Monday, June 14, 2010

Rationalization as an Ego Defense

I submitted the following letter in August 1999 to my then treating psychotherapist, Lisa Osborne.  In February 1999, six months earlier, Albert H. Taub, M.D. diagnosed me with paranoid schizophrenia.  I was not on any medication when I wrote the following letter.  Does the letter reflect the thought process of someone suffering from paranoid schizophrenia?  You be the judge.

August 11, 1999
3801 Connecticut Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20008-4530

Lisa Osborne
Community Mental Health Center
Washington, DC 20007

Dear Ms. Osborne:

I have uncovered an interesting and possibly meaningful parallel between a complex interpersonal interaction that occurred in my childhood (during a developmental stage) and a collection of interpersonal interactions that occurred in my adulthood, during my employment at the law firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld.

The interactions involve the use of rationalization by narcissistically-disturbed persons to manipulate credulous persons in the environment and to discharge narcissistic injury or shame.

I note that some psychologists believe that rationalization is a prime feature of narcissistic disturbance.

See e.g., Whyne Berman, S.M. and McCann, J.T. "Defense Mechanisms and Personality Disorders: An Empirical Test of Millon's Theory." J. Personality Assessment 64(1):132-144 at 133 (1995).

Recognition of the primacy of the defense of rationalization in narcissistically-disturbed persons provides a neat link to the observations of Otto Kernberg, M.D. about narcissistically-regressed organizations and similarly-disturbed managers and administrators. Kernberg, O., Ideology, Conflict and Leadership in Groups and Organizations (see Letter to Lisa Osborne dated October 13, 1998). A neat symmetry is provided by the idea that narcissistically-disturbed persons who control narcissistically-regressed groups in organizations (such as law firms) will rely to a pathological degree on the defense of rationalization to justify management decisions and personnel actions (such as decisions to promote, hire or fire, or change an employee's work or space assignment); and further, that if such organizations become involved in litigation relating to those personnel actions (for example, under Title VII, the federal anti-discrimination statute or related state statutes) there will be a pathological reliance on the use of pretext to explain the personnel actions (pretext being the legal equivalent of the ego defense of "rationalization").

The use of rationalization (or pretext) to explain personnel actions may be used by narcissistically-disturbed persons in conjunction with various forms of manipulation of the environment for the purpose of verifying projections. See Brodey, W.M. "On the Dynamics of Narcissism. I. Externalization and Early Ego Development." In: The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child. Vol. 20: 165-193 at 167 (1965) ("Projection is combined with the manipulation of reality selected for the purpose of verifying the projection"). Example: a supervisor may change an employee's space assignment to place him next to a person in an adjoining cubicle who the supervisor knows will harass the victim (thereby manipulating the environment in an effort to "demonstrate" that the victim cannot get along with others); the supervisor may then offer a rationalization in order to link the action to a legitimate business purpose (that's the rationalization). If the victim-employee complains to senior managers, those managers may, based on information provided by the supervisor, see n. 1, below, terminate the employee on the grounds the victim-employee is "paranoid." In any subsequent litigation, the employer may rely on "pretext" (or rationalization) to justify the termination.

We can see a natural progression in the following sequence of interactions:

(a.) job harassment of a psychologically-autonomous person by members of a narcissistically-regressed group of employees that exhibit "extreme intensity of relationship," cf. Brodey at 166;

(b.) narcissistically-disturbed managers who rely on externalization, see Brodey at 167, and pretext (rationalization) in personnel actions with the employees they supervise;

(c.) the manipulation of senior managers by mid-level managers by means of rationalization, see n. 1, above;

(d.) the use of pretext (rationalization) by senior managers (or their attorneys) in any litigation of challenged personnel actions, cf. Whyne Berman at 133 (noting the primacy of the ego defense of rationalization in narcissistically-disturbed persons).

Thus, the taint of narcissistic disturbance may trail along from the lowest to the highest levels of organizational structure and, ultimately, may reach out beyond the boundaries of the organization, in the event a dispute is litigated, to taint proceedings before government agencies or the courts.

The implication is striking and elegant: the use of "pretext" (or rationalization, a predominant ego defense in narcissistic disturbance) at the highest levels of organizational functioning to explain (or explain away) personnel actions (such as an unlawful termination) corresponds to, or is the functional equivalent of, job harassment, a form of interpersonal exploitation (a diagnostic criterion of narcissistic disturbance), at the lowest levels of an organization. See e.g., Spitzer, R.L. DSM-III-R Casebook at 198 (Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Press, 1989) (the spreading of rumors that another is homosexual is an expression of interpersonal exploitiveness that is symptomatic of narcissistic disturbance).

