian new to this topic, so forgive me if I’m stating the obvious). I had a recent scorched-earth experience with a woman at work who has long suffered from BPD and now believe the psychotic defense of destroying the audition/source of information was in play. I made the mistake of setting a limit (saying no)–and the emotional discharge was like a sewer overflowing. We are talking rage, seemingly bottomless rage. I do know that I bought into her idealization of me (my emotional insecurity met a perfect mate), but had no idea what would happen when/if I got knocked/stepped off the pedestal. It was the most emotionally expensive experience I’ve had in quite a while.
    And I think you are so spot on with your discussion of ADD/ADHD as a by-product of using distraction to avoid the experience of painful feeling. I used all kind of distraction mechanisms from a very early age (4 or 5) to escape the challenges of a difficult and painful childhood. I was diagnosed with ADD (inattentive–how fitting) a decade or so ago.
    I am better at being self-aware (and years in therapy helped), though I am generally absent in my life–extremely tentative, driven by shame avoidance, challenged with having little of a core self. I started back into therapy this week, this time with a psychoanalyst–and on the couch (me, not the analyst!). We’ll see how it goes.
    Thanks again.

    1. It makes me glad to hear about someone starting psychoanalysis on the couch. The general public seems to believe that psychoanalysis is dead and discredited but it’s clearly not so. Sorry to hear about your “scorched earth” experience. Really tough to bear, but I think it gives you a flavor of how painful that person’s internal world must be.

  11. Great topic, Dr. Burgo.

    I don’t know if you’re familiar with Dr. John Sarno, but he’s been working with people who suffer from various forms of chronic physical pain for decades. His approach (backed-up by thousands of cases) is that chronic physical pain (back pain being predominant) is the mind’s way of distracting us from unbearable emotions. What’s interesting is that he’s not a psychologist. He’s Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at NYU who, over the years, noticed how unconscious issues played into physical symptoms. One of his books is called “The Divided Mind.” It’s very good.

    I feel I’m a good example of this.

    Over the past 20 years, I’ve suffered from: hives, IBS and gastro stuff, and severe chronic low back pain. I had every test known to man done. There were no apparent physical causes to any of it. And the back pain was literally 24/7 – for seven years.

    Then, in 2008, I woke up at 3:00am with the awful anxiety, panic and feelings of despair that I deal with today. At the same moment, all the physical stuff disappeared.

    I believe this is called “the symptom imperative,” correct? Where the mind/body requires a distraction and sometimes shifts from one to another. It’s as if my mind said, “Ok, so, the hives, gastro stuff and crippling back pain didn’t seen to work because you continued to live your life in spite of it all. Well, here’s something that will hold your attention like nothing else.”

    Even when we understand all of this intellectually – and would actually prefer to feel difficult emotions over intense, horrendous physical or psychological symptoms – the mind/body seems to opt for the distraction defenses.

    1. I haven’t read Sarno but I’ve heard about his work. And it’s an interesting point you make, about how one kind of pain can distract from another. It’s not exactly somatization but something related.

      1. The Sarno books were fascinating! I was very leery at first, because the claims seemed overstated, but a friend had told me about his books — she claimed it had cured her serious back pain, despite the fact that she had been extremely skeptical that it might help, so I took a look.

        I ended up finding the topic so interesting that I went on a tear for a while, reading everything on this topic I could get my hands on. Another friend is currently reading “From Paralysis to Fatigue: A History of Psychosomatic Illness in the Modern Era” by Edward Shorter, a historian. It’s next on my reading list. 🙂

        Some of the books I’ve read are better than others, and I don’t necessarily agree with every explanation given by every author, but the common thread (or at least, my takeaway) is that modern psychology is missing a huge opportunity — or overlooking a pretty large elephant in the room — in failing to help people examine the ways in which their emotional pain translates into very real and often debilitating symptoms, which can be treated.

        What’s more, this mindbody phenomenon is not just “Stress makes an existing injury or other physical problem harder to deal with or less bearable,” which is how I used to view it. No. Now I view it as “Our unacknowledged emotions can completely create certain very intense physical symptoms, and acknowledging and dealing with the emotions can often make the physical symptoms go away completely.”

