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Blog Short #4: Do you keep yourself busy to avoid your thoughts and emotions?

Welcome to Monday Blog Shorts – ideas to make even Monday a good day! Every Monday I share a short article with you about a strategy you can use, or new facts or info that informs you, or a new idea that inspires you . My wish is to give you something to think about in the week ahead. Let’s dig in!

Today’s subject is something called manic defense. It was originally spelled as manic “defence” when first written about by Melanie Klein, but for our purposes I’ll stick with the newer spelling as the meaning is the same.

Manic defense is the tendency, when presented with uncomfortable thoughts or feelings, to distract the conscious mind either with a flurry of activity or with the opposite thoughts and feelings.” 

This definition comes from Neel Burton, a psychiatrist who wrote the book Hide and Seek.

I like this definition because it describes two components that I think lie at the heart of manic defense which are:

  1. Continuous compulsive activity, and
  2. Thought manipulation

Both are used as a means to avoid unwanted thoughts and feelings. They can occur separately or concurrently.

An example is the woman who works all the time, ticking things off her list, and making more lists to keep going. She doesn’t do it because it makes her happy, but rather because it keeps her from feeling uncomfortable. It’s used as a means of warding off feelings of helplessness, depression, sadness, emptiness, or despair.

How about the person who has events scheduled for every day and night of the week. Again, activity is a cover for being alone with oneself and avoiding uncomfortable feelings.

I’ve sometimes seen parents encourage their children to participate in this sort of manic activity. These are the kids that are playing sports, going to dance lessons, participating in social events, attending birthday parties every weekend, and trying to handle school and homework at the same time. These parents are projecting their need for manic defense onto their kids and teaching them to do the same.

The bottom line is that a person who pursues manic defenses is not happy.

He’s not able to be reflective or self-aware because that brings on feelings that he wishes to avoid. There’s an underlying fear that if the activity stops, depression or emptiness may take up residence and possibly plunge him into despair.

The truth is that the fear is greater than the feelings feared. 

Once someone stops the manic treadmill and allows herself to feel the discomfort, she can begin to work on making peace with herself by examining who she is, what’s happening in her life that needs change, and giving her mind some free rein to be reflective.

By turning toward the problem instead of away from it, long-term issues can be worked on and resolved, and she can step back into herself and feel good about who and where she is, or know where she needs to go. Sometimes therapy is helpful and even necessary during this process.

How do I know if I have manic defenses?

Let’s make a distinction between manic defenses and activity that needs to be done. Some of us have an ongoing list of things that must be done. If you wear many hats such as spouse, parent, worker, friend, etc., your life probably does feel like a list much of the time.

The difference between needing to get things done and manic defenses has to do with the purpose behind the activity.

With manic defenses there’s an avoidance of communing with oneself, and often an avoidance of intimacy with others.

On the other hand, when the activity is required and maybe even engaged in with pleasure (not always of course), we may still feel good about ticking things off our list.

The difference is we also enjoy relaxation, self-reflection, and quiet time with ourselves. The activity is useful, necessary and enjoyable, but not defensive.

When we aren’t using manic defenses, we make choices that keep a balance as much as possible between activity and self-reflection. We check in with ourselves daily to see where we’re at and how we’re feeling. We enjoy intimacy with those we love.

Try this:

So here’s a little test to try if you think you might be engaged in manic defenses. It’s not a definitive test, but it will at least give you an idea about whether or not you use activity to avoid your thoughts and emotions.

Set aside an hour, or if not an hour, at least 30 minutes during the next week when you can be alone. Sit quietly without any kind of external stimulation.That means no media, list-making, tech devices, phone calls, or activity of any kind. Just sit for that 30 minutes – or you can lie down if you like – and let your mind wander.

Can you do it?

What kinds of feelings come up?

Are you anxious?

Do you enjoy thinking and communing with yourself or do you find it quite uncomfortable?

When I was a kid, a favorite thing to do was to lie down in the summer grass and watch the clouds move across the sky. I could do that for hours, and enjoy the sounds of nature, the smells of the grass and flowers, and just let my mind drift and my imagination run free.

We lose that as we become adults, but we need more of it as adults than we did when we were kids, because we have so much more responsibility and greater awareness of our emotional states.

Try it out, even if you think you don’t have manic defenses. If it’s uncomfortable and you have thoughts and feelings that are of concern to you, or disturbing, consider therapy to work out what’s bothering you, or talk over your thoughts with someone you trust and are close to.

Ultimately, the goal is to enjoy being in touch with yourself and engaging in self-reflection.

Happy Monday! See you next week!

All my best,


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