Historical forces and psychological projection

I confess to quite an acute skepticism of psychoanalysis because its terms of reference have seemed to me limited to the late capitalist nuclear family, without taking into account social or historical events.    Because this kind of psychoanalysis is worse than useless to me personally, my skepticism had continued to grow and grow. Recently, however, I found this article and considered it embrace a balanced form of humanism.

I’ve learned to steer clear of traditional psychoanalysis because the paradigm it promotes seems to encourage people to believe that is one is suffering in some way, it is likely to be because one is “projecting something”.  I developed the impression that psychoanalysis was often, if not always, a means to expressing an unwillingness to deal with historical facts.   By not dealing with these and with the impact they can have on the psyche, one preserves a sense that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and that nothing  can or should be changed, apart from at the level of the individual.   That is, the person suffering should change themselves, but they should do so in a way that doesn’t implicate others or avoidable historical circumstances in the process of change.   They should just make the changes as part of their moral duty to society, above all by hardening up and not taking any nonsense from anybody.

While I’m sure that the imperatives of bourgeois society are not necessarily the imperatives of psychoanalysis, there seems to be an overlap.  According to the article I’ve linked to, the capacity to dig into emotional states, to find out what is there,  is a core part of psychoanalysis. But, psychoanalysis occurs in a context, which is that of contemporary society, the society of the bourgeois individual.  The functioning of the individual is important within this sort of system, but their individual mental states are not relevant so long as they perform their job effectively.  Forms of therapy that would try to coax a person into expressing a certain impersonal demeanor are particularly noxious, although perhaps quite common.   The article linked above outlines how psychoanalysis is supposed to simply make a person more aware of their hidden motivations, so as to have more control over their lives. The impressive aspect of the article was that it didn’t frame a person’s suffering in terms of individual moral culpability.

My resistance to psychoanalysis as a system has been on the basis that I must necessarily and rightfully defend myself against insinuations based on bourgeois concepts of moral culpability.   I don’t mean to imply that I’m a perfect little angel, in bourgeois terms.   I just want to get rid of the bourgeois framing of experience.   We are not guilty sinners, who suffer because of our mistakes or deficiencies.  This reductive way of viewing human nature does much harm.   Rather, we deal with issues the way we do, sometimes inadequately, because of emotional overload.

Sometimes the emotional overload is so strong that we demand others bear some of its weight.   That is known as ‘projective identification’.  One does not resort to this because one is immoral or lax, but more probably because one does not know how else to deal with the burning intensity of emotional pain apart from spreading it around.   By doing so, one survives, although if the emotions one has to spread are negative, this is highly costly to others.

We may often not come to  like people who project onto us, because they are giving us a burden not our own.   That tends to produce resentment and sometimes rage. If the project is negative, and not made up of overflowing joy, or if authority is not what’s being projected onto us, we may feel that we have no choice but to carry someone else’s pathology.  We might do this willingly or unwillingly, but it can be more difficult, when young, to develop the ego strength to resist powerful forms of projection.


I still have the notion that disaster can strike at any time, and it will be my fault.

I think I understand how that belief came about, but I would never have reached an understanding apart from  my belated awareness of some very specific historical circumstances.

My father’s rage was lit by his mother allowing her husband, his father, to be killed on a flying jaunt in World War 2.   Participating in the war was “the thing to do,” his mother had said.  It sounded frivolous.  He didn’t have to do it, but it was the flavor of the day.  My father said he didn’t “trust her judgement”.  Of course not — because a light tone ought not to be followed by a disaster.  The two aspects of the deadly outcome, the feeling before the world fell apart and the feeling afterwards, are incongruous.  There was much to distrust, including possibly, his mother’s judgement.

All the same, I know what she was feeling, because it was how I felt when harsh and critical judgement were projected onto me.  You see, my father didn’t ‘trust my judgement’ either, on the basis that I seemed like a person not to be trusted.   When I scan the past for anything I may have done to provoke such unwarranted criticism, I do not find it.  It is likely that my gender was the fundamental element that drew this fire.

My grandmother’s internal workings have become mine, to a certain extent, as a result of my father’s issues.  It is true to say that his relationship with her became his relationship with me.  I know how it feels to be blamed for something terrible that one can’t quite put one’s finger on.  I’ve had the responsibility to rectify historical wrongs, but without understanding their specifics.   I just felt guilty.  Also, it was very important for me that the world should know that I was deeply traumatized and not ‘hysterical’ — women of my grandmother’s era were often depicted as ‘hysterical’ and my father was inclined to handle his rage by displacing it — and condemning me.

The plane that went up and never came down was all my fault.   I didn’t realize the source of all the hostility and aggression, but had I understood it all much earlier, my ego would have still needed further years to develop to be able to take the strain of being targeted in this way.

Psychoanalysis may be a useful tool, then, if it helps people to understand the sources of their pains, but it surely takes a great deal more to overcome historically inflicted blows — and, if history is out of its picture to begin with, what then …?


3. The cure for a man who still believes in female hysteria is to wait until he has something very urgent he needs you to understand.

Then say: “I’m sorry. I’m not getting it. Would you try and say that again in a way I can understand? I encourage you to keep persisting, if you like. Or, by the same token, don’t persist. Either way, it’s all the same to me!”

The body politic

Those who do face the reality of the mechanisms of projective identification are extraordinary, and kind of shamanistic, for this is what they have to combat:

Bion says of the group, ‘My impression is that the group approximates too closely, in the minds of the individuals composing it, to very primitive phantasies about the contents of the mother’s body. The attempt to make a rational investigation of the dynamics of the group is therefore perturbed by fears, and mechanisms for dealing with them, which are characteristic of the paranoid-schizoid position. The investigation cannot be carried out without the stimulation and activation of those levels… the elements of the emotional situation are so closely allied to phantasies of the earliest anxieties that the group is compelled, whenever the pressure of anxiety becomes too great, to take defensive action’ (Bion, 1955, p. 456).