I recently interviewed Dr. Joseph Burgo on my Blog Talk Radio Show regarding his book “Why? Psychological Defense Mechanisms and the Hidden Ways They Shape Our Lives.”
I think Dr. Burgo’s book is helpful for anyone trying to get over a narcissist because it helps us understand why we respond to the emotional trauma and abuse we suffer in this type of relationship. By understanding why we respond the way we do and being accepting of the ways in which we cope, I believe we can learn to break free from the defense mechanisms that prevent us from moving forward and finding the joy in life that we ultimately deserve.
Dr. Burgo says that we typically go through life believing that our conscious experience of ourselves is the beginning and end of who we are; when in reality, important parts of our emotional life often remain hidden from ourselves.
I know I have experienced this first-hand. While married to a pathological narcissist, I spent years in denial telling myself everything was fine in our relationship when nothing could have been further from the truth. My ex-husband told me from day one that he was a narcissist. At the time, the term was not as widely understood as it is now and in fact, I naively took it to mean that he was just very eccentric and unlike anyone I had ever met before.
Certain events in my life, which I write about in my first book, finally forced me to look into the true meaning of narcissism and when I did, it was such an “aha” moment that I now share what I learned with others. I simply do not want anyone to live in the dark like I did for eight years. Life is precious. This is not a dress rehearsal. We have one life and we owe it to ourselves to make the most of it.
Step 5 on The Path Forward is dedicated specifically to helping you “Wake Up” and face the reality of your situation. It is very difficult to do this and for good reason. Who wants to admit that the love of our life is not who we thought he was....I know I certainly didn’t. I avoided this truth for years, which is why support from others on Our Path Forward Forum is so important. We need others to point out when we’re lying to ourselves to avoid pain because remaining stuck in a state of negativity is no way to go through life.
Dr. Burgo explains that it is often easier for us to recognize unconscious motivation in others more readily than ourselves, which makes perfect sense when you consider the nature of the unconscious. As he explains, “The unconscious carries all the thoughts and feelings we either find too painful to bear, or which conflict with our morality and values and undermine our self-image.”
While we do not want to know or accept the contents of our unconscious, I have always been of the belief that it drives ALL of our behaviour, which is why it’s so important to understand how to tap into it. In fact, I am certified in a life coaching discipline called Subconscious Restructuring created by Dr. Kelly Burris because I do feel so strongly about the power of our subconscious. Our subconscious is always working without us even realizing it or being aware of it and I truly believe it is the fundamental force behind the decisions we make in life.
On page 7 of Dr. Burgo’s book, he poses this question to his readers:
“How is it possible for an aspect of our personality to remain a stranger to us when other people can see it?”
He explains: “This is where Psychological Defense Mechanisms come into play. Our defense mechanisms are invisible methods by which we exclude unacceptable thoughts and feelings from awareness. In the process, they subtly distort our perceptions of reality – in both our personal relationships and the emotional terrain within us.”
He continues “This book will be devoted to describing those defense mechanisms, understanding how they operate and learning to identify them within ourselves. It will also teach more effective ways to cope with and express what resides in the unconscious: when our defences become too rigid or entrenched, they may prevent us from leading a full and satisfying emotional life.”
While Freud was one of the first to write on the topic of defense mechanisms, Burgo says the simplest and most theoretical explanation comes from the British psychoanalyst, Donald Meltzer who, throughout his work, holds that all defense mechanisms are essentially “the lies we tell ourselves to evade pain.”
I think everyone can sympathize and understand the desire to avoid pain. Unfortunately, as Burgo points out “Defense mechanisms operate in the hear-and-now, with no thought for tomorrow. They’re unthinking and reflexive: they aim only to ward off pain this very moment and don’t take into account the long-term costs of doing so.”
Step 4 on The Path Forward, GET REAL is dedicated to dealing with the feelings that are the most difficult to process and confront. These feelings are anger and fear. We avoid these emotions like the plague. There are many reasons for this, but few of us realize that doing this just keeps us stuck....stuck in a state of pain.
Avoiding anger is an unhealthy defense mechanism. People often think anger is a negative emotion. Anger is not inherently positive or negative. It is HOW WE RESPOND to our anger that determines whether it is positive or negative. Anger motivates us to make necessary changes in our life to help us restore our self-esteem and exert more control over our lives. Ultimately, if we refuse to accept feelings of anger we have towards another, it prevents us from getting what we truly need to take care of ourselves.
