Chris L. Minnick, M.D.

The Manic Defense

It is easy to have the mistaken notion that if one is not manic depressive then the ‘manic defense’ is a not applicable in our lives. WRONG! You, me, and everyone else uses manic defenses daily, if not hourly. They may not be clinically problematic versions, but they are fundamentally from the same family. Every time you say to yourself, I really should pay the bills, mow the lawn, wash the car, or call my relative who I haven’t spoken with for three months, but instead watch TV, go shopping, play with my hobby, smoke some dope, or masturbate, you are manifesting a manic defense in that you are turning away from a caring voice in your psychic reality.

Let’s up the ante a bit. Every time you ‘forget’ to tell your spouse that you broke their whatever, or lie about where you really are going as you leave the house, or steal your neighbors newspaper because you think they make have taken yours once, or tell your boss you are sick when you are not because they pissed you off yesterday, or cheat on your spouse because they haven’t been nice to you recently, you are using a manic defense.

In each case there is some bit of psychic reality or mental pain that you are evading. In each case you have a rationalization or justification for your action. As H. L. Menken said, “Conscience is the inner voice which warns us that somebody may be looking”. This implies that everyone would use manic defenses if they are not caught because they are not listening to their internal harmony about what is fair, just, and right. In effect, they are using a manic defense to evade what otherwise should cause guilt, and the only potential deterrent is fear of punishment, They manage somehow to justify their actions if they think no one will catch them. From this point of view, almost all criminal action must be a product, among other things, of a manic defense.

So where do these ubiquitous maneuvers originate? Clearly they are more advanced, with their rationalizations and justifications, than the simplistic use of denial and splitting processes that are prominent in the paranoid-schizoid position. It turns out that they are a product of the advancing brain development ushering in the depressive position. If the depressive position is the “ying”, then manic defenses are its “yang”.

The Depressive Position and Manic Defenses:
As the infant moves into the middle and latter part of its first year of life it has really begun to get with the program. It recognizes that mom is separate, that it loves her and really needs her, and that she has her own life that includes other people. None of this would necessarily be a problem if it were not for the infant’s developing capacity to feel guilty when it is frustrated and angry with mom. When it began life and had the world divided into the good guys and the bad guys, it could do whatever it felt like to the bad mom and its own bad self. But it is beginning to see that there are no bad guys, only “good guys behaving badly” to paraphrase the English Kleinian analyst Ron Britton.

So this is where manic defenses come into the picture. The infant is getting cleverer by the day and realizes that it is possible to bypass guilt using a bunch of maneuvers. It even begins to see that these same maneuvers can be used to avoid dependence and obliterate separation. It realizes it has stumbled onto a veritable “gold mine” of ways to avoid the mental pains of the depressive position!

Manic defenses represent a group of maneuvers whose use begins to develop in the latter half of the first year of life and continue with great prominence in many people throughout the lifespan. Their central feature is that they are aimed at evading the pains attendant to loving and needing an object who also makes you angry and want to hurt them. In other words, they aim to evade the pains of the depressive position, and most particularly guilt, and thus effectively denying some aspect of psychic reality.

These maneuvers extend beyond just the evasion of depressive anxieties, i.e. guilt and the fear of losing the person you need and love. This is because the infant soon realizes they also turn out to be pretty effective at denying many of the other pains of infancy such as feeling small, dependent, envious, etc.

Melanie Klein emphasize a triad of maneuvers that are key: control, contempt, and triumph. These three words highlight the underlying attitudes of the infant that can be expressed in a myriad of behaviors.

“Control” aims to obliterate any awareness of separateness because the object does whatever you wish so you can deny that it has a mind and life of its own. It also diminishes envy and jealousy because effectively you have all the benefits of the object’s capacities and attention available to your every whim. It is the least guilt producing because it is easy to deny that the object may have needs of its own that are being thwarted. After all, mom’s were only put on earth to serve the baby, or at least the baby’s party line.

“Contempt” is more aimed at guilt about how you treat the object. If the object is spoiled, made less than human, etc. then it is “good riddance to bad rubbish”, you need not feel badly for hurting what was once your good object.

“Triumph” is an extension of contempt, but especially when envious hatred of the good object’s qualities is added to the desire to evade guilt, risk of loss, and dependence. Then one is not just satisfied to spoil the object, but the desire to triumphantly reverse the situation of who is small, and who is big and controls all the wealth.

Manifestations in Infancy:
An infant does not display much beyond turning away, refusing to open its mouth, pushing away or hitting at something, generally refusing to cooperate, and crying. This is due substantially the infant not yet having language capabilities which makes it more difficult to infer what it is thinking. But just wait a few more months and the attitudes and thoughts that are beginning in the first year are easily represented in recognizable form as language skills are added to increasing mobility.

