“Projection” Before Freud

Freud and his followers thought that they had discovered the human tendency to project one’s own assumptions and preoccupations onto others.  When this happens in therapy, it’s called “transference” (patient projects onto therapist) or “countertransference” (therapist projects onto patient).  However, this tendency has been well known, in at least some circles, since ancient times.

Idries Shah gives a tale illustrating this in his “Special Illumination: The Sufi Use of Humour.”

One day a scholar ran into a gang of bandits who threatened to kill him.  “I think you are a spy or a police agent,” the chief said.

“No I am not.  I am only a poor scholar,” said the unfortunate captive.

“‘How can you prove it?”

“I can read from a book.”

“That’s no good to us:  we’re all illiterates.  How do we know you will really be reading, and not just making it all up?”

So they killed him.  “I didn’t become head of this band of outlaws by believing everything people told me, you know,” said the chief.  And his wisdom was, of course, unanimously applauded by his men.  (Octagon Press, 1977, p 40-41)

Shah comments:  “The attributing of one’s own characteristics to others, so common amongst—for instance—generous and stingy people alike, needs both illustrating and fixing in vivid tale.  The brevity of this tale enables one to shock someone out of this habit pattern.  The need to point out the syndrome is there because Sufi understanding cannot come to people who are too extensively self-deceived.  To imagine, therefore, the other person’s motivation is what is actually one’s own is self-deception.”

Because this knowledge was not generally available in Western culture before Freud—along with others with whom he was in collaboration and conflict, often characterized by their own projections onto one another—created psychoanalysis, it has been incorrectly believed that the psychological projection of one’s own preoccupations onto others is a new discovery, and that only psychoanalysis can bring it into conscious awareness.  In fact, it has been perennially known to genuine spiritual traditions, which include methods—for example, this story—for helping learners become aware of this process in themselves and others, and escape being controlled by it.

At the 2016 Spring Psychoanalytic Psychology Conference, Part 1

I attended the annual spring conference of Division 39 (Psychoanalytic Psychology) of the American Psychological Association.  The conference, entitled “Hot and Bothered,” included presentations on sexual and erotic issues, although there were a wide range of other presentations.  There were a lot of programs and I could only attend some, so here are notes from “my” conference.

Relational Dream Work:  The Bridge Between I and Thou

Kendle Hassinger, LPC

This preconference workshop was one of the most enjoyable and personally useful programs in “my” confefence.  Hassinger’s approach to dreamwork was as a relational process in therapy.  That is, it’s not a matter of the therapist being some sort of dream expert and pronouncing interpretations, but a process of therapist and client moving together into a deeper understanding of the client’s dream.  Hassinger sees the relational process itself as mutative, regardless of theoretical orientation.  (“Mutative,” in psychoanalytic context, means it facilitates a beneficial change the state or self-organization of the client or analysand.)  She sees the therapeutic relationship as involving two I-Thou relationships: one between the analyst and analysand, and the other between, as it were, the client and herself; between the client’s conscious self and her inner process, objects, and private experience.  By definition, the process of striving toward health in these I-Thou relationships is never complete, and the therapist’s job is to facilitate them.

Hassinger asked what we thought dreams were for, and I commented about the relationship between dreams and learning in mammals.  This sparked a discussion among the participants, during which a Mexican graduate student said that mammals dream “because they have mothers.”  I’m still reflecting on that!

Hassinger encouraged us to participate in discussion, and we talked about research into dreams (REM sleep increases during periods of intense learning) and different analytic perspectives.  Freud saw dreams as concealing meanings whereas Jung saw dreams as revealing the unconscious rather than disguising it.  Her perspective integrated a number of analytic and non-analytic elements, but was more Jungian than Freudian overall.  This was one of several presentations that had an inclusive attitude toward methods and concepts in different approaches to psychoanalysis, contrary to the history of divisive conflict between schools that characterizes so much of psychoanalytic culture, both then and now.

For example, Hassinger mentioned Jung’s comment that “The ego is a complex among other complexes,” and described therapeutic exploration as finding and exploring “feeling-toned complexes” (another Jungian term), which is a different way of looking at the inner life than the more dichotomous “I-it” (ego-id) of Freud; yet her discussion integrated both and flowed easily from one to the other as it suited the context.

