The manic defence refers to 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 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 realise 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.
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 on the phone to 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. As the 19th century writer Oscar Wilde 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.’
Watch my recent TED Talk, In Praise of Idleness