Every possible way of denying smallness, dependency, love and guilt for bad behavior, envy of what the grown-ups have and can do, etc. can be put into use. For example, smallness and dependence are readily countered by grandiose overestimation of one’s capacities when augmented by a healthy dose of denial of reality.

Every toddler wants to do whatever the grown-ups do, clearly ignoring the realities of the size, strength, knowledge, etc. needed for the task at hand. Furthermore, if they insist the grown-up behave in lock-step with their every command, they can ignore that the grown-up is separate and not really under the toddler’s control. When I was a small child and would tell my mom to stay exactly where I wanted her, and then proceed to ignore her, I was manifesting a component of a potential manic defense.

It is important to note that any behavior of the small child that overestimates its ability may be a product of either or both of two processes. One is simple denial of the differences between the child and the grown-up. But it may also represent the child actually getting inside the grown-up, in unconscious phantasy, and taking possession and control of the parent’s capacities.

If the child also seems to treat the grown up as incompetent, then one can assume an “envious reversal” has taken place. In that circumstance, the child has simultaneously stolen the grown-ups capacities while deposited their own hated smallness and incapacity into the grown-up.

Any guilt that is potentially generated over some misbehavior is then easily denied, blamed on someone else, or the ultimate trump card, make the object of the guilt bad and so then who cares if you hurt it. Toddlers will say things to a parent like “your stupid and I hate you”. This instantly renders the object contemptible and because the object is no longer worthy of love, caring about how you treat it, etc., there is no reason to feel guilt.

If you are feeling an extra dose of envious hatred at that moment, all you have to do is hold on to that contemptuous attitude that the parent or whomever is so thoroughly bad and reprehensible that you are justified in holding them permanently in a state of contempt.

One sees this tragically in cases of divorce where a child sides with one parent and makes the other all bad, functionally ignoring or spoiling all of the things the child once loved and needed from that parent. This is manic behavior but it also exploits the quality of thinking of the paranoid-schizoid position where things are all or none, black or white, etc. In this situation it allows the child to take jealous possession of one parent, especially if the child fears the loss of that parent more than the loss of the one who has been made all bad.

Relationship to Omnipotence and Particularly Anal Omnipotence:
Smallness, dependence, separateness, feeling you have injured your good object, are all fairly obvious to the eye and not easily denied if one is facing reality. But reality is pretty painful much of the time in childhood, even when you have an intact family that is living harmoniously. Most children naturally gravitate to wishful ideas, the most fundamental of all being the idea that there is magic, and you can have it and instantly erase all of the pains I just outlined.

Every area of life that lends itself to the possibility that there might be magic will be seized for the use as magic. If I put on mom’s bra, it will magically give me breasts and I can feed myself. If I pick up daddy’s cordless drill, I will be able to do anything he can do, maybe even marry mom and be her husband.

Those are all pretty fancy and obvious, but the average baby will do something more elemental and basic like imagine that whatever comes out of its own body, and was once food, may have changed into a special food that it can now make for itself. What a wonderful idea, because if it works, one will be self-sufficient forever and never again have to depend on mom for food. With that wishful desire in mind, all bodily products are worth a try.

So omnipotence, in the form of having magic, is a universal component of manic defenses. Its corollary of turning to one’s own body for comfort and sustenance, is an additional huge augmenter of all of the phantasies used in manic defenses. We can go back to our joking paraphrase of the rather perverse saying used earlier, “when the going gets tough, the tough go masturbate”.

Impact on Development:
Every child needs to learn to modulate mental pain by facing it first, then modifying it in a constructive, growth promoting manner. Learning to feel sorry, is the only way you can say you are sorry and mean it.
One needs to learn to do things properly and grow up in a slow, step-wise fashion. One must rely on others to teach you what is necessary to end up a competent adult. All manic defenses potentially interfere with this requisite necessity of tolerance of smallness, not knowing, dependence on others to learn, taking responsibility for one’s mistakes, etc.

Imagine a world where everyone projects blame, many people claim competence but have never learned the basics, where there is heavy reliance on magical solutions that deny reality, where guilt is evaded by saying the other is all bad or not worthy of caring, etc. That is a recipe for disaster when it comes to proper growth and development. It has all the hallmarks of manic defenses! No wonder politicians are easy to despise, especially if we ourselves manically deny that we elected them because they promised a magical solution.

Relationship of Mania to Depression:
As can be inferred from the discussion so far, manic defenses have their root in infancy in relation to mom, and represent a desire to evade all of the pains of the baby’s reality. These maneuvers invariably have a large dose of magic in them, so as to make one self physically larger and more capable, completely independent, and invulnerable to pain in relationship to one’s objects.

