Literature as a defense mechanism

Literature as a defense mechanism | Modern Mrs Darcy

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?  

Books mentioned in this post:

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  1. Courtney says:

    I’ve long thought I use reading to hide, both from the real world and my responsibilities. I can always justify “just one more chapter” and the day quickly gets away from me. Since having my second baby, I’ve been reading a lot more on my iPhone using the kindle app. It’s harder for me to sit down with an in-the-flesh book, so when I start to get carried away (5 books a week), those are the books I turn to. It takes me longer to read them because the baby is much more interested in actual books than my phone.

    • Shelley says:

      Holy Moly! 5 books a week! Wow….sounds like heaven…:) I read about two books on average per week, sometimes three. I don’t want to rush through them, but lets face it, there are so many other books out there I really want to read. Do you just read really fast or just make the time to do it?

  2. Virginia says:

    I would absolutely say I use my reading addiction equally for bad and good. I often find I read when avoiding unpleasant things–cleaning (I hate!! cleaning), my to-do list, unwelcome obligations, conversations that will be difficult. I’ve always been a bottomless pit consumer of books, but, yes, I definitely think it can be a two edged sword if you use it to ignore or avoid the world to a point of hindrance.

    Good post!!!

  3. Ana says:

    I have experienced several dark side encounters with reading, although I still read as much as I can. I can get really emotionally invested in characters, and have a hard time distancing myself from the story–I obsessively read the endings of books first, because I try and avoid really sad stories for this reason. This doesn’t happen that often, and tends to be with books I really love and reread.

    As a child I read A LOT, and much of it was to escape–I was also shy, which didn’t help matters any. I probably should have read less and played with kids my own age more, but I eventually came out of my shell.

    On the flip side, I realized recently that reading is one of the only times my brain is focused on one thing, and not going in five different directions at the same time. This is something I’m trying to bring over into other parts of my life–the constant multitasking of my brain is exhausting, and not terribly productive.

  4. Wow – I love the first example above, where David uses Frog and Toad’s words to express his feelings. Super cool.

    I read Dear Mr. Knightley too and I was rooting for Sam to find her own words in the end. I do use books as a hiding place sometimes when I’m stressed or overwhelmed – though I don’t think that’s always a bad thing. (It can be, though.) Thought-provoking post!

  5. Kristen says:

    I’ve seen both sides of this in my own life. As a child, I retreated into the fictional worlds of books because I couldn’t cope with the negative parts of my own life (alcoholism, divorce, poverty). Books were a way for me to find relief from the stress of my childhood, but they also delayed my responses and helped me avoid confronting some of those issues. As an adult, reading is much more about pleasure and relaxation, which I think is a healthy form of escapism (without shirking my duties as a mom, since I save reading for when my 3 girls are sleeping). It’s funny that you wrote a post on this topic today. I just had a conversation with my husband earlier this week about my reading habits and how my reasons for reading have changed so much in the last 10 years.

    • Shelley says:

      That is really, really interesting. I had a somewhat troubled childhood also, sounds like similar to yours. I read a lot and was pretty quiet. I remember loving books that had traditional families…nice, solid families with routines. 🙂 There could be something to that. I never thought about it.

  6. Elysha says:

    You and I are very similar (it’s kinda eerie). My husband is not a reader, but I am. He says to me the other day, “Could you fast from books? Could you NOT read for pleasure for a set amount of time?” He asked these questions because much of my day revolves around reading. I could fast from food (and I have), I can easily fast from certain activities, but asking me to give up reading for a certain amount of time seems like the most painful thing ever and I’ve begun to ask WHY I read. I think you’ve hit upon something here…

    • Shelley says:

      Not that I really know, but it seems like you probably could if you had to maybe?? But would you want to or be happy without reading?? That might be the bigger question.

      I do know that sometimes I found myself reading while in the car with my husband driving and it hit me one day, that’s kind of rude! So I try not to do that, but for me reading is motivation to get through my other to-do items so I can sneak away and read for awhile…in the quiet. 🙂

    • Rebekah says:

      I have done this before- my last semester of college- I wanted to focus in on personal and spiritual growth and ended up giving up reading for pleasure from lent through the end of the semester- It was hard but a beautiful time- and that next book was great! Although I cannot remember what I chose

  7. EricaM says:

    I definitely used reading as a way of hiding back in high school and my first year of college. There were several things going on then, and I often just went into my room, shut the door, and read. Thankfully I pulled myself out of that (moving 800 miles away and being forced to get to know an entirely new place helped).

