Defense and character visualized

Though portions are overgeneralized, outdated, or plain incorrect — and the entire concept is, of course, overly simplistic and reductionistic — Information Is Beautiful‘s David McCandless has nevertheless produced an intriguing visualization of psychological defenses and their relation to character. He credits concepts from psychoanalytic theorists Sigmund Freud, Melanie Klein, Heinz Kohut, Ronald Fairbairn, D. W. Winnicott, and Stephen M. Johnson; a good list, but one that omits some of the most influential writers of defense (e.g., Anna Freud) and character (e.g., Wilhelm Reich).

The thin pie slice devoted to “healthy” character is in line with the common, and sometimes true, stereotype that therapists and analysts view nearly everyone as pathological. In fact, the shift in focus of contemporary psychoanalysis away from character “styles” is indicative of an acknowledgement of that tendency, and represents an attempt to correct it. Those coming from relational, interpersonal, and other schools of thought are more inclined to see the individual as an assemblage of self-states rather than a cohesive and fixed character. For instance, a person may be narcissistic in one context and relatively healthy and well-adapted in another.

The visualization’s subtitle (“How psychotherapy sees you”) certainly suggests that McCandless holds a negative attitude toward his impression of how psychologists conceptualize personality. Ironically, many clinical psychology training programs have rejected the psychoanalytic origins of the field, restricting themselves solely to the study of so-called “evidence-based practice.” In other words, Mr. McCandless has probably read more Freud, Klein, and Kohut than most psychotherapists being trained today.

Being Defensive [Information Is Beautiful]


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