How Our Past Influences Our Present – Free Ebook

For much of the time, the way we feel about – and react to – events is founded on how things are in the here and now. For example: – I feel very scared because something very scary is in front of me. – I feel I’m being judged harshly by the person I’m speaking to – and I am. – I withhold my trust because someone I’m with truly is untrustworthy However, one of the momentous discoveries of 20th century psychology has been that in certain cases, this isn’t what happens at all. At points, our behaviour is driven not by what is happening in front of us, but by extremely formative experiences we’ve had in childhood, which colour and influence how we behave and think decades later – unless and until we become aware of our tendencies, as the technical term has it, to ‘project’ responses from the past onto the present, where they don’t entirely belong. So: – We feel very scared – even though there is nothing around us to be terrified of. – We feel harshly judged by someone – who in fact means very well. – We avoid intimacy with a person – who actually deeply merits our trust The reason we behave like is that we are generalising on the basis of certain significant events from childhood which have completely altered our assumptions about the world and other people. – In early childhood, we experienced the terrifying volcanic temper of a violent parent. Now we see the threat of violence everywhere. – We were humiliated by our mother for the first decade of life. Now a lot of people seem out to humiliate us. – A father whom we loved and trusted left the family and broke off contact suddenly. Now most relationships feel like they’re about to end in disaster. When we’re involved in a projection, we believe ourselves to be utterly justified in responding as we do, and might take deep offence if someone accused us of ‘projecting’ on the basis of forgotten past events. Because of this innate denial and ignorance of our projections, psychologists have developed special tests, known as projection tests, to tease out our underlying assumptions, show us what is on our minds and enable us to see reality more clearly. The most well-known of such tecsts was devised in the 1930s by the Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach, who created a group of ambiguous images, then asked his patients to reflect without inhibition on what they felt these looked like, evoked and made them think of. Crucially, these images have no predetermined meaning; they aren’t about anything in particular. They are suggestive in a huge variety of directions – and so different people will see different traits and atmospheres in them according to what their past most readily predisposes them to imagine. To one individual who has inherited from their parents a rather kindly and forgiving conscience, an image could be seen as a sweet mask, with eyes, floppy ears, a covering for the mouth and wide flaps extending from the cheeks. Another, more traumatised by a domineering father, might see it as a powerful figure viewed from below, with splayed feet, thick legs, heavy shoulders and the head bent forward as if poised for attack. With similar intent, the psychologists Henry Murray and Christiana Morgan created a set of drawings showing people whose moods and actions were deliberately indeterminate. In one example, two men are positioned close to one another with their faces able to bear a host of interpretations. ‘It’s perhaps a father and son, mourning together for a shared loss’, one respondent who had inherited a close relationship with his father might say. Or another, bearing the burden of a punitive past, might assert: ‘It’s a manager in the process of sacking a young employee who has failed at an important task’. Or a third, wrestling with a legacy of censured homosexuality, might venture: ‘I feel something obscene is going on out of the frame: it’s in a public urinal, the older man is looking at the younger guy’s penis and making him feel very embarrassed but perhaps also somehow turned on….’ One thing we do really know about these ambiguous images is that they are not precise, the elaboration is coming from the person who looks at them, and the way they elaborate, the kind of story they tell, is saying far more about their emotional inheritance than it does about the images themselves. Following this pattern, in the 1950s, the American psychologist Saul Rosenzweig designed tests to tease out our inherited ways of dealing with humiliation and bad news. His Picture Frustration Study (1955) showed a range of situations to which our psychological histories would give us very different templates of responses. One kind of person, the bearer of a solid emotional inheritance, will tend to be resilient when someone has behaved badly towards them or is causing a problem unnecessarily. Another might be convinced that they they deserve quite bad treatment from others, a legacy of a difficult childhood. A fourth projection exercise asks us to say the very first thing that comes to mind when we try to finish particular sentences that are fired at us. For example: Men in authority are generally… Young women are almost always… When I am promoted, what’s bound to happen is… When someone is late, it must be because… When I hear someone described as ‘very intellectual’, I imagine them being…[d] Being mature means accepting with good grace that we might be involved in multiple projections and so may be bringing exaggerated dynamics and excess energy to a lot of situations. We aren’t of course responsible for the events in childhood from which our projections arose, but we do have a responsibility as adults to try to understand the nature of our projections – and to warn others, and ourselves, of how they might be skewing our behaviour in the here and now. If you’re interested in coming to San Francisco to meet us at the end of March. Please click on the link on screen now to find out more. We hope to see you there.

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