Archive for February, 2011

Among the many contentious ideas and concepts in psychotherapy is a particularly tricky concept called projective identification. At least, it’s been made out to be a particularly tricky concept; I’m not so sure that it is. Considering the phenomenon the concept is meant to describe, there is a great irony for me in the contention that surrounds it. This contention, I contend, is actually a case in point.

I’m going to rename projective identification as social dysmorphia. This isn’t a purely cosmetic exercise, but a cosmetic rehabilitation exercise. In a similar way to high profile criminals who, having been vilified relentlessly by the press, have their appearance cosmetically altered to allow them a new life, I hope to give projective identification social dysmorphia a chance to start a new life of its own, rehabilitated within the warm glow of gestalt’s field theoretical outlook.

To understand this concept, you simply need to contemplate the phrase: give a dog a bad name.

In google searching this phrase, I was pleased to find an explanation that actually captures my understanding of social dysmorphia very well. It may or may not be accurate, but it fits:

A catchphrase meaning that if one has acquired a bad reputation one will never be able to lose it. The full proverb is ‘Give a dog an ill name and hang him’, which can be interpreted in two ways: ‘If you can succeed in giving someone a bad name you will destroy him’ and ‘If someone has got himself a bad name he is as good as destroyed’.

In short, social dysmorphia is what happens when a person is shaped by a social situation to be something they are not because it’s what other people expect them to be. The idealisation of celebrities is a form of social dysmorphia; no one can live up to the expectations placed on a celebrity, but many celebrities fall into the trap of responding to the expectation. That’s the social dysmorphia trap: intense expectations are placed on someone by someone else, and the person with the expectations placed on them is moulded by them into something they don’t really want to be.

Projective identification has been a problematic concept because it involves the idea of one person (the client) putting disowned emotions into another person (the therapist) such that the therapist is then ‘forced’ by the client to feel something that isn’t theirs. Understandably, psychotherapy has reacted against this psychoanalytic concept because it sets up an easy exit for therapist responsibility: my client made me do it.

However, projective identification does attempt to describe an inter-personal process. When shifted into a field theoretical framework and considered as a social force, it starts to make a lot of sense. Social dysmorphia is the process of giving a dog a bad name in order to hang him (and viewed the other way round, it’s the process of getting a bad name in order to be hanged).

Have you ever walked into a social situation in which you didn’t know anyone but they already had an expectation of who you would be? Maybe you were the relative of someone and were introduced to their friends for the first time (‘oh we’ve heard all about you!’). Or you’ve done/said/made/written something and been introduced to a group of people who are familiar with your work (‘you’re something of a celebrity round here’). Or you simply happen to be placed in a category of person that has attracted the ire of a group (‘your sort ain’t welcome round here’).

The point is, when a person or group of persons have constructed a strong idea of who and what you are, they will project that idea onto you the moment they meet you (hence ‘projective’). And because we are social animals, part of you will respond to the expectations in order to fit in (hence ‘identification’). You’ll be invited to behave in a manner that resonates with the internalised version of you, and on some level you will feel a pull to behave in exactly that way. You’ll find yourself acting in ways that feel alien but that nonetheless you can’t seem to help because you’re not pretending, you’re actually feeling what you’re acting out of. You’re suddenly irritated with people despite being a fairly easy going person, or you’re suddenly really slack about things that you’ve always taken so seriously. And, importantly, you can’t account for the change. It feels like something has been done to you.

That’s social dysmorphia; the simple relational process of responding to expectation. In this way, husbands and wives transform into their spouse’s fathers and mothers; perfectly good managers transform into tyrants; and well-meaning therapists transform into the one person their client doesn’t want in the room.

One answer, of course, is to change your name, change your face, move far away and never come back… except these days you’ll probably get tracked down on Twitter.

An alternative answer is to know thyself. If you can become familiar with what the process of social dysmorphia feels like, and if you can gain a good awareness of the needs in you that serve as hooks for pulling you into those alien feelings and responses, then you can at least see it coming. Co-creation is an empowering idea here. You can choose to not respond in the ways you feel driven to respond in. The only way to then break the spell is to draw attention to it and (here’s the killer bit) hope everyone’s willing to let go of the co-created illusion.

And that part really is a killer, because it’s hard to give a dog with a bad name a better name. Look at how many people come out of young offender units or prisons with more criminal tendencies than when they went in. Or people who are hospitalised for mental health reasons and never make it out again, having swapped a fragmented sense of self for the relative stability offered by their clinical diagnosis.