Jung saw exploring the “feeling-tone” as the way into exploring the dream, and focused on the details of the dream image.  For example, if a barn, in a dream, is full of healthy animals and fodder, or neglected and dirty, it will have a different set of meanings associated with it.

We paired off to do brief explorations of one another’s dreams, and I was paired with a graduate student from Mexico.  Interestingly, both of our dreams involved animals—hers were birds, and mine a dog—and both yielded deeper meanings upon exploration.

An Evening With Nancy McWilliams

Nancy McWilliams is a distinguished and prominent teacher, leader and writer in psychoanalysis.  This pre-conference gathering was mainly an appreciation of her, and a Q. and A. session.  Some selections from my notes:

Q:  “You don’t belong to any camp, though you speak to every camp.”  NM:  “I used to walk the halls to find someone to have lunch with.  I’m an integrator temperamentally.  I approach anyone from (the perspective of, “What can I learn from this guy,” not “I’m better than this guy.”  Different patients make different therapists look good, and and different theories evolve to (explain different kinds of patients).”

Responding to a question about the difference between psychoanalytic diagnosis (which she’d written a book on) and the usual DSM-type psychiatric diagnosis:  “Psychoanalytic diagnosis is basically about individual differences,” which, she added, helps explain why it is so popular in Eastern Europe and other more collectivist cultures.  She recalled a question she’d received when teaching in China:  “What do we do about our depressed grannies?”

I had submitted a question (questions were submitted in writing) on the similarities and differences between the terms “psychoanalytic” and “psychodynamic.”  She replied:  “That difference has never been salient to me.  I think it’s a very artificial difference made up by psychologists who are not familiar with psychoanalytic ideas, who tend to define psychoanalysis as a technique, passé, on the couch, three days a week, etc.  If you define it as a treatment, then you have to have another word for all the rest of psychoanalytic knowledge that applies to everything else we do that’s not on the couch.  I’m an integrator, what Darwin would call a lumper rather than a splitter.  I prefer Freud’s definition, he had a lot of definitions, but I prefer the definition as any activity in which you are attending to transference and resistance.  It’s psychoanalytic to work with psychotic people, borderline people, and so forth.  I see what the distinction is but I think it’s created more heat than light to try to make that distinction.”  (I appreciate Dr. McWilliams’ inclusive perspective, which was characteristic of the attitude toward psychoanalysis in this conference, but I respectfully disagree.  The conflicts about what is really psychoanalytic and what isn’t goes all the way back to Freud and Jung, is a distinguishing feature of the history of psychoanalytic culture, and has been particularly virulent in the USA.  As Dr. McWilliams said, Freud had a lot of definitions, but she didn’t mention his requirement that his associates agree with whatever his definition of the moment was.  I prefer the term “psychodynamic,” because it includes all the perspectives from within the various schools of psychoanalysis, bypassing their conflicts and turf wars, and also has room for perspectives of neuroscientifically and spiritually informed views of mind from outside of psychoanalysis per se.  Still, I appreciated her personal warmth and professional inclusiveness within the culture of psychoanalysis.)

In response to a question about eating disorders, Dr. McWilliams said that she thinks extreme eating disorders should be considered psychotic, “when someone weighs 80 pounds and believes she’s fat and is starving herself to death.  We’ve been criminal in our treatment of psychotic and other persons, we just medicate them, as if they don’t have souls, as if they don’t have lives.”

Asked about the difference between psychoanalysis and cognitive-behavioral therapy, Dr. McWilliams said, “The important differentiation isn’t between psychoanalysis and CBT, they run into the same issues we do, they develop their own language to describe it.  The biggest abyss we have is between clinicians and researchers who have increasingly become alienated from what clinical work is really like.  It’s not their fault, it’s conditions in academia (where) it’s so hard to get grants (that) it would be professional suicide to have a small practice on the side.  (So) researchers have no idea what it’s like to be a clinician, they think it’s like what they do in the lab.  I think we should be allying with cognitive-behavioral, humanistic, family therapists, anyone who is in the trenches.”  (This is the direction that we have been moving in with CAPP, the Chicago Association for Psychoanalytic Psychology.)

