After my recent article on defensiveness, I coached a member of the Thinking Lab who was concerned that productiveness was a defense value for him. He realized that he had a compulsion to prioritize getting things done over every other value — relationships, health, sanity, etc. He could see that he was driven to do that by some unnamed fear. This distorted motivation was undercutting his happiness. He was understandably distressed to think that his productiveness, on which he prided himself, was part of his problem.
I sympathized. I identified a similar problem in myself some years ago and was similarly distressed. There is a theory that these kinds of motivational problems are at root problems with one’s self-esteem. In this theory, a defense value is formed as a substitute for a lack of self-esteem. It becomes a source of “pseudo-self-esteem.”
Based on this conceptualization, I was concerned that my value of productivity was some kind of a fake. I started to distrust my desire to be productive. Questioning my longstanding devotion to productiveness was confusing and demoralizing, and it significantly interfered with my productivity. The effect of this thinking was to create new experiences of self-doubt, rather than to help me solve an apparent problem with my self-esteem that I had unearthed by vigilant introspection.
I now reject this analysis in its entirety. The concept “pseudo-self-esteem” misdirects your attention to an abstract implication of a motivational problem rather than the root cause. Conceptualizing the problem in terms of “pseudo-self-esteem” makes it more difficult to solve the motivational problem, not less.
Moreover, the existence of a defense value doesn’t mean that you “lack self-esteem” per se.
It was my own self-esteem that gave me confidence to put aside what I had been taught and go by my own judgment when I saw how destructive it was. It was my own self-esteem that I called upon to do the in-depth introspective work that untangled this problem in myself. It was my own self-esteem that I called upon to figure out how to conceptualize what I learned so I could explain it to others.
So, for any of you who discover defense values in yourself, here is another way to look at it.
My understanding of how defense values form
To recap, an anti-value is something that is stored in your subconscious as a huge, out-of-context threat to be avoided at all costs. You feel as if dealing with it would be intolerable. Thus, your automatized reaction to it is to panic and run away.
The consequence to your psychology of an anti-value is this: because you consistently avoid this alleged threat, you remain ignorant, incompetent, and indifferent to learning how to deal with it. You have a dearth of stored conceptual content regarding this issue. It is just a big scary black hole of nothingness in place of the connections to knowledge, skills, and values you would need to deal with it.
Because an anti-value creates such a gap in your psyche, it is true that if you have formed an anti-value, you will feel self-doubt whenever you find yourself in any circumstance in which you need to deal with that scary issue. You don’t have the ability to deal with it. The self-doubt is earned by past avoidance of the issue.
This is how anti-values can cause defense values. Suppose that when you feel this self-doubt, there is a moderately strong value in the vicinity that you could easily pursue and get a quick payoff. For example, reading a good story can provide a shot of recreation and inspiration with very little effort. If instead of dealing with the self-doubt, you went off to read a story, you could get a payoff plus at the same time avoid the horrible feeling; that prediction creates a very strong urge to read that story.
Over time, if you avoid an anti-value by reading a story, again and again, the value of reading stories will be strengthened. And of course, every time you avoid dealing with the big scary issue, your motivation to avoid increasing your knowledge, values, and skills in this area will strengthen, too.
This simultaneous motivation in one direction by both a strong value and a strong anti-value creates a desire/aversion cocktail that we call a compulsion. At that point, the value (in the example, reading stories — in the case I started with, productiveness) has become a “defense value.” It has been wildly distorted in its relative importance in your value hierarchy. It generates a disproportionate desire, tinged with a background of fear. You will feel driven to pursue the value in addition to any genuine desire you feel.
How to mitigate a defense value
This conceptualization makes it relatively easy to see how to mitigate the motivational distortions that come from a defense value.
The problem is not that a legitimate value has been strengthened “too much.” It is that other legitimate values have been ignored, necessary skills have not been developed, and knowledge needed for dealing with life has never been acquired.
What knowledge, skills, and values do you need? Those relevant for dealing with the alleged “intolerable” threat.
The truth is, as P.J. Eby helpfully points out, “Nothing is intolerable but death.” If you have formed an anti-value, you know a priori that it is based on an exaggeration of the threat. It is based on a logical distortion. That is the contradiction at the root of your motivational problems.
To repair an anti-value, all you need to do is to start thinking about the alleged threat and learn some skills for how to deal with it. Very quickly you develop some knowledge, skills, and values relevant to coping with the issue. That makes a world of difference in your automatized reactions.