        It’s almost like, after hysterical paralysis disappeared and went out of fashion, psychologists decided that this type of mindbody response wasn’t really around anymore. But it is — it takes many different forms in different eras and in different cultures, and the way in which it continues to rear its head is in the form of a plausible physical problem.

        Right now people take these physical symptoms to their doctors, which makes sense — back pain, for example. But a lot of this back pain just doesn’t get better with medical treatments. And yet, if you’re convinced the back pain is a physical problem, you’ll continue to visit the doctor, and the idea that emotions could be causing a very real physical problem just wouldn’t occur to most people — which is part of the reason that it’s such a successful covert expression of emotions.

        Many people are aware of the way in which psychology itself has become very medicalized — with people given iron-clad diagnoses (as if “depression” were a specific thing, akin to “malaria”), and with treatments being focused on drugs to correct “chemical imbalances in the brain.” But take that a step further, and consider that many problems that we now see as largely physical — such as many cases of chronic back pain — might be entirely driven by a mindbody process.

        The final nudge that pushed me over into the territory of “mind officially blown” was that I tried out some of these ideas in the books, and completely got rid of my own long-standing back pain, and in very short order. Once in a while my back starts to hurt, and so far, I can get rid of it at the first twinges within a couple minutes: I stop what I’m doing and ask myself what’s bothering me. Then, I acknowledge it to myself. Then, I tell my own brain (yes this is the silly-sounding part) that I know what’s bothering me now, and thank you for the warning message, but I no longer need it.

        This works instantaneously, like magic, and it’s very easy. This might sound crazy to people who haven’t experienced it, and I certainly wish all my other emotional problems were as easy to resolve. But this mindbody stuff has got to be the most neglected aspect of psychology today. Fixing my back pain represented a huge improvement in my life, and realizing that there was nothing physically wrong with my back all this time was a startling (not to mention somewhat embarrassing) revelation. Think of all those years of missed camping trips and waterslides! Oh, and pulling weeds. :/

        Your comment about not having read Sarno is from 2012, and you’re no doubt busy on your next book and many other things, but if you have the time, I’ve been telling anyone who will listen that it’s really interesting reading and potentially very helpful stuff!

  12. In a study by “Social Psychological and Personality Science,” sixteen Botox patients were asked to participate in the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test. The results proved a causational relationship between Botox and an impaired ability to empathize. In the study, the patients were asked to identify the emotions depicted in numerous pictures. The group of Botox patients scored astonishingly low compared with the control group of people without Botox.

    I just copied the above information from a study which a client in my psychotherapy practice brought to my attention. Isn’t that fascinating, in light of what you were saying about Tomkins’ work? I’m thinking that the very subtle facial expressions we make don’t just signal an important emotion to others (you didn’t specify), but to ourselves as well. I imagine this explains in part the “dead mask” face of depression which causes all of those important facial muscles (and body language) to sag and go inert, thereby blunting transmission of the pain to others and oneself.

    1. This is really interesting, Susan. I don’t know enough about Tomkins yet, but I think he would agree with you, that those subtle facial expressions also signal emotion to ourselves. The whole point of affect is to heighten responses so that we will pay attention to that particular set of sensory input to the exclusion of others.

  13. thank you Joseph, for these two recent posts…
    i also carry the ‘dark matter’ around inside me and believe it consists of toxic shame…
    as a result, i have attracted narcissists of varying degrees of pathological behaviour, who projected their unbearable pain & shame onto yours truly… when faced with their rage ‘black-outs’, i would freeze in terror, feel i had been ‘caught’, plead my innocence while feeling guilty, have the sensation of a ‘get smart’ style ‘cone of silence’ descend over my body, while my mind was running for it’s life through science fiction type corridors as the doors were locking like dominoes… no one may be able to hear you scream in that dark painful space but at least we can ‘see’ that we’re not alone when reading your posts & responses…

  14. This is quite interesting. Several times in therapy, when I’ve started to talk about painful things I distract myself. I usually go off topic and completely forget about what I was talking about before or I comment on something around the room like the pillows on the couch, paintings, plants, books and every time my therapist draws me back to the topic. Eventhough I know that they are just feelings, and that I’m completely safe, the fear feels so real. It usually strikes me as so strange how much it hurts when I feel as if it ‘shouldnt’. Usually, it’s alot easier to talk about how I’m feeling if I’m very angry or betrayed. When asked why I resist its usually because I feel as if I have to ‘submit’. It’s very hard and painful work.