Q:  “How do you understand resilience, beyond ego strength?  Do you have a dynamic formulation around resilience?”  NM:  “No, but I’ll hazard a guess.  It all has to do with whether you have somebody who can bear your pain.  If you have somebody who can be there with you, you can go through pretty bad pain, you go through a mourning process, mourning is the process by which we adapt to the painful aspects of life.  If you have the same traumatic experience and you have nobody who can go with you through it and bear your pain and bear witness to what you’re going through, I think you’re much more likely to be dissociated, because it is unbearable to go through crisis without someone who can bear witness.  That’s a time-honored goal of psychoanalytic therapy.”  (Note:  I see dissociation as a normal aspect of brain function and self-formation, and find support for this view in the “neural networks” model of neuroscience and the “multiple selves” model of spiritual psychology.  Psychoanalysis has described traumatic dissociation, and specialized in treating it.)

Q:  “You’ve talked about a number of different camps.  There’s an ideological process of all this, perhaps a tribal component, who’s on the inside, who’s on the outside.  In the history of psychoanalysis, and in many respects of CBT, the ideological component has been so important, to define themselves against (other schools), how do we begin to look at these tribes that we form and bridge those divides?”  NM:  “In this field, where ideas matter so much, I don’t think it’s been so bad, as long as we can come together in the fight against torture, against accreditation that’s depersonalizing” (here she’s referring to issues within the American Psychological Association).  “The danger in psychoanalysis is that we get so distracted by these internal differences between us that we’re fighting over deck chairs on the Titanic.”

Gurdjieff, Freud, Jung, Therapy, and the “Chief Feature”

George Gurdjieff, mystic teacher of the first half of the last century, taught that each of us has a “chief feature,” which can only be shown to him by someone else.  Gurdjieff pointed to the chief feature of his students by how he treated them in various situations, and by situations he put them into in which their chief feature would come to the fore in ways that they would have to acknowledge and deal with.  Sometimes people couldn’t stand to see themselves so exposed, and left.


Of course, while we may have one chief feature at a time, we can certainly have different chief features over time; which highlights the need for periodic self-encounter.


Something like this happens in therapy, where, as I like to say, “Everyone needs someone else to hold up the mirror.”  In therapy, too, the client may leave, seeing her own reflection in the mirror and blaming it on the therapist.  Of course, it’s up to the therapist to be a good-enough mirror; we have to “polish our mirrors” in order to reflect out clients back to themselves without distorting the image too much with our own stuff.  The Sufi wisefool figure Mulla Nasrudin demonstrates what can happen.  One day he stopped to pick up a fragment of a metal mirror by the side of the road, thinking it might be something valuable.  Looking into it, he saw his own reflection, and threw it away; exclaiming,  “How ugly, no wonder someone threw it away!”  Was the mirror too distorting, or was Nasrudin too repulsed by his own reflection to recognize himself?


As far as I know, Freud never had a relationship with anyone in which his chief features were pointed out to him.  He claimed to have conducted the first psychoanalysis on himself, but “everyone needs someone else to hold up the mirror.”  Psychoanalysis has suffered, ever since, from the unacknowledged chief features of its principle founder, among them reserving to himself the role of arbiter of ultimate truth, and conflating “psycho-analysis” the treatment procedure with “psychoanalysis” the culture in which his role as supreme arbiter of truth was embedded.  Jung wasn’t in therapy either, as far as I know, but his relationships with women would have provided mirrors; particularly with the brilliant and powerful Sabina Spielrein, and also with his later mistress Toni Wolff and his wife Emma; powerful women in their own right.  Freud never had a relationship with a woman as strong as any of these, as far as the historical record tells us.

Commentary on the Film, “A Dangerous Method”

This Commentary is reprinted from the Winter-Spring, 2012, CAPPSTONE, the newsletter of the Chicago Association for Psychoanalytic Psychology. It appeared alongside a review of the film by my colleague Michael Losoff.