To return to my personal facts: I have uncovered a parallel between, on the one hand, a complex interpersonal dynamic that occurred in my childhood and, on the other, subsequent events in my adulthood that occurred at my former place of employment. The parallel supports the idea that my functioning and victimization in adulthood in disturbed organizations in which narcissistic disturbance predominates might be traced back to my earlier experience of childhood victimization by extremely narcissistically-disturbed persons, see Brodey at 166, and my adaptation to such an environment--such an adaptation might include an unusual and highly-refined ability to exploit those persons who exploit me.

The following complex interaction illustrates my aunt's extensive use of projection, see Brodey at 167-8, and rationalization during a two-and-one-half year period during my childhood, beginning when I was in the fourth grade (age 9) and continuing to preadolescence (age 11), just prior to my beginning junior high school in the fall of 1965. (Incidentally, my sister started to date her future husband in February 1965).


In about February 1963 my aunt (my mother's only and older sibling) suffered a serious heart attack. I had turned 9 years old the previous December. My aunt was 49 years old; she had been a heavy cigarette smoker, but had quit a brief time before the illness. Following her hospital stay, my aunt was bedridden at home for some time. My aunt arranged to have my mother come to her house twice per week to perform housekeeping chores, such as cleaning, washing clothes, ironing, etc.

I have a specific recollection that my aunt was fully ambulatory by about May or June of 1963. But my mother continued her housekeeping work on a twice per week schedule throughout the years 1963 and 1964. In about 1965 my mother changed her schedule to once per week visits. The housekeeping arrangement stopped in the fall of 1965 when my mother obtained outside employment (office work).

The above-described housekeeping arrangement had the incidental effect of forcing me to have my grandmother as a caretaker twice per week. At the time--from 1963 to 1965--I was in elementary school. I used to come home for lunch each day. Thus, twice per week my grandmother was at the house at lunch and, later, when I returned home from school. My grandmother was a highly dysfunctional individual, who spoke little English; she was abusive and paranoid. On one occasion our neighbor complained to my parents that my grandmother had used abusive language with her son, a little boy whose father was dying of cancer at the time. My mother supported her mother.

During the summers my sister and I traveled to my aunt's house while my mother did her housekeeping chores.

For two-and-one-half years my aunt's illness (or "illness") dominated our lives. My aunt engaged in pervasive acts of manipulation of my mother and other family members. My mother began to develop severe headaches; my aunt was quite demanding. There were days when my mother, ill with migraine, was unable to do any housekeeping, but simply rested when she arrived at her sister's house.

The arrangement at times appeared to be purely social, with my aunt taking us out to lunch or other outings. These outings were not entirely pleasant. I can recall one lunch at which I, a ten year old boy, did not express enough enthusiasm; my aunt berated me for this. Apparently she expected me to say something along the lines of "I find the ambiance here quite enchanting, and the delicate bouquet of the shrimp is insouciantly delightful." I did not oblige, and I suffered the consequences.

Severe strains developed between my mother and father. My aunt formed the idea that she would persuade my mother to get a divorce; my aunt offered to pay.

My aunt paid my mother for my mother's services, thereby transforming my mother into my aunt's paid employee. I suspect that this financial arrangement had the effect of heightening my aunt's demandingness and sense of entitlement.

The possibility that my aunt's behaviors were the product of psychological regression cannot be ruled out.

BUSINESS RATIONALE: My aunt was ill and needed a housekeeper. She had plans to hire a professional housekeeper, but told my mother that it made more sense to have my mother serve as a housekeeper. My aunt would thereby have a reliable housekeeper she felt comfortable with, and my mother would have additional income.


1. Years earlier, when my aunt was in her twenties and unmarried, she was employed as a housekeeper by a wealthy Jewish family (the "Chinn" or "Chin" family). At that time my aunt lived with, and helped to support, her dysfunctional mother and younger sister (my mother).

My aunt also served as a caretaker for her employer's children. My aunt used to take one or more of the children to ballet class; one of the other students in the class was Grace Kelly, the future Princess Grace of Monaco, who was a child at the time. (My aunt used to comment: "The Kellys thought they were better than everybody else. They used to keep her (daughter Grace) separate from the other children in the class.")

My aunt apparently attached some degree of shame to this employment experience. She did not tell her husband about the employment.

In having my mother work as her own housekeeper, my aunt may have discharged or abreacted feelings of shame that my aunt had felt when she was employed as a housekeeper and child caretaker, years earlier.