    1. I wonder what you mean by “submit.” Does it seem like you would lose control or feel helpless if you weren’t to resist?

      1. Humm… I don’t know. I think this was something that my therapist and I were about to explore before he left the state (he completed his licensure hours and got a job offer in another state).

        I guess I don’t want to be vulnerable. If I were to be vulnerable and trusting I would get hurt. Maybe like you pointed out I would feel as if I would fall apart, my life would fall apart (I think you wrote about this and disintegration anxiety) and I wouldn’t know how to put it back together. I’m also afraid of saying something embarrassing and childish. I’m not a very open person so something as simple as saying “I had a bad day today. Everything that could go wrong went wrong and to top it off xyz is really bothering me and upsetting me” is extremely hard to say. I always feel embarrassed talking about my feelings face to face.

        It’s a good question. Being vulnerable means having to ‘submit’ control and be dependent to some extent on someone. Anxiety is a big problem for me . It seems to be very hard to will it away or just sit with it.

        1. Yes, being vulnerable always means you relinquish control. If vulnerable, you can be hurt. That’s why it’s so important to take care to whom you choose to make yourself vulnerable!

  15. ‘Depersonalization’? OMG is that my black hole?? Cuz it sure as hell sounds like it. I call it my ‘snowglobe effect’ at best…or usually just plain dead at worst. In fact…I found a poem in my documents about this snowglobe…that I don’t even remember writing. It is absolutely horrific. Of course I’ll be looking this up and researching it to it’s Nth degree. Why? Because….I intellectualize. lol (among a multitude of other things……going to buy your book soon. If I could only have a dollar for every defense.) THANK YOU.

    1. So I guess intellectualization and depersonalization work pretty well together, right? Sounds like a potent set of DMs.

      1. Those are only two on my long list. And I suppose it depends on what you mean by ‘work well’. If they worked so well I wouldn’t be what or where I am now. It seems the blessings all became curses. Dammit

        1. That’s unfortunately the way so many defense mechanisms go — they start off as your “friends” but outlive their usefulness, often causing more pain than they were meant to “cure.”

  16. Hello Joseph,
    Firstly, I much enjoy your website and articles, and I am moved by your own open-ness and honesty about yourself – I find this very helpful as a psychotherapist myself…

    I am very interested in ‘intellectualisation’, and although I can see exactly what you mean about it being on a spectrum, I do not necessarily see if as a defence against pain…though I acknowledge that it can be. I, myself am quite an ‘intellecutal-iser’, and I used to worry about this (and intellectualise about it, lol!). I have learnt lately to see things differently and embrace my intellectual-ising without shame. This came from my experience with the Enneagram. I learnt that there are three ‘centres’…head, heart and gut/body, and three types in each centre, and we all have a type in each centre, but we have a leading type in one centre that is dominant (you may know all this, but I am just writing it in case you haven’t encountered it). There are 9 types in all and we all have bits of each type in us on account of being human. I am a type 6, which is in the head centre. For a couple of years I thought I was a 4, in the heart centre(or feeling centre), and it turns out I am a 6, but my 4, in the heart centre is very strong and close to my 6. I am an 8 in the gut centre and this is much less than my 6 and 4. I think I defended against being the 6, as maybe I feared what it may mean if I am truly leading with a head/thinking type and does this mean I intellectualise, and what does this mean about me as a therapist and person etc…maybe I wanted to be the 4 in the heart centre , and the 4 being the most introspective, feeling type…but I have learnt to lve being a 6 and my 4 is strong and close anyway.

    What this clarified for me is my process of thinking and feeling etc. I do feel quite strongly, like the 4 and I acknowledge (and do not fear) my feelings (though of course, there are times I don’t fully want to go there!), and then I will move into my head and think, analyze somewhat, look at different aspects, ask myself questions etc. Sometimes it is the other way on, I will start to think and then notice I am having a strong emotional response to the thoughts and memories.

    I learnt that my thinking is my gift, but like anything it can get out of balance. Just a for a heart type, their feeling is their gift, but this can get out of balance by shutting off emotion and acheiving/doing like a type 3, or emerging so deeply in their emotions like a 4, that they struggle to function or think about what is going on, for example.

    No type is better or worse than any other. All have high and low points, gifts and burdens.