The story of Freud and Jung needs to be told, because of its importance for our time; especially, though not only, for those of us who practice psychotherapy. So I am grateful to “A Dangerous Method” for telling that story. I’m also grateful that the film takes a big step toward restoring Sabina Spielrein to her rightful place in that story. Yet I found the film more useful for prompting me to look into source material, than for conveying the characters of Freud, Jung, and Spielrein. One doesn’t blame the film for this, but rather acknowledges that there are certain qualities of extraordinary character that are difficult, if not impossible, to portray artistically.[more…]

Something similar happened with “Nixon,” the film about Richard Nixon and Watergate; another “must be told” story for our time. Several years ago, I happened to be at a great local bookstore, the Bookstall at Chestnut Court in Winnetka, when Elliot Richardson, Nixon’s attorney general who resigned rather than follow his chief’s order to fire independent prosecutor Archibald Cox, was making an author’s appearance in support of his book, and so I was present when Richardson was asked what he thought about the film. Richardson said that Nixon had personal qualities that inspired loyalty and respect and made people want to follow him, that couldn’t be conveyed by an actor, no matter how technically proficient. He went on to say that Nixon’s fatal flaws–by which he meant the paranoia, grandiosity and manipulativeness that ultimately undermined him–needed to be seen in the context of his exceptional leadership personality. Freud, Jung, and Spielrein were all exceptional personalities too, yet in “A Dangerous Method” they seem so ordinary, even when they are discussing extraordinary matters, such as the creation of psychoanalysis, or doing extraordinary things, such as Jung dutifully paddling a semi-nude Spielrein.

It’s unfortunate, though perhaps inevitable, that the “danger” in “A Dangerous Method” is the risk of consummated erotic attraction between doctor and patient. The greater danger in the psychoanalytic enterprise, one which is much more difficult to portray dramatically, is the inevitable insufficiency of knowledge on the part of the doctor who enters into a treatment relationship with a patient centered around how the patient’s unconscious processes are undermining him or her, within a cultural milieu which constitutionally keeps certain experiences unconscious. The analytic therapist must thread his or her way through the lack of sufficient information about people in general and this person in particular, the false security of theoretical dogma, the narcissistic appeal of making up some apparently adequate explanation of the patient’s problems out of whole cloth, and the tempting attractions of transference and countertransference; to arrive, eventually, at enough of a cocreated understanding of this particular person to effect a series of healing, corrective experiences. Mindfucking, rather than sex, is the greater danger of the “dangerous method.”

After watching “A Dangerous Method,” I’ve been reading “The Freud-Jung Letters,” abridged edition, edited by William McGuire, and “Sabina Spielrein, Forgotten Pioneer of Psychoanalysis,” edited by Coleen Covington and Barbara Wharton (available on Google Books). It’s clear that both Freud and Jung were acutely aware that they were overturning the prevailing logical-rational view of human nature, and erecting in its place a view of human nature as largely at the mercy of unconscious forces that could only be brought into the light of awareness and made civilized through the “dangerous method” of psychoanalysis. Their early union, productive collaboration, eventual conflict and final break is the stuff of legend, and well enough told in the film. But what about the role of Spielrein in the development of psychoanalysis?

Freud, Jung and Spielrein were all forces of nature, and are inevitably diminished in the film; but Spielrein’s character, played by Keira Knightly, is the most attenuated. The role focuses on her emotional neurosis, physical beauty, and emotional-sexual attraction to Jung, while underplaying the contribution of her conceptual brilliance to her personal and erotic magnetism. It seems to have been her brilliance, no less than her eroticism, that made her love for Jung impossible for them to resist, and led to a kind of fusing of identities with Jung, at least for awhile; which he seems to have found both inevitable and profoundly upsetting. In the film, when Jung finally relents and becomes Spielrein’s lover, he is giving into his needs, and hers, but not merging with a brilliant partner whose self and love resonate with him as they merge into an eroto-analytic third; as seems to have been the case in their actual relationship. In the film, Jung is dutiful, and Knightly beautiful, but we don’t get that merging of identities, or the reversal of roles in which she becomes the more powerful and nurturing figure, and he the more dependent and suppliant. Yet something like that seems, from her diary, to have happened. We get a hint of that, for example, in this diary entry about a last meeting with Jung; whom, at one point, she refers to as “my beloved little son!:”

