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4.9 out of 5 stars
4.9 out of 5 stars

This is an absolutely fascinating, worrying and thought provoking read. We all like to think we know ourselves better than anyone else does but do any of us realise how much we are deceiving ourselves about some things in our lives? I found myself alternately laughing and frowning as I read. I was laughing as I recognised other people's self deceptions and frowning as I was forced to recognise that some at least of these issues are mine.

The author suggests that it is never going to be possible for any of us to eliminate self deception completely from our lives and that some forms of self deception can actually prove very productive for us. Many forms of self deception are ways in which we can deal with difficult situations.

A good example is having a bad day at work and rather than taking it out on family and friends you might go and play a fast and furious game of tennis. Now I know why when I am angry about a situation where it is going to be counter-productive to express that anger I take refuge in doing a lot of household chores very fast and with a great deal of energy! Sublimation can be useful.

There are many other forms of self deception and the author cites many interesting examples of where self deception has been used in public situations. I am a glass half full person and I was slightly annoyed to realise that this could be classed as self deception as I am always ignoring the bad things about any situation and focussing on the good things. I cheered up when I realised that the glass half empty people of my acquaintance are also guilty of self deception.

This is an interesting read for anyone who is interested in human being and how they behave and the reasons for that behaviour.
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on 3 September 2016
We all deceive oursenves for necessary reasons, until we are healed enough to not have to rely on these defences any more.

For a terrified child, these defences allow at least some measure of coping.

I am 72, have had, off and on, as necessary, 20 years of counselling from the same source. My defences were so ingrained, that it was about five years before I began to be able to attempt the process of becoming whole. It has been like climbing a cliff-face. I have had times of progress, always painful, as they involve self-awareness which may not be pretty; also times of rest and incubation of these hard-to-take truths about myself and my parentingl; also times of regression and denial.

This book is clear and simple about our ego defences. It requires a degree of self acceptance and understanding of one's deficits, to appreciate its insights.
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on 11 March 2012
Writing from a Freudian perspective with insights from evolutionary psychology, Greek philosophy, the "Bhagavad Gita," Buddhism, and everyday life, psychiatrist/philospher Neel Burton makes it clear that self-deception is and has always been the norm in human behavior.

Dr. Burton organizes ego defenses into four basic categories: "abstraction," "transformation (or distortion)," "evasion," and "projection."

Abstraction includes denial, repression, anger, intellectualization, depression, and some others. Transformation recalls reaction formation (a term I haven't heard in years), minimization, etc. Evasion is about being vague or inauthentic, or maybe regressing or daydreaming, or telling jokes. Projection is basically tagging others with your own failures or shortcomings.

This all may sound somewhat abstract but Burton's straightforward and uncluttered prose makes this book a surprisingly easy read. Some of that is due to the vivid examples from history and literature that Burton provides to support his elaborate taxonomy.

I very much liked Burton's defense of depression especially in light of the overmedication we are getting from the psychiatric profession these days. Burton writes "The time and space and solitude that the adoption of the depressive position affords prevents us from making rash decisions...," allows us "to see the bigger picture" and "to reassess our social relationships..." (p. 60). I would add that seasonal depression at least may well be adaptive in that staying put (depressed persons typically don't want to do anything or go anywhere) when the weather is not good may help in avoid danger and prolong life. Burton's near celebration of the honesty and courage of "people in the depressive position" that ends the chapter may be a bit overdone for some people. You might want read it for yourself on pages 62 and 63. For me this is an example of the intelligence and creativity that Burton brings to the subject of ego defenses.

Burton classifies some defense mechanisms as "mature" and others as "immature," (or what we might call adaptive and productive verses unadaptive and destructive). He contends that one of the purposes of daydreaming is "to relax and recuperate; and perhaps even to find creative inspiration." (p. 138) In writing about regression (perhaps as a means of relating to children) Burton explains how ego defenses can in general be positive. "If regression, or indeed any other process that is used for ego defence, is consciously employed--whether for ego defence or any other purpose such as empathy, enjoyment, play, humour, inspiration, creativity, and even survival--then it stops being our unthinking master and turns into our good and faithful servant." (p. 143)

In the chapter on asceticism Burton reminds us of these words from Krishna in the "Bhagavad Gita": "There has never been a time when you and I have not existed, nor will there be a time when we will cease to exist..." (p. 164). On the next page Burton quotes Wittgenstein in what amounts to an interpretation of Krishna's words: "If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present." This idea is further explored in my book, "Yoga: Sacred and Profane (Beyond Hatha Yoga)."