I’ve often heard phrases like ‘now I’m not a racist, some of my good friends are black, but ‘. Projection is a modification to contact, meaning it’s a way of avoiding being in true contact with another person. Someone with strongly held racial prejudices will project a hostile image onto anyone fitting their idea of that race. When presented with the contradictory reality of the actual person behind the projected racial mask, the prejudices tend to fall away. But often that’s only as an exception to a general rule that remains comforting and keeps the projection alive.

Social dysmorphia is a natural extension of the human urge to be shaped by social forces, to find one’s place in the inter-personal realm. Its co-creation relies on a refusal by both sides to enter into contact, a reliance on the modified contact of projection over the full, vibrant, and often painful contact of two fully subjective human beings making and holding a connection with each other. If I view you as powerful because I find it easier to adopt a position of weakness, and you prefer feeling powerful, then together we will create an illusion in which you are powerful and I am weak. Then I can enjoy the comfort of all my familiar creative adjustments; I don’t have to accept the challenge of realising that I too am powerful and that you too are weak. Better the devil you know after all.

And that’s why I want to rehabilitate projective identification as a concept; because it’s useful, and in a gestalt setting it doesn’t allow for the abdication of therapist responsibility. Instead, we can talk about what both me and my client do to co-create a certain situation. And this is just a magnified version of what takes place in human interaction generally; the therapy situation is the social situation in microcosm.

Making good contact with ourselves, other people, our environment, is an active process. In a society in which much of our energy is focused on sustaining economic vitality, there is often not much left over for putting in the effort it takes to make and maintain contact with other people. Projections are easier to engage with because they are familiar, predictable, and ultimately under our control. And it can be easier to identify with what someone else is projecting onto us because if making good contact takes energy, imagine the energy it takes to challenge the projection that is blocking that contact! Sometimes it’s easier to go ‘fine, if you say I’m bad then I’ll just be really bad!’.

So I offer up a new life to projective identification as social dysmorphia. And if you’re worried by all that give a dog a bad name stuff, remember: you’re not a dog, that’s just my projection!


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It seems to me that there is a bizarre fascination in our current age of explaining present day behaviour by reference to a wholly imagined pre-historic past. Considering the hyper-adaptability of human beings to present situations, it strikes me as odd that one would attempt to explain current behaviour as an evolutionary adaptation to an ancestral environment. Evolutionary psychology; it’s not big, and it’s not clever.

This is, of course, my gestalt bias shining through; in gestalt, the focus is on describing what’s happening in the here and now, not speculations about the there and then. That isn’t to say that the past is unimportant (he who fails to learn from his past is doomed to repeat it and all that). But what’s important about the past in gestalt is the way in which past events are kept active in the present.

Consider armistice day, the holocaust, or the 9/11 attacks; these are events where we ‘keep the memory alive’ through commemoration. The events themselves are over, but their echoes are active present day forces. Jews continue to commemorate Passover specifically in order to keep that ancestral event alive in the present as a mobilising force within their faith. The gestalt bias is against the dry, historical analysis of the event as it happened, and in favour of the electric, living meaning of the event’s active influence in the present.

All of which meanders me in the general direction of emotion and the purpose thereof.

Every theoretical system has its biases, and gestalt is no exception. Along with gestalt’s bias towards here and now experience, I have been thinking recently about gestalt’s bias towards emotion and feeling. There is a general wisdom in gestalt that emotions are Good Things, and that feeling one’s emotions is better than not feeling them. I agree with this outlook but have been fairly vague on why I agree with this outlook. So I have been exploring my thoughts about the nature of emotion in order to arrive at a good understanding of my stance on the matter as distinct from what I’ve simply picked up (ie introjected) through training, practice, supervision, and my own therapy.

What I’ve arrived at is a relatively simple maxim: emotions mobilise situations for action.

A simple maxim, but one that requires some unpacking.

Let’s start with another foray into my good friend, the Online Etymology Dictionary:

Emotion: 1570s, “a (social) moving, stirring, agitation,” from M.Fr. émotion (16c.), from O.Fr. emouvoir “stir up” (12c.), from L. emovere “move out, remove, agitate,” from ex- “out” (see ex-) + movere “to move” (see move). Sense of “strong feeling” is first recorded 1650s; extended to any feeling by 1808.

And compare with Cambridge Dictionaries Online:

Emotion: a strong feeling such as love or anger, or strong feelings in general.

Emotions are active forces. Whilst the dictionary definition above captures the sense of strong feelings, it loses much of the background sense of emotional activity. All emotion is bodily activity. That doesn’t mean I reduce emotion to mere ‘chemical imabalance’, only that I recognise the physical basis for the experience of emotion. All emotion involves physical, bodily activity. Hence the background sense of agitation and outward movement expressed in its etymology.

