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Monday, December 10, 2012

pop-we Contributor Reviews Dr. Joseph Burgo's Book on Psychological Defense Mechanisms

Explorative therapy is not the type of therapy that HMOs traditionally prefer. Rather than delve into the why behind a condition, many therapies only treat the symptoms. While this may be the right mode of treatment for some clients, the unexamined life for some individuals may be a life sentence where arrested development keeps them in a cycle of unhealthy or destructive behavior. For more than 30 years, Dr. Joseph Burgo, a trained psychodynamic therapist, has been helping his clients discover the underlying reasons for their behavior. Overtime, many of his patients who do the work required for effective therapy make incremental improvements leading to a more satisfying life. For over a year, I have been an avid reader of his blog After Psychology where he shares his insights into human behavior.

In October Dr. Burgo released his much anticipated book, "Why Do I do That? Psychological Defense Mechanisms and the Hidden Ways They Shape Our Lives." The book is a fascinating look at defense mechanisms aimed at teaching the reader how to disarm their own defense mechanisms.

I believe people outside of the field of psychology may routinely use the language of defense mechanism without always understanding what the terms really mean. How often have you heard someone refer to someone as a narcissist or to insults someone by saying they are passive aggressive? In reading his blog, I have gained more compassion for those who use narcissism as a defense mechanism. I think I have an even greater understanding of narcissism after reading excerpts in the book. I also have more insights regarding those who may exhibit passive aggressive behavior from my readings of Dr. Burgo’s works. Projection and displacement are also fleshed out in the book and frequently on the blog in ways that may not be as readily apparent to the average person. There are other defense mechanisms that are lesser known to the general population, but they also are important factors in why people do the things they do.

The book quotes Donald Meltzer’s definition of defense mechanisms as the “lies we tell ourselves to avoid pain” Dr. Burgo contends that everyone uses defense mechanisms to some extent. He writes, “Not every painful feeling must be acknowledged and felt.” He explains that there are times when “defense mechanisms help us manage the pain of life and therefore proves useful.” He certainly does not think everyone needs professional help. It is when the defense mechanism are making the pain worse instead of helping one to cope or have other negative consequences that a person needs to seek therapy.

Dr. Burgo explains how the defense mechanism denial may be normal and useful in some circumstances. At other times, it may cause harm to relationships. For example, he states that instances a person’s denial that they need other people may cause them to devalue and mistreat them.

Although the book is very comprehensive, I do think reading the blog provides important background information about Dr. Burgo and his expertise and world view. He has said that if there is an area that he considers to be his specialty that it would be borderline personality disorder treatment. A lot of therapists are not equal to the demands of treating these clients according to Dr. Burgo. Because he is able to bear a lot of the hate, rage, and anger that the clients may project upon him, he is able to help these clients to progress. Not speaking exclusively of borderline personality disorder, Dr. Burgo has explained that people can have trouble feeling empathy for others when they are too overwhelmed with their own emotional pain. Dr. Burgo credits his personal therapist for helping him develop empathy as he “was also good at tolerating hatred; he spent years helping me learn to understand and cope with my hostility…” He relates his experience with a client who went into a rage early in her sessions with him. She was too ashamed to return. As he has become more experienced as a therapist, he conveys to his clients that he can handle their volatile outbursts. Regardless of the different labels his clients may have, over time there can be much healing through the type of therapeutic relationship described here.

Dr. Burgo is not an advocate of using self-affirmations as the pathway to self-esteem. He speaks of authentic esteem that comes from the progress that follows the work. One of the examples in the book about a woman who believed she would be a lifer in therapy and was dependent on others touched me. In therapy, she wanted Dr. Burgo to solve problems rather than her working to solve them on her own. In work and personal life, she felt particularly deficient in Math and relied on others for this help. During treatment, she took courses to give her skills in Math. She further progresses in therapy as she worked to solve her own problems. Dr. Burgo feels that it is the satisfactions and growth that such clients experience that provides a real source of esteem.

Repression is a defense mechanism that has made its way into the common vernacular as the adjective, repressed. It too can be useful according to Dr. Burgo Once again, it is only a problem when the repression of an emotion is negatively impacting the person’s life or relationships.

The discovery of a repressed emotion or labeling of any other defense mechanisms is not an end in itself in psychodynamic therapy. There is not one moment when one arrives at closure and lives happily ever after from what I gather reading the book and the blog. As pointed out in the book, nobody is happy all the time and that is not our quest. While people will sometimes state that their goal is to be happy in therapy, Dr. Burgo will respond with the same question asked by his therapist when he was severely depressed and said he just wanted to be happy. He may paraphrase this response, “Are you interested in learning what you actually feel or in feeling one particular way?” The goal of the book is to help people experience the full range of emotions including joy. In the process, one needs to be exposed to negative emotions but not beyond your limits at the time or what you can control and balance. He is, in fact, straightforward in stating that it is a lifelong effort to continue to be aware of defense mechanisms.

The book is organized into sections and has exercises, which help a person to first identify their defense mechanisms and finally to work to disarm them. Although I have read some of the exercises and gained some awareness about myself, I plan to ponder the exercise more deeply when I have my print version of the book. I may not agree with all of the psychodynamic method or all the methods proposed by Dr. Burg as even those in the psychology profession tend to be eclectic in their approaches. I do find Dr. Burgo’s work to be substantive and his writing style at times to be quite poignant. He also has a way of breaking down concepts in a way a person who did not major in psychology may understand. This is an outstanding book for those who like to know what makes people tick.

- population-we™ blog post by Barb Bohan
© 2012 population-we, LLC
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