  8. It’s interesting that I should read this today. I’ve actually been thinking about this lately, and as I am going through a complete life change right now, I’ve noticed that I have been reading a lot more recently. Almost obsessively. While I have always loved books since childhood, I have had periods in my life when I would go months without reading. Examining that now, I realize it was when I was completely wrapped up in someone or something such as my drawing. I’ve always read for pleasure and nothing says home and comfort to me than curling up with a book. But now looking back, and even right now in this current season of my life, I do believe I’m doing it as a coping mechanism. Because life is pretty overwhelming for me at the moment and I have always said reading was a great “escape”. I’ve stayed up late every night this week and had to drag myself out of bed the next morning, all because I didn’t want to put the book down. Not only because it was a good book, but because when I did, all the other thoughts would start flooding my mind. I’m not one to usually start reading a book immediately after I finish one, because I like to take time to reflect on what I just read, but for the past 2 weeks I’ve devoured them.
    So I’m glad you posted this, it’s made me aware that I’m doing this. Not saying it’s a bad thing that I have, we all have our ways of coping.

    • Kelli says:

      Oh, so interesting! I definitely use books as an escape when things are challenging for me (as well as for pure enjoyment all the rest of the time) and I read every second I can spare when things are especially difficult.

      I can totally relate to what you’re saying, Melanie, about reasons for not wanting to put a book down at night. I was just thinking about it the other day – even when it’s really late and I’m tired and know I need to sleep, I’ll still feel almost “afraid” to stop reading, and it totally makes sense that it’s to not have to just be with whatever’s going on…..It’s much more pleasant to be with an “old friend” in a book …

      Great post, Anne!

  9. Sloan says:

    This is an interesting thought. I don’t think I use books to hide, but I know my husband, who is not a reader, doesn’t like when I read because I’m too engrossed in my book to pay attention to him.

  10. Angie says:

    There’s a small section in Tolkien’s essay, “On Fairie Stories” where he talks about reading as escapism. I’ve pondered this idea too, but I loved Tolkien’s conclusion-that what man, finding himself imprisoned in a world where he does not belong, wouldn’t look for escape? And why would we begrudge him a window? (Loved the whole essay as homeschooling/reading aloud to kids inspiration too).

    That being said… I’m also reading “Amusing Ourselves to Death” and while it feels more prophetic of screen media, it’s also causing me to rethink my voracious reading and the content of it especially.

    Great discussion! Looking forward to checking in on the comments!

  11. I actually think about this a lot. Having experienced a lot of different types of addiction second-hand I never drank or smoked or did drugs, but I definitely have used reading in the same fashion that others use those substances. The only difference is that it’s so much more socially acceptable, even laudable, to go on a “book bender”. I have gone through periods of neglecting my kids, my house and my husband because I am stuck in a book.

    It’s other things too, if not books: being online, crossword puzzles, pretty much anything that takes my brain out of where I currently am. It’s really the mindset more than the actual behavior, I think.

    Of course, I’m not equating the danger or potential emotional or physical damage to alcoholism or drug addiction by any means, but the behavior is still there of using something that takes me outside myself to escape and being very hard pressed to give it up.

    • laura says:

      I agree with you. Because reading as an addiction doesn’t have the same overt dangers as other addictions, it is much harder to address or even admit. It does however have the same consequence as other addictions namely avoiding our pain and not allowing us to heal.

  12. Emily says:

    I definitely see how reading can be both healthy and an unhealthy behavior. I love to read; it is a great way for me to relax and recharge. But I am also aware that when my depression and/or anxiety flares up, reading the way that I escape from the currently unpleasant reality. A little bit of that may be ok; if I’m back on my feet in a day or two I don’t worry too much. But if it goes on longer, that is a sign that I need to reassess meds and excercise and time outdoors and healthy food choices!

  13. Julie R says:

    Have you read To Play the Fool by Laurie R King? It’s about a man who only communicates using quotations because of an event in his past where his words had significant consequences for those he loved. It’s actually the second book in a series, but it can be read independently.

    Not apropos to your current post, but I think you’d like many of Laurie R Kings books, especially her Mary Russell series.

    • Terri Torrez says:

      My favorite author! I have read the Russell series more times than I can count but only read the Martinelli series once. Maybe I should pull those back out.

  14. Shelley says:

    I think, for me, reading is a gift. I homeschool my three kids and we go a lot. They love to talk and we often have friends over. I think escaping away to my room to read a bit is my way to recalibrate. I’m not naturally someone who loves to go constantly and I can easily get peopled out. 🙂 My 20-30 minutes away here and there allows me to come back to the job at hand with a better attitude.

    I do see where there would be harm however, if you were reading so much you weren’t really participating in life OR where your reading was excessive enough to take you away from the people in your life. Like all things, there must be balance.

  15. Anjanette says:

    I definitely use books as a coping mechanism, but I think it’s healthy. While sometimes I just like to escape into a book, at times in my life when I’ve been especially challenged I’ve found strength in books too.

    Self-help books don’t generally appeal to me, but somehow I am usually able to dig deep and find the courage I need to move forward after I vicariously experience a difficult journey with a fictional character I identify with. Perhaps it’s the bookworm’s shortcut to “fake it till you make it”?

    I also loved RULES, and incidentally my kids on the autistic spectrum have also borrowed language from books to express themselves as David does in the book. Thanks for the DEAR MR KNIGHTLEY recommendation– I will have to check it out!

