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Sperling, O.E. (1963). Exaggeration as a Defense. Psychoanal Q., 32:553-548.

(1963). Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 32:553-548

Exaggeration as a Defense

Otto E. Sperling, M.D.

Heinrich Heine introduced a device in his poems of expressing emotion with great passion and genuine feeling, and then surprising the reader with a prosaic or even cynical last line. This device in poetry is called romantic irony. Some may feel that Heine was insincere from the beginning, but others (with better reason) conclude that the poet has expressed the contrary aspects of his personality. The expression of passion always precedes the sobering countertheme. This sequence seems illustrative of a conflict in which the ego gains control of an id derivative. This is a tenable hypothesis for poetry. It is possible, however, to come to a definite conclusion from the analysis of a similar clinical phenomenon, namely, the sequence of exaggerated passion and sudden sobriety.

The first three patients to be described had an awareness that their feelings were not genuine, and they often accused themselves of hypocrisy. None was a schizophrenic.


The first group of examples stems from the analysis of a twenty-eight-year-old piano teacher who suffered from obsessional brooding and vacillation in her ability to work. She was intelligent, fanatically truthful, and a good observer of herself. Her pupils liked her and she made a good impression on most people. On closer observation, it was apparent that her vivacity was an overcompensation for her inhibitions. Her speech was hurried with the intent of preventing the analyst from saying anything that she might not like.

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