2. In 1961 my aunt had the idea that my mother should learn how to drive and that my mother should purchase a car. Neither of my parents drove at that time, and, of course, did not own a car. My aunt and uncle accompanied my parents to a used car dealer to purchase the car.

In about March 1967 the car my parents had purchased developed serious maintenance problems. My mother told my aunt that she (my mother) would have to buy another car but felt she might not be able to afford one. My aunt said to my mother: "Maybe you don't even need a car. Do you really need a car? Maybe you can get along without a car. You don't live that far from a supermarket. You can walk to the market with a grocery cart."

My mother replied that she did need a car, stating: "I have to take Gary all over the place, don't I?" I was thirteen years old at the time.

We see in this instance my aunt denying her dependency needs (i.e., her own need to have my mother drive a car), together with my mother's and aunt's collusion in transmuting my aunt's dependency needs onto me. Thus, it was no longer my aunt who needed a sister who had a car, it was now I--depicted as inappropriately dependent--who needed my mother to have a car.

3. In the year 1976 (when I was 22 years old) my aunt told my sister that it was her belief that my father should not undergo major heart surgery. She told my sister: "If he thinks Sophie (my mother) is going to nurse him back to health when he gets out of the hospital, he's got something to learn. I'm not going to allow Sophie to jeopardize her health taking care of him. I just won't allow that."

In this instance, my aunt denies her own dependency needs (note that, years earlier, for a 2« year period, my aunt had employed her sister as her own caretaker) and projects those needs onto my father. My father is depicted as inappropriately needy and destructive. Here, my aunt projects issues of shame and guilt onto my father.

4. During the summer of 1966 (when I was 12 years old) my aunt visited me at home, following her weekly visit to her mother (my grandmother). My aunt took me up to the bathroom, and had me clean the bathroom with her. My aunt frequently encouraged me to assist my mother in cooking and housekeeping chores. A notable issue is that she did not encourage my sister (a female) to perform these typically female chores.

My aunt's behaviors here suggest the idea that she associated housekeeping chores with shame. Her act of encouraging me (the male child) to perform housekeeping chores suggests shame and castration. Her
failure to encourage my sister to perform such chores suggests that she was protecting an idealized image,
an externalization of her own idealized self.

Note also the possible significance of the fact that in this particular instance my aunt may have been abreacting some intrapsychic distress following a visit to her own mother. (At Akin Gump, I had formed the impression that my supervisor used me routinely to abreact distress she experienced in relation to members of senior management.)

5. In 1958 when my sister was 11 years old, my aunt ordered a new piano that was sent to our house. My aunt made the first payment on the piano; my parents were expected to make the remaining payments. My aunt did not discuss this scheme with my father. My parents could not afford the monthly payments and the piano had to be sent back. In adulthood, my sister speculates that the entire affair had been an attempt to humiliate my father.

Compare the dynamics here with the incident in paragraph 4, above. In 4 the male child is shamed (by having him clean the bathroom), but the female child is retained as an idealized object (she is not encouraged to do housekeeping chores). In paragraph 5, the father (a male) is humiliated (castrated), by means of a gift to the idealized female child.

Earlier in childhood, my sister took ballet lessons. My aunt may have had a role in this. Note that my aunt, earlier in her life, had been employed as a caretaker for the children of her employer, in which capacity she used to accompany one or more of the children to ballet class (also attended by a future Princess!).

6. It is interesting to note that my mother breast-fed my sister as an infant, but bottle-fed me. My mother said that breast-feeding was too much of a hassle (another rationalization?). It would be interesting to know if my aunt had a role in my mother's decision. It is noteworthy that all of my aunt's subsequent known behaviors are consistent with her act of discouraging my mother to breast feed me but to breast feed my sister.

I prepared the attached document in the year 1992, following my job termination in October 1991. The document discusses six business decisions that my supervisor took in relation to me during my employment. The document discusses background facts that suggest the possible role of rationalization in the supervisor's actions, which, actions themselves, may actually have been narcissistically-based attempts to manipulate the environment, see Brodey at 167-8 -- i.e., actions aimed at provoking me or aimed at prompting me to complain to management. And we know what happened when I eventually did complain to management. I was immediately fired based on information provided to management by none other than -- my supervisor!

see pages 6-11 of document submission to the Social Security Administration:


1/ Cf. Brodey, W.M. at 167-8. Narcissistically-disturbed persons may rely on a form of externalization in which information known by the externalizing person but beyond the environment of the others is not transmitted to these others except as it is useful to train or manipulate them into validating what will then become the realization of the projection. Reality testing is subverted in this process.

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