    So, do I use intellectualising as a defence…sometimes maybe. Other times, not. But in the therapy world, there may not be as much recognition of the healthy side of thinking and sway is given to emotions, especially the more feeling-based therapies, like Gestalt (which I happen to be involved with). Fritz Perls said ‘Move out of your mind and into your sense’…Perls was a gut type, type 8 on the Enneagram as his leading type. I think his head type was last of his three types….so of course, he would have created a therapy that most suited where he was at naturally…action, gut, body responses. That is not to say he totally eradicated thinking…as he did include some it seems, and was not saying stop thinking altogether…

    Anyway, this is an interesting post (as always) by you, and it food for thought (lol, of course for me it will be food for THOUGHT!!!!)

    take care,

    Roni Darcy-Beadle

    1. Roni,

      Are you distinguishing between thinking as a helpful, productive activity and intellectualizing as a defense? If so, I’d agree with you. I spend an awful lot of my time thinking but for the most part, I don’t view it as defensive.

      1. Yes, I guess I am…you say it more succinctly than me, lol.
        I am thinking that feeling can be a defence as can action also. I think ‘thinking’ sometimes gets a bad press in some areas of psychotherapy world, and I have been criticized for it sometimes by fellow psychotherapists, and sometimes felt shamed. I know I can, on occasion, use it as a defence, but for the most part it is how I am ‘hard-wired’ (as in Enneagram head type leading as a type 6 – Enneagram is a good operational/organisational system to me, not an eternal truth, but I find it profoundly helpful).
        I have a very quick process and some therapists/trainers have seen this as an issue, but I wonder why fast and thinking should be any worse that slow and sensing???!!!

        I think actually ‘intellectualizing’ needn’t always be a defence either…but yes, I also see a distinction between thinking and the classic description of intellectualizing.

        1. One of my teachers in school told me that the goal of treatment should be to help our clients “feel deeply and think clearly.” Both. I know many people who use intense feeling as a defense when they don’t want to think.

  17. After several years of not knowing what was said in therapy shortly after walking out,
    (now that’s a completely fool proof defense/resistance tactic) I asked my psychiatrist if
    she would permit me to record the sessions. Fantastic! Now I still occasionally blank out after a session, but I can re-create the session as often as needed. Even when close attention has been paid during the session, I almost always find something I missed, slighted or
    worthy of more thought, and something to clarify the next meeting. Highly recommended.

    Interesting post on the Enneagram. I am learning as much as possible when time allows.
    I am also a six. I live in my head. I was typed on two separate occasions by volunteering during Enneagram training sessions for therapists, run by Dr. David Daniels & co.

    Thinking was a huge way for me to avoid gritty reality in therapy, but thinking led to reading and then studying material by as many ‘masters’ as I could find (Fierman, Yalom, Bugental, Vaughan, Whitfield, et al). Then miraculously the thinking and studying defenses finally led to the beginning of feeling Feeling(s) had been essentially foreign since childhood, and are now another “learning curve” for me. Amazingly, I am beginning to look forward to the ride.

    Dr. Burgo, please keep writing! Thank you.

    1. Technology is a wonderful thing! I think the important step was in wanting to recall the sessions in order to make use of them; you confronted and challenged your resistance in a very constructive way.

  18. Dr. Burgo, have you read Gabor Mate’s book on attention deficit disorder? He’s an MD and psychiatrist, but in spite of that, his views are quite close to yours. He also fleshes out the medical and neurochemical side of it in rich detail without resorting to the usual psychiatric stand-by.

    “Continually interrupting our attention (because maintaining a focus on pain is unbearable) eventually weakens our capacity to pay attention, even when we want to.”

    I would qualify this statement a little, based on my own experience with the label: it weakens our capacity to pay attention even when we WILL to or intend to. As far as what we actually want, desire, feel comfortable with, etc….our attention pretty much puts us right there and gives us little choice about anything else.

    It’s an interesting mental exercise for me, now, to catch myself with my attention starting to pull away and think about *why* it’s happening. What is it about the particular thing I’m pulling away from that puts me in touch with pain, somehow? So far, this effort has been quite fruitful, if not exactly *pleasant*…

    1. Thanks so much — I’m always grateful when someone with ADHD steps back from the chemical/neurological explanation and looks for the meaning. I’ll check out Gabor Mate’s book.