For example, suppose that the thing you were afraid of was interpersonal conflict. You might take a course, like my communication intensive, which offers a safe place to learn some basic skills for dealing with interpersonal conflict. Once you see that it’s possible to deal with the conflict, new instances of interpersonal conflict become opportunities to try to figure out how to get better at it. This complete shift in perspective gives you the courage to deal with the many difficulties ahead.
Why it might not be so easy to name the anti-value
Don’t be surprised if it’s not so easy to name the underlying anti-value directly. You’ve spent considerable time avoiding it, so it won’t necessarily pop up as top-of-mind.
But sometimes it’s clearly present in the background. If you ask yourself, “What’s the big thing I’m afraid of in the background?” you may get an answer. That’s the fear you need to face.
If you draw a blank, that just means it’s buried a bit. A sure-fire way to identify that fear is to take a small step opposite to what you’re tempted to do. If the defense value is productivity, instead of dropping everything else to get some work done, deliberately say, “No, I’m spending some time with my family” or whatever it is. Expect a ruckus of contrary motivation in response. Ta da! You now have direct access to emotions that will lead you to that underlying threat.
In my Thinker’s Toolkit, I include two introspection tactics that help with this: “Introspection 101” and “Empathy Bath.” They give you the steps to take to introspect all of the emotions you’re feeling when you’re having a complex emotional reaction. And “Empathy Bath” includes the steps to re-orient to values.
How to deal with self-doubt
Changing your longstanding motivation is not the easiest process. When you come face to face with an anti-value, you will feel self-doubt.
Self-doubt is a horrible emotion. It will motivate you to run away, toward something more pleasant, unless you intervene.
But it’s just an emotion.
Emotions are never the problem. It is good that you feel self-doubt, as it indicates that some apparent threat needs your urgent attention, and you need to know that. It’s bad if the self-doubt is repressed. That cuts you off from important information. The right way to think of emotions is as alerts to values at stake. (See my article on “How to Think About Emotions.”)
The logical thing to do when you notice a feeling of self-doubt is to treat it as an alert and introspect it. Its general meaning is, “I have no knowledge or skills or values to deal with this humungous threat that’s facing me.”
If you are in focus, i.e., you raise your level of awareness in such a situation, you will logically conclude that you have some important thinking work to do. Is it true that there is a big threat here? Is it true that you have limited resources to deal with it? You have an urgent need to put your brain in gear to figure out how you’re going to deal with it.
In other words, it’s “the simplest thing in the world. All one needs to do is think” (to quote Leonard Peikoff a little out of context).
How you can form a defense value despite having self-esteem
My conceptualization also can explain why people with self-esteem can form defense values.
If for some reason you are not very emotionally self-aware, you might not notice the self-doubt, in which case you will act passively on the impulse that is generated. This can happen if you haven’t developed your skill at introspection and you mistake your feeling for something else. Or it can happen if you are concentrating on something else.
It’s also possible that you can be vaguely aware of the self-doubt, but you drift at a crucial moment. In that case, too, due to passivity, you will act on the impulse that is generated.
In other words, a defense value can result from a default. It can be caused by failing to challenge your aversion to dealing with some big scary thing. If the aversion arises repeatedly due to some repeatable circumstances, and you don’t catch it and challenge it, an anti-value can form.
Of course, if you realize that you need to deal with a big scary thing and then consciously evade that knowledge, you accelerate the creation of an anti-value, in part by destroying subconscious connections that previously existed. This also will ensure that you are less aware of the issue in the future. That’s why evasion is so self-destructive. But the existence of a defense value or an anti-value is not evidence per se of past evasion.
A simpler explanation
What I have given here is a much simpler explanation of how a defense value forms than was implied by the idea of “pseudo-self-esteem.” That conceptualization implies that when you feel self-doubt, you intentionally try to find some substitute source of self-esteem to make you feel better. Frankly, it implies a self-awareness of what’s going on that is implausible.
If you step back and look at another person’s behavior abstractly from an armchair perspective, you might observe that a person pursuing a defense value acts as if the value were a substitute source of self-esteem. I think that’s where the unfortunate conceptualization of defense values in terms of “pseudo-self-esteem” comes from. But that mildly helpful analogy doesn’t justify claiming that a defense value is a substitute source of self-esteem, nor does it justify modeling the organization of a person’s subconscious in terms of a “pseudo-self-esteem.”
My conceptualization helped me to sort out my psychology, and it is helping members of the Thinking Lab sort out theirs. I commend it to you with my best wishes for your personal happiness.