Given that any mobilisation of the body involves a significant investment of energy and resource, the kinds of activity that emotions support deserve attention. This is where simple here and now description of what actually happens comes into its own. What actually happens when someone doesn’t just feel sad but emotes sadly? What happens when someone emotes angrily or expresses fear or hate or love?

What happens is that the situation they are part of responds.

At the heart of gestalt sits field theory, the observation that behaviour is a function of an organism in an environment. In crude terms, my issues are the result of my interactions with my environment, making my behaviour as much an expression of my environment as an expression of myself. I cannot be separated from my environment; at all times, I must exist in some situation or other.

Emotions are distinct from feelings in that where feelings are sensations, emotions are actions that arise out of feelings. There is a notable difference between feeling angry and being angry. That difference is physical activity. Feeling angry is becoming aware of a certain range of sensations that make a range of activity possible. Being angry is an elevation of those potentials into actual bodily expression.

The end result, if a feeling is allowed to grow into an emotion, is that some outward movement is made. Expressions of anger tend to involve raised voices, growling noises, and hitting things. Expressions of sadness tend to involve fallen faces, shedding tears and softer voices. And both have different effects on the situation a person exists within.

When someone cries with sadness, the most common supportive responses tend to be to offer comfort and to ask what’s wrong. The emotion of sadness mobilises the situation for supportive action. When someone growls with anger, again a common response is to find out what’s going on, what’s got that person mad. Where there’s a clear physical threat, the situation can then divide into support for physical violence and peacemaking. Anger mobilises the situation for conflictive action and resolution.

These are simplified examples but my general point is that emotion isn’t just about feeling something in a private internal world. Emotion is physical activity that gets responded to; British culture may be commonly described as generally repressive of emotional expression but even that is clearly a response. And a very instructive response. Where emotional expression meets with hostility and repression the lesson is clear: there is no support for your feelings here, this situation will not mobilise to support you. Other strategies then have to be found for dealing with forbidden feelings without emoting them.

So, how does this underpin my opinion that emotions are Good Things?

Because emotional expression allows for an open and honest expression of need. The result of suppressing emotion isn’t that the feelings out of which emotions arise go away (though we may block our awareness of them); the result is that we find different ways of coping with them that, to a greater or lesser extent, result in our genuine needs being frustrated. And repeatedly frustrated needs become cravings that continue to seek completion in the present out of our awareness.

I say open and honest because I’m not suggesting that emotional expression should always result in a meeting of needs. Rather, it allows for open and honest negotiation, based on the complex needs of other people, and the range of support available at the time. Emotional expression simply allows people to be aware of the range of need in a given situation. When emotions are suppressed, the underlying needs continue to seek completion but secretly and manipulatively.

Feeling one’s emotions instead of not feeling one’s emotions means knowing what one needs instead of not knowing what one needs. Furthermore, being able to express emotions means that when what you need is available, you will be able to get it. When emotions are suppressed to the point that feelings give rise to an automatic shutting down of emotive activity, it becomes impossible for the original need to be met. Think of your need as sitting in a room with a locked door; it isn’t enough to know intellectually what’s behind the door and what it needs. At some point, to be truly satisfied, the door has to be opened to allow what’s needed to get through. Feeling is becoming aware of the need behind the door; emotion is opening the door.

In order to enjoy the taste of your food, you need to chew it and savour it; physical activity that takes effort. Likewise, in order to enjoy human interaction, to be truly satisfied as a social animal, you need to engage in another physical activity that takes effort; emoting.

So, emotions are Good Things, and their purpose is to mobilise situations for action.

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I recently saw Black Swan, the much acclaimed thriller starring Natalie Portman as a ballerina whose sense of self undergoes a dramatic collapse under the pressure of her elevation to prima donna in a production of Swan Lake.

Overall, I will be looking at the film as an interesting portrayal of a young woman driven by a narcissistic injury. In particular, I’m interested in the film’s potential for creating compassion for its main character. I feel this offers an emotional way in to feeling warmth towards what is often one of the more difficulty human issues to empathise with.

That said, the film is decidely Hollywood with smarts rather than Art House, so ends up caught up more with its own image than with an in-depth exploration of its content… all of which actually serves to make it ironically suitable as a case study in narcissistic injury.

I’ll be reviewing this with the assumption you haven’t seen it so as to avoid spoilers.

Nina as Narcissus

The driving force for the plot is protagonist Nina’s burning ambition to be the Swan Queen in her company’s production of Swan Lake. The entire film revolves around this ambition, giving rise to two important effects: firstly, there is no development of any other character in the film beyond what is necessary for developing the character of Nina. Secondly, Nina undergoes no character development beyond what is necessary for developing her role as Swan Queen.