      1. Honestly, if it weren’t for the last couple years I’ve spent reading and processing Dr. Mate’s research, I don’t think I could step back. The genetic/neurochemical explanation is a difficult one for most of us to let go of because for one thing, we ARE quite neurochemically limited, it’s just not the whole story.

        For many of us with an ADHD diagnosis, the genetic explanation also ends up being the first respite we get from the standby, blame explanations of “lazy,” or “weak-willed” or “you just don’t care.” In my experience, far too many of the so-called experts trying to debunk the genetic explanation are simply trying to return to these nasty methods of assigning blame. Any kind of departure from the “hard-wired” explanation can seem all too much like a return to that.

  19. “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”

    ***I guess that is why when I was depresonalized I focused on trees, or signs, looking into them as if they were more than just that. On trees before I was DP’d I would say “oh, a tree” and When Dp’d I would look at every leaf, the texture of the bark, the varying shades of greens, reds, and browns etc…

  20. ive had chronic dp for 16 months now. always feeling stuck in my head, i cant go out and drive and go into stores with out having anxiety the whole time. like my bodies moving , but im not controlling my actions. im so numb.. it scares me. conversations are hard to follow. im tend to come off to ppl as being very shy and prolly anti social. i hate it. not worrying and turning my mind to the outside world is so hard.

  21. “Even now, during times of high stress and fatigue, I will very rarely have this same experience.”

    Are you saying it’s impossible to completely heal from dissociation?
    Let’s say you are dissociated and go the therapy, is it ever possible to heal so that dissocation will be completely gone???

  22. Interesting reading. I lost my husband to suicide four months ago via self inflicted gunshot, and chose to proceed through it with as much hands – on involvement and information as possible and as little psychological distance. In the midst of it all, I chose to see his body, to clean up the mess afterwards, to get copies of the coroner’s and police reports.

    It’s been four months, and while I’m still very much OK, I’m suspicious of my lack of emotional response or experience. There are no missing memories, no time unaccounted for, no flashbacks or indications of trauma… Hell, I sleep well at night and without nightmares. There’s just also a complete and total absence of emotion related to his death. It’s fairly obvious that I’ve merely buried it in sheer volume of information about suicide and the exact medical specifics of his death and to some extent, to reaching out and offering support to others who have experienced a more recent loss than I. Knowledge of this, one might think, would make this a less…insurmountable problem. But it doesn’t. Those emotions are so fully out of reach that I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll ever have a chance to work them out and I to the fabric of my life. All I have is glimpses of what is missing from time to time, a seeming inability to to regain enough weight to not be underweight for my height, and the iron-clad sense that there really isn’t much that could truly destroy me at this point. It’s stable, quite possibly long term. It’s just not fully living. How do I get through to the absent emotions?

  23. I wonder if you can say what the end result of too much intellectualisation is? I have noticed my defence mechanism is almost always just to ‘look away’ in one way of another. This could be through obsessive daydreaming/fantasy – particularly as a child, where I lived in my head, but as an adult it is often fantasies of boundless success and achievement; or intellectualisation in which everything about my mental health becomes a fascinating problem and I learn all of the psychotherapeutic models to understand it entirely (which I actually see as a form of control); or it can be obsession with something other than what is happening (sudden and obsessive interest in celebrities when a relationship is coming to an end – sometimes to the extent I feel taken over and cannot rationally explain to myself why I am thinking about the thing I am obsessed with); or it can be getting the urge to smile when an emotion does turn up, which has the effect of switching off that emotion.

    I wonder how this is affecting me in the long-term. I very frequently ‘burn out’ with exhaustion and I often have no idea I’m exhausted until the moment I collapse. I did have anorexia, then workaholism, but overall my life could be described as an endless pattern of me creating a goal and then becoming so fixated on such goal that I do not notice myself fall apart until it is too late. Even awareness of this, and deliberately trying to introduce breaks and self nurturance and socialising, doesn’t seem to completely stop it, although I think it has calmed down slightly.

    I have learned through mindfulness to pay attention to my emotions, but I wonder if this is the end of the story? I think my problem might be not having a f**king clue what my emotions actually are and therefore not knowing what they’re telling me. I’m kind of running blind so I perpetually push myself way past my limits.

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