Get a Handle on Yourself and Your Characters

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Why would my writing blog review a book about psychology—apart from the fact that I’m on a tear about narcissists, which is how I learned about Dr. Joseph Burgo’s new book, Why Do I Do That?, in the first place? (He’s got a wonderful website, called, After Psychotherapy. Never been in therapy? All the more reason to avail yourself of the wisdom on his site.)

I’m reviewing the book because it can help us writers disclose the depth and pump up the power behind our characters’ actions and knee-jerk reactions, and understand the internal frailties our characters’ and our own defense mechanisms are trying so desperately to protect.

Dr. Burgo says he can understand how Why Do I Do That? “might be a useful tool for writers. In developing fully three-dimensional characters, a writer of fiction has to consider what motivates or drives those characters, and my book’s focus on our ‘primary psychological concerns’ would help” the process of developing those characters.

For those of us who write essays, journals, and memoir—personal, nonfiction reflective writing—it’s critical to have a grasp on why we feel the ways we do, have found ourselves in the fixes we have, and made the adjustments we’ve made to tolerate or extricate ourselves from the various quagmires we’ve landed in. After all, the point of our writing is to understand what we’re trying to banish or preserve, and when we do it well, we connect with our readers and ourselves, though I can tell you, it’s almost never pretty. But, as Michelle Seaton writes in her post about Why Do I Do That?:

“[T]he unpleasant feelings we deny in life we deny doubly on the page.”

One of the most unnerving aspects of Dr. Burgo’s book is that in it I saw every single person I know, every person I’ve ever known, including myself. But, instead of making me smugly label everyone with my new-found knowledge, it helped me see what we’re trying to do to maintain our fragile equilibrium. The book already has affected they way I present myself and others in my writing.

Now, that’s not to say I’m cutting everyone, even myself, a ton of slack. I still want everyone to get over their bad behavior—or keep it away from me (and small children). But it does mean that I now know what’s going on—the why behind the behavior.

Why Do I Do That? is divided into three sections: “Understanding Our Psychological Defense Mechanisms;” “Identifying Your Psychological Defenses” (be prepared to blush, bigtime, over this section); and “Disarming Your Defenses.”

Though in places there’s a good deal of theory, overall Dr. Burgo’s tone is conversational, leaning towards gentle compassion. His use of the word “bear,” as in bear all the burdens and consequences stemming from lackluster or even dangerous early parenting, almost brought me to tears while I sat reading the book at my hair salon. He translates our use of terms like “defense,” which in their original German, conveyed meanings closer to “warding off” or “fending off”—both much more sympathetic phrases than “defenses.”

Also, the book is occasionally peppered with Dr. Burgo’s struggles to subdue his own psychological defenses, which made me grateful for his sympathy; he avoids sounding like an oracle or disapproving parent.

My one complaint is that Why Do I Do That? contains no index (they seem to be becoming largely outmoded), so on those days when someone else’s defenses are driving spears in your sides or your own behavior seems painfully at odds with your goals and well-being, you can’t do an easy, if frantic, search for just the topic that can rescue you. I suggest you mark up your copy of the book liberally so you can find the lifelines in it that you need.

You can follow Dr. Burgo on Twitter.

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