Literature as a defense mechanism

Literature as a defense mechanism

I love to read. Reading is my favorite hobby and my introvert coping strategy of choice. It’s my favorite way to unwind and my go-to HSP escape

(See that word escape? That’s where we start running into trouble. We’ll get there.)

I love books, and I tend to forget that like anything, they can be used to good ends or not-so-good ones. I’ve read a few books recently that have made me re-examine some things about reading.

Books as coping tools

Books as coping tools. 

In the tween book Rules, twelve-year-old Catherine helps her eight-year-old brother navigate the world around him. Because David has autism, he craves structure, hates ambiguity, and struggles with social cues. David loves rules, so Catherine keeps a notebook for David in which she jots down the rules of life.

Some of David’s rules are basic, like “Eat with your mouth closed.” Some are more specifically for David’s needs, like, “If it’s too loud, cover your ears.” Some are more philosophical: “Looking closer can make something beautiful.” 

One of David’s rules is, “If you don’t have the words you need, borrow someone else’s. If you need to borrow words, Arnold Lobel had some good ones.”

In one scene in the book, David is frustrated, and yells out, “The whole world is covered with buttons, and not one of them is mine!” Even though David wasn’t able to articulate his frustration in his own words, he told Catherine exactly what he was feeling by using Frog and Toad’s. 

I love Frog and Toad Are Friends. But I never thought I’d see this childhood classic used as a coping tool—a positive one, I think, for an eight-year-old with autism.

Literature as a defense mechanism

Literature as a defense mechanism.

Last week I read Dear Mr. Knightley (although I first read Daddy-Long-Legs, because you all told me I had to when I shared my summer reading list). Twenty-something Samantha is a bookworm, to say the least, and she has an impressive memory for literary quotes. But Samantha’s troubled past makes it difficult for her to connect with people emotionally. 

Samantha tends to shut down and hide her true self from people she cares about—and she does so by using the words of her favorite authors instead of her own. In order for Samantha to heal and become the person she was meant to be, she needs to find her own words—not borrow someone else’s.

While reading Dear Mr. Knightley, I realized I did this myself, though to a lesser degree, when I was younger. Lacking confidence in my own opinions and my authority to proclaim them, I’d cite the opinions of others instead of using my own words. I’m talking about ordinary conversation, not research-based arguments.

I don’t do that much anymore, and I think it’s because I’m more healthy and whole than I was back then.

Books as a place to hide.

In her enneagram podcast with Tsh, my friend Leigh happened to mention that reading could be a way to hide from the world.  

I’d never thought about it like that before, and it made me nervous, because I say all the time that reading is my favorite introvert coping strategy. But Leigh was talking about reading—reading!—as bona fide unhealthy behavior. Since then, I’ve been assessing my own reading habits with a sharper eye.

I read a lot: am I reading to recharge, or am I reading to hide? One is healthy behavior; one is not.

I don’t think I have the propensity to hide in my books, but as a serious bookworm, it’s a good question to ask myself. And it’s one to discuss with my counselor next time I check in with her. 

Do you have experience with the dark side of reading? Do you see reading being used as a positive coping tool and/or an unhealthy defense mechanism by the people around you?  

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56 comments

  1. I had to come find your review of Dear Mr. Knightley because I finished it last night. Instead of working. Because I’m stressed out and use reading as a coping mechanism (or worse). I bought it after you mentioned it was on sale a while back. I’m not a huge Austen fan (sorry), so I wasn’t all that inclined to like it…but I LOVED IT. The interesting (to me) thing was that when I started it, I thought a lot about a certain friend who needs to read it. Because she has some of the same problems as Sam, and she needs to change, obviously. I kept thinking about that – until I realized that the person who most needs to read that book is ME. Because I also share some struggles with Sam (not truly connecting with people so they can’t hurt me – yay, fun times acknowledging personal issues!). So, there it is. My feelings about this book you made me read. 🙂

  2. Kathy says:

    Totally get this. As an INFJ HSP, this is my world: books. One must balance IRL with the thousands of worlds books offer, worlds that often offer what the real one can’t. But- there is also bibliotherapy that is legitimately healing. For example, when I read Girl of the Limberlost and Jacob Have I Loved, I came to understand my personal world had been lived by others; I was not alone. That helped me very much. I think it might be healthy to search for ways to cope or words to help in books- with balance in mind, of course. 😊

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