We have all heard the phrase. Often shouted at a moment of crisis on a television programme or film: “Don’t just sit there, do something!” As if ‘doing something’, anything at all, will make a difference. Of course, the reality is that doing something does make a difference, if not to the outcome of the crisis, then at least to how the protagonists in the crisis feel.
Doing something – anything – at a moment of crisis or even simply at a moment of inner discomfort, can be a common way of avoiding uncomfortable feelings. Doing something can convert those feelings into an external activity whereby they, at least for the duration of the ‘doing something’ do not need to be consciously experienced.
We call defences, such as these manic defences, as their purpose is to rigorously protect us from having to be in touch with uncomfortable feelings.
Is manic defence linked to depression?
Most people associate the term manic defence, or ‘mania’ with depression and in particular bipolar disorder. And whilst it is correct that some sufferers from bipolar disorder experience acute manic episodes which may or may not include psychosis, all of us use manic defences as an unconscious way of protecting ourselves against psychic pain.
The clinical bit
Manic defences arise developmentally sometime between the age of six months and a year. This stage is when the infant is starting to come to terms with the fact that his/her primary carer (I shall use the term mother here for simplicity) is separate to them. In other words, the mother is not a ‘part’ of the infant and that therefore she will frustrate and anger the infant in not being perfect in meeting their needs. Manic defences protect the infant against painful feelings of control, contempt and triumph, according to Melanie Klein. Manic defences, therefore, protect the infant against their own uncomfortable feelings and protect the mother, from the infant’s rage.
How do we use manic feelings?
Manic defences come into play to stave off a whole range of difficult feelings from boredom, through to rage and anger – often feelings where we feel impotent, helpless or fear our own strength of emotion.
An example could be to go shopping after a tough day at work. And, with the advent of the internet, ‘shopping’ is invariably always at our fingertips.
What’s the problem?
The developmental process of growing up is one in which we should all learn to be able to face our emotional and mental discomfort and then use it in a growth-orientated manner to move forwards in our life.
Without this, we remain at the mercy of early, primitive defences that stop us engaging with who we are and how we feel and severely limit our capacity to become an integrated whole person.
How can psychotherapy help?
In order to grow up in a methodical way using our wisdom to make sense of our internal and external world, we must rely on others to teach us what is required. This is ideally the role of a parent, however, if we have a parent who has been unable to truly separate from their parents and relies on manic defences to navigate the world, then we cannot learn this from them.
Psychotherapy offers and represents a relationship in which our inner worlds can be understood and tolerated. This is not an easy process, but it is a fulfilling one: when the going gets tough, the tough go to therapy.
Returning to the title of this piece, perhaps the challenge for us all is in being able to resist doing anything, and to simply sit there and observe our internal process and acknowledge our feelings. This is the mature response, but does not make for dramatic television!
Mark Vahrmeyer is a UKCP registered integrative psychotherapist who draws strongly on existential thoughts and theory to help clients make sense on an increasingly senseless world. He sees clients in Hove and Lewes.
Further reading by Mark Vahrmeyer –