Those pains include dependence on a loved object that could go away, guilt for how one is treating that person, and all of that is in addition to the already extant pains of jealousy and envy.

As long as one is a child, one is still not really fully separate from the parent and usually not emotionally independent, even in bad family situations, where there is always hope no matter how unrealistic, that something will change for the better. Turning to one’s own body and bodily products for comfort, or altering one’s identity into a more grandiose one, will typically evolve in form during childhood, into progressively more disguised and derivative equivalents.

Any hobby that involves collecting or making things, becoming passionate about reading books where one individual conquers or saves the world, constantly daydreaming about being someone talented or famous, starting to use substances as a teenager to alter one’s mind and experience, etc. are all potentially manifestations of an urge toward a manic, magical denial of some painful aspect of the reality that one lives.

If a human beings most precious commodity in life is their “internal harmony” then all of the manic defenses are likely to cause an erosion of it. If guilt and fear of punishment are the main things that make a human behave in a civilized manner, denial of caring and guilt removes half of the motivation for doing the right thing with others. If you make the other person less than human, then you can mistreat them any way you wish.

But in “heart of hearts” of people behaving manically, they know that what they are doing is wrong in the sense of the Golden Rule of how you treat others. Simultaneously they are ruining the world in which they live so that there are no longer any good people in it. They have created an “every man for himself” type of universe that no longer has proper, caring relationships. They are damaging their internal good figures, depriving them of life, and it is a guaranteed ticket to depression at some later point in life.

If a person is going to avoid his depression, he will have to ever increasingly ramp up his manic maneuvers to stay a step ahead. And since one can’t ramp them up forever without ultimately flaming out, sooner or later one’s internal world with its damaged objects will catch up with the person and they will get depressed. In case you doubt this, call the hedge fund – ponsey scheme manager Bernie Madoff in prison and ask how it worked out for him.

Sadly, most people never fully face their manic activities until something goes drastically wrong and they come crashing down to earth. This is in part because of the very denial of reality that is so part and parcel of manic defenses, literally by definition.

“Life is full of surprises, mostly bad”, as Bion is purported to have said. When those bad surprises happen, like divorce, death of a friend or loved one, a severe career downturn, or just plain old aging so that one’s beauty and youth are gone, that painful event is often the straw that breaks the proverbial manic camel’s back. Icarus crashes for flying too close to the sun, Michael Jackson dies of a drug overdose, Tiger Woods get caught having affairs, Magic Johnson contracts Aids, and the list goes on and on. If you don’t preserve your internally harmony, sooner or later you will pay in the form of depression, or worse.

Manifestations in the Consulting Room:
Albert Mason, who pioneered Kleinian analysis on the West Coast of the US when he came from London to Los Angeles with Bion, in the late 1960’s, says that analysis of manic defenses represents as much of 75% of the work that analysts do with their patients.

Any person who is a mental health professional could probably write a large novel cataloguing their experiences with manic defensive maneuvers in the consulting room, even if they didn’t recognize them as being what Klein would call manic defenses.

Patients who don’t come on time or pay on time, who constantly denigrate therapy and the therapist in a million different ways, both small and large, who quit therapy to save money, who deny they have an unconscious inner world, who confuse the acquisition of knowledge with the proper application of that knowledge, who think occasionally saying something nice is the same as actually treating your internal and external objects decently, who forget to tell you their bad dream from last night, etc. all are manifesting various versions of a manic defense.

The key point is that the patient who turned away from their original good objects in infancy and childhood will recreate that in the transference. If they did not, there would be no opportunity to explore in the here and now what they have don’t internally their entire lives.

We therapists suffer this recreation of these manic defensive maneuvers so that the patient may one day have a true capacity to have a whole loving relationship and tolerate the precarious uncertainty that the loved object will go on living. When we fail to confront these manic maneuvers, we effectively allow the patient to go insane in the form of spoiling our good work, and it will ultimately lead to a failed treatment or worse.

Manic defenses are central psychological defenses used to cope with the pains of infancy. Like all defensive maneuvers they have a time in development when they may help the infant survive how difficult it is to be small and dependent. But like most developmental phases, it is also possible to overuse or continue to us something that now has the potential to overshoot the mark and interfere with further emotional growth and development.
Since these maneuvers are particularly aimed at altering reality and diminishing one’s love for one’s good object, they have the potential for a particularly pernicious effect on development and internal harmony. They me be human, but that does not mean that they are not also a very big problem in life.
When the going gets tough, the tough should go into analysis, rather than go shopping!

[Note: For an expanded lecture on Manic Defenses see Module Five.]