As Burgo points out, “When you block out the awareness of your own needs, you’re unable to develop true intimacy.” So not only are you hurting your relationship with yourself, but you’re preventing yourself from being able to form true intimate relationships with others. I always say, living in denial is akin to death.
So many people believe it’s possible to avoid pain and live in a constant state of happiness, but that is not realistic. The sooner people accept that with pain comes pleasure, just like with light comes darkness, the sooner they can accept intense feelings and deal with them.
"There is no coming to consciousness without pain.”
~ Carl Jung
Burgo explains there are Three Primary Psychological Concerns at the heart of the human experience and they are:
1) Bearing neediness - coping with need and dependency (and being accepting of this in ourselves and others)
2) Managing and tolerating intense and often painful emotions (and not burying them)
3) Developing self-worth in relation to others
Burgo explains it is our relative difficulty in bearing with these challenges that determines which psychological defense mechanisms we will use, but people everywhere struggle with these same basic challenges inherent in the human condition.
We hurt ourselves by denying these innate needs in each of us through the use of defense mechanisms. For example, only by accepting that we need others in our life and acknowledging that others need us can we truly form intimacy with another. The push/pull drama that results in denying this basic human need is what often causes much conflict in relationships. Denial of our need for another person may lead us to undervalue them, thereby damaging our relationships.
Learning how to accept and process difficult emotions is critical if we are to truly be in touch with ourselves. When we bury emotions or deny them, we are disconnecting from ourselves. We absolutely must process our feelings before we can recover or heal from any painful experience. This is not only important for our emotional health, but our physical health as well. Repressed feelings are toxic. Research tells us unresolved emotional trauma floods our bodies with hormones, which leave our immune systems weak and vulnerable to attack. The key is to find an outlet to express your feelings. Whether you do this through writing, working out or playing music, your feelings MUST be felt and dealt with before any healing can occur. WE GOTTA GET IT OUT!!!
In his book, Burgo discusses many more defense mechanisms we may use to evade pain, but denial is the most common. He looks deep into the defense mechanisms narcissists use, which include projection, idealization, hostility, displacement, splitting, control and intellectualization, to name a few. Narcissists do this to ward off powerful feelings of shame instilled in them since they were infants or toddlers.
It’s sad, but the fundamental concern at the core of a narcissist is a feeling of shame that was instilled in the very early years of their development. As Burgo explains “If our needs are not met during infancy when we’re utterly vulnerable and helpless, if our parents make us feel unsafe in the world from early on, it will shape our ability to trust and depend upon other people for the rest of our lives.”
As an infant or toddler, a narcissist was either neglected and did not get his/her needs met or was over-indulged, smothered or inappropriately exploited. Either way, the emotional development of a narcissist was stunted at a young age so they were not able to develop the emotions that make us uniquely human, such as love, empathy and compassion.
Ultimately, a narcissist never felt safe in his environment as a child and he/she remains stuck in this state of mind. This is what makes them untrusting and fearful – incapable of intimacy - at all times.
A well-adjusted child who feels safe in his/her environment is able to develop self-confidence and manage their emotions. One who feels unsafe is not able to depend on others and is overwhelmed by these feelings so he or she disconnects from their true self in order to cope.
In addition to feeling unsafe, Burgo says shame plays a big role in the development of a narcissist as a child. He explains “The shame which results from the pervasive experience of being let down by one’s parents afflicts one to the very core of their being; It gives rise to the feeling that one is different from others, defective or even deformed.”
As a result of this shame, a narcissist is hyper-sensitive to criticism of any kind and develops defense mechanisms to ward off any feelings of inferiority. They create a false, grandiose self who is perfect, always right and should never be challenged. Ultimately, this defense mechanism is used at all times to ward off unconscious feelings of shame. Unfortunately, it is this defense mechanism that makes it impossible to get close to a narcissist’s true self and develop intimacy of any kind.
All of our defense mechanisms occur on an unconscious level, but Burgo’s book does an excellent job of helping us identify when we use them so that we can develop healthier ways of responding to our primary psychological concerns in a way that supports the creation of true intimacy both within ourselves and our relationship with others.