Primitive Emotional Defenses
One of the ways that people avoid taking responsibility for their role in their own pain is what I call the BPs – blame and projection.
Projection and projective identification are very common, and very primitive emotional defenses. That is, I use projection to defend myself against certain emotions I may feel, or certain qualities I may possess or certain desires I may have which I may find deeply painful. So painful, in fact, that I cannot possibly tolerate them inside myself. I must split them off from my conscious awareness and experience these things in another person. This person is usually someone close to me but not always. In general, the closer someone is to me emotionally, or the closer I WANT them to be, the more likely it is that I will unconsciously project upon them. I can then hate or fear those feelings, desires or qualities in the other person rather than myself.
If You Spot It…
It is from this very human process that novelist Hermann Hesse derived his famous aphorism. He wrote, “If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. What isn’t part of ourselves doesn’t disturb us.” Notice how that reads. Hesse could not have created a more succinct description of projection. The sole modification to make here is that in projection, it’s too often true that the thing we hate in another is not actually PRESENT in another. We have put that quality or emotion there to avoid it in ourselves.
Cue the Projection
It’s worth noting that very often if we are projecting something into another so that we can experience it in them, they may not quite get the unconscious message. In this case, we will unconsciously CUE them to act out the projection. This way we can experience the projection fully outside of ourselves. A simple example: I am very angry, but when I was a child, anger not allowed in my family, so I find the experience very painful and frightening. Thus, I project my anger into my partner so I can accuse them of being angry. Except, my partner isn’t quite playing along so I have to cue them to play by provoking them to anger. If you think about it carefully, this is a common experience for many people.
Why Would We Do This?
We engage in this behavior for at least two reasons. First, because It’s plausibly far less painful to experience our unwanted feelings, desires, or qualities in another person, where we can hate them or fear them in relative emotional safety than it is to experience those same things inside ourselves. Second, because human beings are inherently social creatures – no human does very well emotionally in isolation – projection is a rather obvious way for one person to help out another: if we accept someone’s projection, we are helping them in their effort to split off a part of themselves they cannot tolerate. We allow them to hate that part of themselves in us and thus we do them a very large emotional favor.
A Tormenting Inner Experience
Here is one powerful illustration of the first reason. In his book People of the Lie, M. Scott Peck proposed that many sudden, unexplained suicides might well be caused by a person, usually deeply–but not necessarily obviously–emotionally disturbed, by some means, getting in full contact with the dark, unwanted chaos of their inner experience, and that contact is so painful such a person immediately ends their own life. If we are willing to stipulate to the possible existence of such people, it is easy to imagine them projecting constantly, in a desperate attempt to be rid of so much tormenting inner experience. If it comes to pass that such people do contact their inner experience directly, the pain of that would be so severe that death as soon as possible would seem the only solution.
The Polarized Couple
The second reason we do this grows out of our common yearning for harmony. If someone is feeling bad because of their inner experience, as social creatures we naturally want to relieve that someone of their suffering. This reason for projection and accepting projections has all the markers of an evolutionary adaptation. We can see it perhaps most clearly in what Jung called the “Wounded Couple” or the “Polarized Couple.” In the Polarized Couple, the intimate partners have each split off unwanted, unacceptable parts-of-themselves that complement and are accepted by one another. For example, we may see an intimate couple where one person owns all the aggression and competence in the relationship, and the other person owns all the warmth and vulnerability. If you think about it, you’ve probably seen this quite a bit. Additionally, this kind of couple may be reinforced in their mutual projections by societal gender stereotypes.
The Couple Vs. a Healthy Person
As a single social unit, the couple may be highly effective in life. They own each other’s projections and protect each other from deeply painful inner feelings or qualities. This is, in certain ways, a highly functional unconscious arrangement for a couple to make, to own each other’s split off qualities. Problems arise here though. If you think about it, such a couple is going through life as a WHOLE, SINGLE person might. A healthy human does NOT unconsciously split off unacceptable aspects-of-self. An emotionally healthy person surfaces painful inner experiences and takes responsibility for them. Emotionally healthy people address them, work through them, and INTEGRATE all aspects of self into a powerful whole. This is the life-work of a conscious person.