On the one hand, that could just mean this is a poorly developed, one-dimensional thriller featuring Natalie Portman in interesting face paint and an opportunity for some gratuitous sexualisation. However, watching the film through my gestalt-therapy-tinted spectacles, I felt this was entirely appropriate to any presentation of a character driven by narcissistic injury (although the gratuitous sexualisation was indeed gratuitous).

I think issues around narcissism can be greatly misunderstood, and the term can end up used in a persecutory way. There is a beautiful paradox in attempting to empathise with someone who has little capacity for empathy. Consider that empathy is ultimately about attuning to someone else’s emotional experience. Counsellors and psychotherapists need to develop their ability to empathise with their clients. So imagine attempting to attune to the emotional experience of not being able to attune to the emotional experience of another. It’s the kind of paradox that deserves its own name.

The essence of narcissistic injury is this: a person naturally grows their own sense of who they are, and seeks love and approval from important others. The narcissistic injury occurs when the important others attack that home-grown sense of self, and demand that an external standard be achieved instead. So, natural sense of self is rejected as sub-standard; external sense of what self should be is imposed.

Consequently, the narcissistic injury drives a perfectionism that is un-natural (because it doesn’t actually fit with what the person wants ‘in their heart of hearts’), and can never be satisfied (because the external standard is alien, so any success can’t truly be felt as belonging to self).

Remember, in the Greek myth, the beautiful young man Narcissus is cursed by the Gods to fall in love with his own reflection; but he doesn’t know he is in love with his reflection, he takes his reflection to be another person. That is the tragedy of narcissistically driven ambition; the person who is so driven doesn’t realise they are chasing their own reflection, which they are doomed never to attain, however successful they are.

Clearly, there is simply no room for the emotional reality of other people in the midst of this psychic drama, hence the limitations in the person’s capacity for empathy. The only purpose for other people in the midst of this drama is to provide context.

Applied to Nina, her injury is clear; she needs to be the Swan Queen to feel worthwhile because, in her narcissistically driven emotional reality, there are only two categories: perfection and worthlessness. Incidentally, this dichotomy of perfection and worthlessness plays itself out well between Nina and Beth; the former’s star rising as the latter’s descends.

The influence of Nina’s mother sits heavily in the background, and it is striking that the film doesn’t make an overly big deal out of this. It is simply presented as the way things are, meaning that the full impact and implications of Nina’s homelife aren’t over played.

Some descriptions of the film describe a dramatic stand-off between Nina and Lily, making much of the contrast of Nina perfectly embodying the white swan, Lily the black swan. Nina’s struggle is to grow her sense of the black swan, the (re)discovery and assimilation of all the shadow aspects of her self she’s had to disown to stay true to her ballet ambitions.

However, whilst Lily does loom large in Nina’s psychic life, the actual character of Lily is not developed beyond her role of the new, rocky, bad girl in the company. The point being, Lily’s relevance to the film is solely as Nina’s largely imagined adversary. I’d advise holding in mind a distinction between Lily as Nina sees her, and Lily as a character in her own right; the two are very different.

There are no characters, even those whose approval Nina is seeking that have an effective existence independently of Nina. Consider that as an emotional reality; one in which people only exist in the context of your own goals. That is part of the trap of narcissistic relating; Nina only ever relates to her own reflection, never the actual people she meets. That is true not only of the other girls in the company, but also director Thomas, and Nina’s mother; the two people whose approval Nina so desperately seeks.

Consequently, it isn’t possible for Nina to receive human nourishment because at no point is she in contact with another person; she relates only to her own reflection. And reflection is a great way of explaining what happens when we project unwanted aspects of ourselves onto others; the other becomes a pool of water, upon the surface of which we see something of ourselves without recognising it as such. In a sense, all projection could be considered Narcissistic.

The feeling tone of the film as I experienced it was one of tightly wound ambition set against a cold and undeveloped background. I had a knot in my stomach most of the way through the film, feeling very tense during any kind of action phase, and very empty in the absence of action. I like to live through the films I watch, entering into contact with them as a special and externalised kind of dream. I’m used to Hollywood films being drenched with over-sentimentalised emotion that sits heavily in my gut. Black Swan felt largely devoid of sentiment; only ambition wound tightly around an emotionally empty core.

Having experienced that, I feel more able to weep for Narcissus; trapped as he is in a world of his own reflections, driven further and further into isolation by his need to attain perfection.

The emotional conclusion of that process is given dramatic voice in the climax of Black Swan.

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