  16. Hannah says:

    Timely post. I’ve has to ask myself this very questions many times throughout my life. I knew I was doing when I was twelve. It’s harder to pinpoint now but it’s important for me to keep asking myself if I’m using books in order to not deal with things. Sometimes I think the answer is ‘yes.’ Other times I’m pretty sure it’s ‘no.’

  17. Shelley says:

    By the way, just a side-question, though related…Are you all able to sit for prolonged periods and read? I can do that fairly well at night, but during the day, I find I have a hard time sitting still for very long to read. I must need to work on my ability to concentrate. 🙂

  18. Kate O says:

    The powerful thing about the Enneagram is that it explores what happens when we overuse our strengths. Every good thing can have a shadow side as well – just like loving to read v. reading to hide! As an Enneagram 3, I have joked that I read like it’s a competitive sport. When going to a bookstore started to become a form of torture because I despaired at all I had yet to read – rather than basking in the options and possibilities – I knew I had to make a change. So I’m currently reading for pleasure very little (part of this is also because I’m growing my new business) right now. I just need to give myself a break and return to what reading for pleasure should truly feel like!

  19. Ohhh this is fascinating. Our little one is on the spectrum. I hope he conquers reading soon and it gives him another outlet of communication. Hiding is never a good thing but I think for introverts (or borderline introverts as I am) it is soo healthy to recharge!

  20. My first husband walked out suddenly when our daughter was just 2 years old. In the first 8 months after his leaving, I could not sleep more than 3-4 hours each night. During those months I read for HOURS each evening and into the early morning hours. I read roughly 50 books during those 8 months- and kept a running record of titles. I read some fiction (it IS my first love, after all!) but I also read a lot of bible studies (I LOVE Max Lucado’s books!), and self-help books for women in my situation to help me cope with the sudden crisis. Yes, it was somewhat escapist, but under those circumstances I feel that it was the healthiest escape I could have managed. I still read a LOT when I have stress in my life, but often I choose books that speak to the situation I am facing at the time.

    • Anne says:

      Joanna, what a horrible situation to find yourself in. I’m glad you had those books to keep you company in the wee hours. And yes—that sounds like the healthiest possible escape.

  21. Ana says:

    It seems like anything that is a coping mechanism for stress is labeled “unhealthy”. What are we supposed to do then, when we really need to escape for a while? I mean, you can over-eat, over-drink, over-exercise, over-share, and now even over-read? Sometimes I really need to quiet my mind, and losing myself in a book for a while is the healthiest way I can think of; it certainly beats taken out my frustrations on others. As long as you don’t neglect the other important facets of your life (i.e. your marriage/children/career/home), then I don’t see the harm in having an escape mechanism for when things are just too much.

  22. Brittany says:

    Enjoy your blog as you ask thoughtful questions like this and have interesting discussions! Well, I certainly was a bookworm in middle school/high school like many others, and I do believe there was an element of hiding out in that reading. However, as an adult, I go through busy seasons where I don’t pick up as many books as I like, so when I do, I’m appreciative of all the escapism it provides. Great post.

  23. Karlyne says:

    So, all of these comments and your blog, Anne, boil down to the “why”, don’t they? Personally, I think that I read because I decided years ago that it is my one true talent…

  24. Angie says:

    Excellent point! I’d have to admit that when my mood takes a downturn I read more. If I really spiral I move from books to TV series on Netflix. The nursing rule for taking a history from an alcohol abuser is take the amount they SAY they drink and double it to get an accurate amount. I have to admit that works for me and books as well :/

  25. Kate O says:

    I read something this morning that made me think of this post so I wanted to comment again. I’m reading Alice Hoffman’s little book “Survival Lessons” one short chapter every morning before meditating. Today’s chapter is called “Choose How You Spend Your TIme” and is mostly about reading. Hoffman writes, “I’ve often wondered if I spent too much time inside of books. If perhaps I ended up getting lost in there. I feared that reading, and later writing, stopped me from living a full life in the real world.” But she goes on to say that, in difficult times, books are her “life raft.”

  26. Terri Torrez says:

    I too use reading to both recharge and to hide. One clue that I’m hiding — re-reading my favorites for the billionth time. Sometimes it just takes too much mental energy to read something new. I think at this point, I’ve mostly come to terms with my need to hide sometimes. I’m just careful not to let it go on too long.

  27. laura says:

    I have addressed this question many times lately. Never gave it a thought until someone challenged me on it. I think it does come down to the why. Sometimes it is perfectly ok and a chance to recharge. For me i can now identify when it is an escape from hard life, fear of real life (intimacy and rejection issues) or just needing to shut my brain down for a bit. When I sense it is an attempt to hide from something or feelings of some sort that’s when i have to challenge myself to make another choice and deal with the fear or pain. Sometimes I’m even successful.

  28. 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. 🙂

  29. 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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