Projection in the Workplace
If we look at how projection works in more general social and professional situations, consider the phrase at many workplaces “we’re a family.” This is, in a way, classic projection. Work is not a family. Ever. But I may identify my father or mother in my supervisor, I may ascribe to my supervisor all the good and bad qualities of my parent. I may identify siblings in co-workers. I may identify my other family members in people I work with. This is all too common, and it’s often a recipe for disaster. Because, of course, my boss is NOT my parent, nor are my co-workers my siblings. But if I’m projecting qualities of those people onto my co-workers, I may well be assuming qualities in those co-workers that do not, in fact, exist.
The Therapeutic Alliance
Projection is often at work in the therapeutic alliance. As the therapist and client move closer to each other, inevitably, as a result of the alliance, the client or the therapist might well start to project inner parts-of-self onto the other. This can turn into a serious problem if the therapist is unconsciously projecting onto the client, or accepting projections from the client without realizing it. Projection in the therapeutic alliance can also be a great opportunity to co-create change if the therapist can accept or decline the client’s projections in a pro-therapeutic way.
Some Projection Homework
This week, explore the problems and possibilities of projection and projective identification. Do we come from families in which there was a lot of projection? How do we then carry that through the world? What kinds of projections do we send or receive? How might we project our inner experience outward, into others, and experience it there, where it’s easier and safer to do so? Can we become more acutely aware of our inner world, and thus begin to take back all parts of ourselves in service of becoming more emotionally intelligent and healthy and effective in the world?
Awareness and the Inner Experience
There is an inverse correlation between being aware of and knowing my inner experience and my projecting. If I am thoroughly aware of my inner experience at all times, I will very seldom project anything outward. This is because I am owning all parts of myself. The bad with the good. The painful and the pleasant. That which may shame me and that which makes me feel valuable. If my inner experience is chaotic, or I have very little ability to know my inner experience–because I simply haven’t learned to how to know it–I will do a LOT of projecting, as a way to make sense of my existence and/or avoid emotional confusion and pain. How well do we know our inner experience? Do we have ways of knowing it? Or is that entire process a mystery?
Training Ourselves to Accept What Is
Acceptance is a simple enough idea but can be a challenge to master in practice. This week, we consider just what it means to accept, and how we might train ourselves to accept what is. Buddhism (and certain other spiritual practices) teach that if we do not accept what IS in our life now, we suffer. Another way to think about this is that when we suffer, we are, in essence, resisting what is in our life now. So in this formulation, all suffering results from some form of inner or outer resistance to what is.
The Serenity Prayer
The Serenity Prayer is yet another clear statement of this idea:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
It is in the serenity of acceptance that we find both the courage to change what we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. That wisdom eludes us without the serenity of acceptance.
Acceptance Vs. Resistance
Similarly, another way to think about acceptance and resistance is to imagine that we have arrived at a place and time in our lives when we are, in some sense, lost. Resistance to what is in our lives now is a form of being lost. Imagine being lost in the physical world. If I struggle against such a fact, if I am, say, lost in deep woods, I may never come out again. But if I sit quietly, and accept that I am truly lost, I may begin to see things differently. Once I stop resisting that I am lost, I may begin to see ways to become “un-lost.” I may see a path through the underbrush. I may hear sounds that lead me to safety. I may discover a great deal once I have accepted that I am lost and that struggling against that fact is useless.
A State of Openness and Receptiveness
Acceptance is thus not at all simply giving up to what is. Rather, it is a state of openness and receptiveness to what is happening to me now, and also a receptiveness and openness to what might be immanent – but not now obvious – in my current life-situation. Once we reach acceptance, the static of resistance fades and we can see and hear more clearly. We are also more likely to find inner peace more consistently if we can accept what is. So this week, where and what is our resistance? How does it manifest in our lives? What are we resisting now? What would it be like to accept what is instead of resisting it?
