This was on Facebook this morning. It’s one of my favourite quotes. It’s opportune because the phrase I now have in mind (having divested myself of yesterday’s Watch your head come undone phrase) is one from Eckhart Tolle that popped into my email a few days ago, which is:
‘The more shared past there is in a relationship, the more present you need to be, otherwise you will be forced to relive the past again and again.’
I think this is useful advise for all relationships that need repair, and I include in that the relationship we have with ourselves.
In relationships with others there is often a history of great hurt between people who love each. It’s very difficult for most of us to forget our grievances. It seems to me that many hurts occur because of misunderstandings about intent and misunderstandings about others’ perspectives; in other words, we perceive that the other intends to hurt us when they meant no such thing at all. Of course, sometimes people do intend to hurt us. Or, sometimes it’s not their intent but they are unconcerned that that is the result of their behaviour. It’s not easy to tell the difference.
In relationships with ourselves, just think how we build a history of hurt: years upon years of self-inflicted emotional abuse, telling ourselves we’re ugly, worthless, incompetent, undeserving of happiness (whatever our personal thought poison is). This doesn’t apply to everyone, of course, but it seems to me to be endemic in Western culture and anyone it doesn’t apply to is unlikely to be reading this blog.
Very often, we bring hurts from previous relationships into current relationships. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as ‘transference’. ‘Projection’ and ‘projective identification’ are involved, too (as I see it – no doubt a psychology expert would say there’s a difference, but it seems to me they go hand-in-hand and are therefore inseparable in a Siamese twins/triplets kind of way).
I think it’s really important to employ the philosophy implied by these quotes of Fuller and Tolle (ie, forget the past) in relationships because when we bring emotionally-charged memories of past relationships (or even from the history of the present relationship) into present relationships we act as if we are in that old situation, perceiving and judging the present according to our perceptions and judgements about the past situation.
I think the transference and/or projected identity applies to ourselves as much as to the other with whom we are relating, in that we perceive ourselves as we did in that old relationship; we will act accordingly and bring about behaviour in ourselves, as much as in the other, that reinforces our belief. For example, if we felt unwanted in the old relationship (because of a belief that we are unlovable) we will feel unwanted/unlovable in the current relationship and act in such a manner that a) causes us to dislike ourselves and therefore believe it’s reasonable to be unwanted by the other and b) causes the other to reject us. In both ways, through internal and external interaction, we reinforce our beliefs about ourselves.
I think that people are often, if not always (at least when there’s an empathetic connection), experiencing the same feelings as each other even though it often seems they’re not. On the whole, people are happy together and unhappy together, even if it doesn’t seem so on the surface. Sometimes a person doesn’t want to acknowledge their feelings, whether to themselves or to the world at large. We’re often (if not always – again, at least with those we have empathetic connections with) looking in a mirror in interaction with others, and therefore I think a way of understanding another’s perspective is to understand our own, at least from a feeling perspective rather than the nitty gritty of thought detail.
Most people operate from the perspective of the nitty gritty of thought detail. They may perceive themselves to be in different psychic places because their thinking-based landscapes look different (which they are if they are thinking about them differently), while they are unaware that they are together in the same emotional landscape. If they focused on the feelings instead of the thoughts they might realise their common ground.
While such situations can be painful for us, I do think we can learn from them. Yes, they can be perceived as opportunities!
If we recognise what’s described by those transference and projected identification links, we can ask ourselves: what am I transferring? What am I projecting? What am I seeing in the other person? What is the mirror reflecting back at me? What will be brought to my attention if I look directly at it?
Writing that has reminded me of a poem I wrote a few years ago, which could be perceived to be about projection and denial. It’s called The Mirror. Here it is.
Much psychological thought revolves around the belief that we need to analyse and understand the past in order to exorcise its ghosts. I’ve been a fan of psychoanalysis and Jung for years, but I have two problems with this thinking:
1) What if we made a mistake in our interpretation at any time in the past through failure to understand others’ perspectives? The transferred/projected experience is likely to be our infantile relationship with our parents and, at that age, we didn’t have enough understanding of the world to accurately assess our experience or our parents’ perspectives.
2) We are looking back at it, and trying to understand it, from the perspective of an adult who is more knowledgeable than a toddler, but consider this: since belief formation (ie, assessment and assimilation of sensory (physical) and intellectual (metaphysical) data input) is calculated according to existing beliefs, then error upon error may have been heaped on an original error. Under such circumstances we can’t trust ourselves to accurately assess the infantile situation we are hoping to understand with the aim of improving our adult situation. Remember Fuller’s quote here.
I refer back to the quote I just gave about the self-fulfilling prophecy of projective identification – a mistaken belief can have grave consequences (if contentedness with ourselves and satisfying relationships are our goals).
For example, what if our parents didn’t hate us? If we’ve built our lives based on that belief, what then?
I know this belief about being hated by our parents doesn’t apply to everyone, but I believe (maybe mistakenly?) it applies to a large number of people, and even though most parents would say – and believe wholeheartedly – that they love their children, they frequently act as if they hate them through and through. Children often focus on those hateful moments, conclude that their parents hate them and perceive any acts of love as rare moments of respite from the hate. That’s because we’re conditioned to think negatively. Negative thinking leads to self-deprecation and therefore children develop the belief that it’s their fault (an error of judgement) that their parents hate them (a potential error of judgement). Isn’t that the condition of most of us in the Western world?
Instead of trying to figure out whether our parents really did love us or hate us and/or if we were right or wrong about forming such a belief, why not… let it go, accept we can’t understand it, accept it as a mystery. This doesn’t mean we need to abandon trying to understand the effect of our accumulated beliefs, ie: understanding who we have become as a result of our thought processes.
If we find ourselves in a situation that sounds like transference and/or projective identification, I think we need to do several things…
One: recognise that we are erroneously bringing past perceptions into the present and co-creating a re-animation of that experience.
Two: separate these out-dated and irrelevant perceptions from the present situation (easier said than done, I know!). We can use them to understand our personal issues that have been brought forth in the current situation, but (hopefully) without them interfering in our current situation.
Three: understand that the other person is possibly experiencing their own transference/projective identification ordeal through interaction with us; this will help us to not judge their behaviour erroneously from the perspective of our own transference/projective (there’s no guarantee, though!). Also, consider that their experience may (or may not – try and remain open-minded) match ours in nature; this will help us to understand them better during the process of understanding ourself better.
Consider the possibility that everyone‘s agony is the same: the struggle to enjoy intimate connections with fellow humans, and with self. We may act out different dramas, but I think the story’s the same.