While Burton includes "altruism" as an ego defense, he notes "There can be no such thing as an `altruistic' act that does not involve some element of self-interest, no such thing, for example, as an altruistic act that does not lead to some degree, no matter how small, of pride or self-satisfaction." (p. 179)

I think Burton is correct in this and indeed in his overall assessment of the meaning and purpose of self-deceptions. Where I would differ slightly is by saying that ego defenses (or self-deceptions) are in general either adaptive or maladaptive in the Darwinian sense and should be seen as attempts to maintain "psychological homeostasis." For more on this see my book, "The World Is Not as We Think It Is."

One of the things that makes this book much more interesting than might be expected is the way Burton recalls apt historical examples or incidents in the news to illustrate his points. Noting that the so-called "Stockholm Syndrome" may partially underlie the ego defense "reaction formation," Burton recalls the famous Patty Heart case from the 1970s after pointing to the syndrome's christening by psychiatrist Nils Bejerot after a robbery and hostage situation at a Stockholm bank in 1973. (See pages 85-87.)

In Chapter 17 Burton sees "inauthenticity" (basically what I would call "faking it") as a means to "minimize or put off the existential anxiety associated with choice and responsibility." (p. 115) In this context he recalls Freud and Erich Fromm who wrote "The Fear of Freedom" (titled "Escape from Freedom" in the US) and other works on our existential fear of real freedom. Burton quotes Freud from "Civilization and Its Discontents": "Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility."

Perhaps the most profound statement in the book is this from page 108" "...one could go so far as to argue that the self is nothing but the sum total of our ego defences, and that it is therefore tantamount to one gigantic ego defence, namely, the ego itself."

I want to close this rather long review three quotes from the book that I think illustrate Burton's deep understanding of human psychology:

In talking about what is the right thing to do (such as perhaps leaving your estate to some worthy cause) Burton writes, "...this goes to the very heart of ancient virtue, which can be defined as the perfection of our nature through the triumph of reason over passion. The truly altruistic act is the virtuous act and the virtuous act is, always, the rational act." (p. 179)

In lamenting the relative absence of Plato and Aristotle in higher education today, Burton writes, "...the best education is not that which enables a person to make a living, nor even that which enables him to make a social contribution, but that which inspires and enables him on the path of freedom and individuation, and which, in the longer term, leads to the fullest living and the greatest social contribution." (p.183)

Finally, there is this from Burton's "Final Words": "...it is not just that ego defences may or may not provide us with one or several advantages, but also that they define our human nature and thereby frame the human experience." (p. 218)

There is so much more that I could say about this deeply wise and most stimulating book. Perhaps the best thing I can do is to suggest that you get a copy and read it for yourself.
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on 16 March 2015
Concise yet comprehensive, Dr. Neel Burton provides a well-written and accessible tour d'horizon of the most common ego defences we encounter. Well worth the read, for anyone with an interest in greater self-knowledge, or in greater understanding of others.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 20 April 2012
From the outset, I should point out that Dr Burton sent me a complimentary copy of this book to review. I was pleased to do so because, whilst I do not have a professional interest in the fascinating subject of the defence mechanisms we construct in our lives to protect us from mental pains, it is a subject in which I have more than a passing interest. Thus I should also state that I studied at degree level many of the philosophers and psychologists referred to in Dr Burton's book, but that I also have undergone two periods of professional psychotherapy in my forty-seven years.

So what of the book? My first impressions were not good. Burton calls his subject the "science" of self-deception, which might trouble philosophers of scientific method, but, more damningly, he ends his very first sentence with a preposition! Mercifully, he does not repeat this crime too often; indeed, his prose is generally clear and should be readily understood by anyone with a half-decent education. In short, Burton writes for the general reader.