Breaking the Cycle
The time we spend in active addiction is all about destruction. Burning it all down. We burn through our stash and then we burn bridges while we look to replenish it and start the cycle over again. We destroy our good health, our relationships with family and friends, the trust others have in us, opportunities…the list goes on. And whatever the specifics concerning the roots of our addictions are, this impulse toward destruction is almost always the manifestation of unhealthy coping mechanisms. So while we’re trying to figure out those aforementioned roots and what to do about them, we also need to start learning some healthy ways to cope. Luckily, art therapy can help with this on both fronts.
How Art Therapy Works
For those of you who haven’t participated in an art therapy session, I’ll give a quick rundown of how it works. An art therapist will give a topic or assignment to a group, something along the lines of “paint how you are feeling today” or “draw a picture that represents freedom.” After everyone has had a chance to finish their work, we go around and discuss each piece, hearing from each artist. The group offers feedback, but no judgment: the purpose is to give audience to the artist and let them express themselves.
The Benefits of Art Therapy
The benefits of art therapy are numerous. For one thing, it addresses that destructive impulse head on. Rather than burning anything down, we are now taking time to create something. It also gives the artist a new voice to express themselves. This often leads to the articulation of things that would normally remain unsaid. Furthermore, a Drexel University study revealed that making art increases blood flow to the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain responsible for regulating emotions, thoughts, and actions. Scientists believe that there is a correlation between an underdeveloped or damaged prefrontal cortex and addiction. Art therapy, then, helps strengthen this part of the brain.
Barn Art Life
Art therapy is one of the many services we offer here at Barn Life Recovery, along with Tai Chi, meditation, martial arts, and more. In fact, we are now sharing (with our artists’ permission, of course) some of the art that has been created in our therapy groups. You can check it out here and be sure to come back as we’ll be updating it regularly.
Barn Life Recovery is the first treatment center in the state of California licensed to treat mental illness on an outpatient community-based level. We specialize in mild to moderately severe mental illness, co-occurring disorders and addiction. We accept calls 24/7 at (949)229-6853.
As fans won’t let us forget, the wildly successful Game of Thrones recently came to its conclusion. And as the media won’t let us forget, Kit Harington, the actor who played Jon Snow in the series, checked into a wellness retreat in Connecticut sometime in May after the show had finished taping. An unnamed friend of the actor told Page Six that “The end of ‘GoT’ really hit Kit hard … He realized ‘this is it — this is the end’, it was something they had all worked so hard on for so many years. He had a moment of, what next? He’s in the clinic predominantly for stress and exhaustion and also alcohol.”
We’re All People
It’s easy to forget sometimes that there are real people behind the characters, especially when we’ve watched these characters interact and grow over the course of 8 years. And while it’s tempting to say something like, “Aww, these people are rich…what kind of problems could they possibly have?”, the truth is that mental health is something that affects us all. It is certainly easier to be less stressed out when you don’t have money issues, but with the big checks and the fame comes an entirely new set of problems. Think about the huge backlash and negative fan response that arose after the final episode aired and then imagine working on that show and having to face the world afterward. A pretty frightening proposition.
Similarities Instead of Differences
Instead of thinking about the differences between Kit Harington and the average person, start to think about the similarities. In doing so, you’ll start to learn something about the nature of trauma and traumatic experiences. A stressful job. An impending termination of employment. Saying goodbye to friends and co-workers you’ve been around for the past 8 years. The feelings of emptiness that are bound to be a part of that situation. Being overwhelmed by the prospect of filling that emptiness. Honestly, it’s a little surprising that we don’t hear more stories like Mr. Harington’s after popular series finales. And I also know that if more people were willing to be open, honest, and accepting of mental health issues, we absolutely would.
Retreat and Re-Center
We are very happy to hear that Kit Harington is being proactive and taking care of his mental wellness. The Page Six article mentions that Harington is “undergoing psychological coaching, practicing mindful meditation and cognitive behavioral therapy to combat stress and deal with negative emotions.” These just a few of the services that we offer at Barn Life Recovery. If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues, or if you need to take a step back and re-center, give us a call today.
