Hide and Seek

Understanding self-deception, self-sabotage, and more

Why Is It So Difficult to Do... Nothing at All?

The manic defence, or, finding the courage to stop.

To do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual. —Oscar Wilde

The manic defence 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 or feelings. A general example of the manic defence is the person who spends all of his time rushing around from one task to the next, and who is unable to tolerate even short periods of inactivity. For this person, even leisure time consists in a series of discrete programmed activities that he needs to submit to in order to tick off from an actual or mental list. One needs only observe the expression on his face as he ploughs through yet another family outing, cultural event, or gruelling exercise routine to realize that his aim in life is not so much to live in the present moment as it is to work down his never-ending list. If one asks him how he is doing, he is most likely to respond with an artificial smile and a robotic response along the lines of, ‘Fine, thank you—very busy of course!' In many cases, he is not fine at all, but confused, exhausted, and fundamentally unhappy.

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Other, more specific, examples of the manic defence include the socialite who attends one event after another, the small and dependent boy who charges around declaiming that he is Superman, and the sexually inadequate adolescent who laughs ‘like a maniac' at the slightest intimation of sex. It is important to distinguish this sort of ‘manic laughter' from the more mature laughter that arises from suddenly revealing or emphasizing the ridiculous or absurd aspects of an anxiety-provoking person, event, or situation. Such mature laughter enables a person to see a problem in a more accurate and less threatening context, and so to diffuse the anxiety that it gives rise to. All that is required to make a person laugh is to tell him the truth in the guise of a joke or a tease; drop the pretence, however, and the effect is entirely different. In short, laughter can be used either to reveal the truth or - as in the case of the manic defence - to conceal it or to block it out.

Indeed, the essence of the manic defence is to prevent feelings of helplessness and despair from entering the conscious mind by occupying it with opposite feelings of euphoria, purposeful activity, and omnipotent control. This is no doubt why people feel driven not only to mark but also to celebrate such depressing milestones as entering the workforce (graduation), getting ever older (birthdays, New Year), and even, more recently, death and dying (Halloween) - laughing when they should be crying and crying when they should be laughing. The manic defence may also take on more subtle forms, such as creating a commotion over something trivial; filling every ‘spare moment' with reading, study, or chatting on the phone with a friend; spending several months preparing for Christmas or some civic or sporting event; seeking out status or celebrity so as to be a ‘somebody' rather than a ‘nobody'; entering into baseless friendships and relationships; even, sometimes, getting married and having children.

In Virginia Woolf's novel of 1925, Mrs Dalloway, one of several ways in which Clarissa Dalloway prevents herself from thinking about her life is by planning unneeded events and then preoccupying herself with their prerequisites—‘always giving parties to cover the silence'. Everyone uses the manic defence, but some people use it to such an extent that they find it difficult to cope with even short periods of unstructured time, such as holidays, weekends, and long-distance travel, which at least explains why airport shops are so profitable. In sum, it is not that the manically defended person is happy—not at all, in fact—but that he does not know how to be sad and, in time, at peace and at play. As the 19th century writer Oscar Wilde (Figure 3) put it in his essay, The Critic as Artist: With Some Remarks on the Importance of Doing Nothing, ‘To do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual.'

It should be noted that the manic defence is particularly prevalent in Occidental and Occidentalized societies such as the USA and the UK. One of the central tenets of the Western worldview is that one should always be engaged in some kind of outward task; in contrast, most people living in a country such as Kenya in Africa do not share in this idea that it is somehow noble or worthwhile to spend all of one's time rushing around from one task to the next. When Westerners go to Kenya and behave as they do back home, they are met with peels of laughter and cries of ‘Mzungu', which is Swahili for ‘Westerner'. The literal translation of ‘Mzungu' is ‘one who moves around', ‘to go round and round', or ‘to turn around in circles'.

Sometimes, however, a life situation can become so unfulfilling or untenable that the manic defence no longer suffices to block out negative feelings, and the person has no real choice but to switch and to adopt the depressive position. Put differently, a person adopts the depressive position if the gap between his current life situation and his ideal life situation becomes so large that it can no longer be carpeted over. His goals seem far out of reach and he can no longer envisage a future. As in Psalm 41, abyssus abyssum invocat - ‘hell brings forth hell', or, in an alternative translation, ‘the deep calls onto the deep'.

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Neel Burton is author of The Meaning of MadnessThe Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide and Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception

Neel Burton, M.D., is a psychiatrist, philosopher, and writer who lives and teaches in Oxford, England.

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