The importance of the subject is made manifest in Burton's introduction, where he writes that self-deception "is responsible for the vast majority of human tragedies ... I don't think anything could possibly be more important." He goes on to warn the reader that his book might be difficult, not in an intellectually-demanding way, but because it might "provoke violent reactions". Believing myself to have an open and curious mind, with a determination to seek out truths, I found Burton's assertion here a little melodramatic; but it is he who is the professional here, it is he who has had to cope with his patients' refusals, however violent, to come to terms with the `reality' of their own ego defences. Having said that, ego-defence mechanisms are also coping strategies, so some measure of care, to be sure, is needed. To be human is to experience anxiety and this book describes the ways our minds deal with it.

The bulk of the book is split into four (or five) parts, each section focussing on a particular group of ego defences. He takes us through each one in a clear and readily understandable literary style, making good use of cogent and illuminating examples. Where he has to use technical terminology, these are usually fully explained in footnotes. (I particularly welcomed his clarification of the definitions of `psychotherapy', `psychoanalysis', and `psychiatry'.) Burton makes use of humour too; I particularly enjoyed reading about Voltaire's Professor Pangloss, and Walter Raleigh's son's method of paternal retribution.

Reading through all these ego defences, it can seem a pick-and-mix affair, and I am sure many of us reading them will think that Dr Burton has fixed his eye on us on some of them. The author himself is not averse to using his own circumstances as examples, and I am thus intrigued to know what it is that he does "that I should not be doing (usually involving making money)". There is much interlinking between entries, demonstrating the author's contention that the dividing line between different defences is often blurred.

Sometimes Burton extends his entry on a particular defence mechanism into other areas. For example, his writing on somatisation morphs into an appraisal of Plato's and Aristotle's views on how to lead the good life. He also discusses the concept of `the self' in the chapter on reification (but fails in his conclusions to consider the existence of `the soul' - subject for another book, perhaps?; instead he reviews eastern philosophies' concern about the illusion of the ego.)

A few niggles arise. For instance, how can Burton be sure that Leonardo "sublimated his homosexuality into his art", or that Leonardo's `John the Baptist' "looks nothing like the biblical cousin of Jesus"? But, in a more positive light, Burton has quite a refreshing and welcomingly-helpful view of depression, and that pills are not necessarily the solution.

Having reviewed the exhaustive list of ego-defences, Dr Burton's final words concede that "self-deception can have a number of benefits", and that on balance self-deception can be the better option. They say taxes are the price to be paid for civilisation. But well before even taxes existed, the systems our ancestors put in place to avert the dangers of anxiety - whilst being "responsible for the vast majority of human tragedies" - have just as often perhaps aided human collaboration and the making of civilised society.

In conclusion, then, this is a thought-provoking book about the dangers hidden just under the surface of all of our characters, and the mechanisms we learn - usually without knowing it - to cope with things that cause us mental pain and anxiety. To that extent, Dr Burton is right to say that nothing could possibly be more important.
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For those who are interested in Self-deception, this book is a must read. It is very informative and yet very, very easy to read! Though I must add that it can be a bitter-sweet self-awareness experience. However, for those who are interesed in developing their 'self' further, while reflection upon one's behaviour, this is definitely a book, which sheds light upon one's various unconscious actions related to self-deception.
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on 22 March 2012
On the surface, Burton's Hide & Seek purports to describe the many ego defence mechanisms we use to protect ourselves from painful truths. It is certainly an effective summary of them, and its short chapter format allows it to act as a concise reference guide, especially for readers who come at the subject without prior knowledge of this area. At a deeper, more subtextual level, it encourages the reader to identify which mechanisms they are using in their own lives, and whether they are helping or hindering the search for personal happiness. A worthy exercise for all to undertake!
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on 4 February 2013
I found this book as close to a mirror as one could make a book. You get to see the warts and all, but I found it very freeing.
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on 5 August 2012
Neel Burton writes clearly and succinctly. His insights and connections are coherent and consistent.It is for the reader to initially orient reading by clarifying attitudes to orthodox Freudian theory. That said, this book is one of a growing number which point to the wisdom of classical philosophers in understanding the psyche.
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on 20 February 2013
I would recommend this book to for both personal and professionals, easy to read and understand. Great book for anyone looking to improve their self awareness.
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