Weaving In and Out
We like to play with threads here at Barn Life Recovery, which should have been evident from our Warp and Woof blog a while back. At the moment, we’ve been weaving with a couple of threads. The first one traces our steps through our inner world. The second concerns the people who surround us. This blog entwines the two as it deals with selfishness.
Selfishness: A Working Definition
To be selfish is to be inconsiderate of others. A selfish individual is primarily focused on personal profit or pleasure of any kind regardless of the impact on others. This behavior stems from ignorance of others and/or an intentional disregard of others. We call this self-absorbed and self-seeking behavior, respectively. It also includes a focus of how situations, environments, and events directly impact or are impacted by the individual (egocentrism), a focus on the importance of self, and a sense of superiority over others regardless of truth (egomania, i.e. narcissism).
The Roots of the Problem
Children often start developing empathy as early as age two and can soon begin to exhibit an understanding of empathy. They acknowledge that other people have thoughts and feelings of their own. Humans can naturally regulate empathy through competent parenting and healthy socialization. So, what happens? Why do people become selfish, self-absorbed, egocentric and narcissistic? A child brought up with excess often learn that they can get what they want through demands, which leads to entitlement. A selfish individual becomes limited in perception. This person is concerned with how much can be taken without sharing and how to give as little as possible back. Selfishness also manifests due to insecurity. This can develop from a myriad of sources such as an unstable home, abuse, mistrust, and a lack of development of empathy.
A Selfish Program?
The idea of selfishness can also come from a black or white perception which easily becomes muddled. Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step groups often use the phrase, “A.A./N.A. is a selfish program.” What this means is that there is a primary focus on a recovering individual who goes through a process of intense learning of self-awareness and personal responsibilities. This path requires a focus on self in order to be a better individual through actions that reflect adherence to a transpersonal commitment. These actions also include how an individual can utilize their strengths and experiences to be of service to others. This creates a loop of meaning which includes the importance of fellowship and consideration of others. So are these programs truly “selfish?” No, this course of action looks much more like self-care.
To challenge selfishness, we assist our clients in differentiating self-care from selfishness. As past or current patterns of selfishness come to awareness, we help to raise our clients’ perspectives to also account for how their actions will impact others. Furthermore, through empowerment, we encourage them to take advantage of their choices to engage in actions that reflect integrity. This includes learning to set healthy and assertive boundaries which allow for a healthy and sober lifestyle. By challenging underlying issues which allow for selfishness to occur, we can find the courage to become vulnerable and to pursue genuine and authentic relationships. This can open realities to discover the value in the compassion and company of others.
The Old Nourishes the New
Last week we explored beginnings. This week we prepare for the end.
Some say that to start something new, you must first “let go” of what has become familiar. A new perspective sprouts from an old perspective. Like fertilizer, the old way nourishes the new way. Note: endings and beginnings are interchangeable points on the same circle. All beginnings are endings and all endings become new beginnings. Something new always sprouts from something decayed. It lives, comes to an end, and gives way to something new. It is no surprise that the Hindu goddess Kali is given credit as the great destroyer and the great creator. She is lovingly referred to as the Dark Mother and in the wake of utter annihilation, new possibilities spring forth. Kali provides liberation or release, called moksha in Hindu, from old ways and old thinking. Though liberation sounds liberating, most of us shun the crucial step that precedes it: uncertainty and fear.
Doing the Unstuck
Identifying habits and behaviors that merit an end is the first step. To make it a bit easier, we may even begin to think about some new habits and behaviors that get us excited about the forthcoming change. Endings are a little easier when something inspiring is in the near future. But look out, our old friend FEAR usually rears his scary head at this time. Fear of letting go or of change. Fear of a future that may be worse than now. What if my ending begets a difficult new beginning? These fears are a good starting point. Fear leaves us stuck. Helping clients get “unstuck” is the goal. Replacing fear with trust. Trust in ourselves. Trust in a future that we can look forward to despite the growing pains that come with change.
The Appointed Time
Kali literally means “appointed time” in Sanskrit. The appointed time is the time we select to make a change, to engage in the process of ending and beginning and to flow with this current of time. Preparing for this appointed time is our goal this week. The appointed time of our endings and new beginnings. That time is now.