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My Struggle with Projective Identification

I’ve been in therapy on and off, mostly on, for almost twenty years. I like therapy so much that I even trained to be a therapist, getting a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. Anyone who needs that much therapy must be one messed-up individual. Yeah, that’s me; I’m pretty messed-up. I’m a little less messed-up than I used to be though. Perhaps it was from the therapy, or perhaps it was just from getting older.

One of the things I’ve discovered about how this brain-body operates is that it tends to be a pretty effective blank-slate for others to project onto, particularly those with a traditionally narcissistic bent. Today, I was thinking again about an incident with a spiritual teacher where she told me that I wasn’t a saint. I’ve written about it before, and I think about it a lot. One of the things she said to me was “Pride comes before a fall, and you’re going to have a massive fall.” I think that’s what she said, but who knows. The past gets reconstructed, and inevitably altered, on each remembering.

What I realized just today, over a decade after that event, was that I wasn’t feeling pride. There was no pride in me at all. I was simply wanting support and guidance. What I realized today was that she must have been talking about herself. She must have been feeling pride. She must have been warning herself that she had a “big fall” coming, whatever that might mean. That interaction had nothing to do with me. Sure, I was there seeking support, but the whole conversation was clearly about her and what she needed.

For whatever reason, this brain-body developed into a device that will take what’s going on and make it about me. It’s amazingly self-centered in fact; it’s a kind of narcissism. Just because someone calls me a name, it doesn’t mean that I am that. It’s usually a message about, and for, that other person.

This reminds me of an ex-partner who I happened to be with when I did an intense psycho-spiritual workshop called the Hoffman Process. In preparation for that workshop, I had to ask people who knew me well to list the non-adaptive ways of being that I exhibited. This ex-partner made a long list for me. I also got lists from many other people, including friends and family members. During the Hoffman Process, I visited all of these “patterns.” What I discovered was that none of the patterns listed by my ex-partner had anything to do with me. None of them resonated, and I could not find their source in my childhood. What I came to realize was that all of the patterns were descriptive of her. I left the Hoffman Process much more free and less laden with these patterns, one of which was to take on the projections of others.

Many years ago, I wrote on Facebook that “You’re already enlightened. You just don’t realize it.” This triggered a long and arduous interaction with another “spiritual teacher” who told me that I was misleading people. It really made me wonder if it was true. Recently, it’s become clear to me that in fact he has been misleading people with his “teachings.” He was projecting onto me and my Facebook share. I was neither teaching nor misleading people. I was just being me.

It’s not that I don’t have my own problems. As I said, I’ve been in therapy for a couple of decades. I’ve also been to many workshops and retreats, and I meditate like a motherfucker, now having racked up thousands of hours of “practice.” But my issues, in case you’re interested, are not these things that have been projected onto me. I’m not “bad at making friends” as my ex-partner asserted. I’m not “misleading people” or “prideful” as the spiritual teacher claimed. My primary issues are anxiety and low self-esteem. The kind of thoughts that pass through my mind, thoughts that I tend to grasp at and hold onto, are ones like, “I’m going screw this up and something terrible will happen” or “I’m a fraud and a fake and I can’t do this.” This is what I struggle with, and it’s the kind of thing I’ve always struggled with.

I’m an inverse-narcissist, which means that I make everyone else right and myself wrong. I make everyone else good and myself bad. I tend to take on whatever dysfunction the narcissists will not own. By doing this, I disempower them, because I distract them from actually owning and becoming aware of their own dysfunction. I’m harming them in the guise of taking care of them.

Gradually, I am handing back the projections. Gradually, I am calling-out the bullshit. Gradually, and with good humor, I am letting the water run off this duck’s back and return to its source. I have my own problems. I’m too busy making my life work to get in the way of their personal growth.