“My friend and I had the tenderest ‘poetry’ last Wednesday. What will come of that? Make something good of it, Fate, and let me love him nobly. A long, ecstatic kiss in parting, my beloved little son! Now—may luck be with me! What a difference between his diary entry and mine…in spite of the colossal similarity between us. How remarkable the difference in the way he, the man, and I, the woman, contemplated the tasks ahead of us. With him the sacredness of his profession occupied the foreground, with me the sacredness of love…”

Coline Covington describes Spielrein’s profound role in influencing Freud’s and Jung’s evolving ideas, a role which was acknowledged but minimized by both. “It was in Oct., 1911, that Spielrein first met Freud, in Vienna. The following month Spielrein read her first theoretical paper, “Destruction as the Cause of Coming Into Being,” at one of Freud’s meetings, in the presence of Freud, Federn, Rank, Sachs, Stekel, and Tausk, among others. Here she introduced the concept of the death instinct, later to be incorporated and developed by Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) in which he refers in a footnote to Spielrein’s idea of the ‘destructive’ component of the sexual instinct. Commenting on her paper some months later, Freud wrote to Jung, “She is very bright; there is meaning in everything she says; her destructive drive is not much to my liking because I believe it is personally conditioned; she seems abnormally ambivalent (McGuire, 1974: 494).” Jung acknowledged Spielrein as the originator of the idea of the death instinct, but not until the revised edition of his Symbols of Transformation, in 1952, by which time she was long dead–murdered by Nazis in Russia, where she had gone to live.

Perhaps Spielrein’s neurotic problems were partly due to her incredible ability to tolerate conflicting feelings and ideas together, without having to artificially resolve the conflict by rejecting one side or the other; and perhaps this is the “ambivalence” that Freud refers to. Covington quotes Spielrein, in her diary entry of 26 November, 1910, as she “expressed her fear that Jung would ‘simply borrow the whole development of the idea (of the death instinct).” Spielrein wrote, “’Is this another case of unfounded distrust on my part? I wish so fervently that it might be so, for my second study will be dedicated to my most esteemed teacher, etc. How could I esteem a person who lied, who stole my ideas, who was not my friend but a petty, scheming rival? And love him? I do love him, after all. My work ought to be permeated with love! I love him and hate him, because he is not mine. It would be unbearable for me to appear a silly goose in his eyes. No, noble, proud, respected by all! I must be worthy of him, and the idea I gave birth to must also appear under my name.’ (Carotenuto, 1982: 35).”

Defending his advocating the same or similar ideas as Spielrein, Jung had said that they were thinking along the same lines, had stimulated one another’s thoughts, etc. I expect that there is truth on both sides here. The situation of Freud, Jung and Spielrein has undeniable parallels with that of Rosalind Franklin and Watson and Crick. Franklin was a biophysicist and x-ray crystallographer whose x-ray diffraction images of DNA were studied by Watson and Crick and lead to their discovery of the double helix shape of the DNA molecule. Watson and Crick’s paper didn’t acknowledge anything like the full contribution of Franklin’s work to their discovery, and she was not included in their Nobel award, as many feel she should have been. Like Spielrein, Franklin died young, of ovarian cancer, at 37. The film, “The Double Helix,” helped restore Rosalind Franklin’s place in the historical record, as “A Dangerous Method” might eventually do for Spielrein.

Spielrein went on to a distinguished career as a psychoanalyst, among whose analysands was Jean Piaget, practicing in Switzerland and in her native Russia, where she married and started a school, before being slaughtered. Thus was another veil cast over her life and accomplishments, much like those of her compatriot, the pioneering psychologist Lev Vygotsky, whose influence on psychology and education is profound but mostly unacknowledged.

As I often say, psychoanalytic psychotherapy is a powerful and sometimes necessary method for understanding ourselves and finding our way in this world, yet the teaching and learning of it has been so deeply infected with pathologies of personality and politics by its originators and transmitters that we must engage in much work of disentangling what’s useful in it from what isn’t. To some extent, analytic therapists need to cultivate an anthropological attitude toward the culture of psychoanalysis, in order to sort out “the baby from the bathwater.” I am grateful to “A Dangerous Method” for highlighting the intertwined truths and pathologies present at the birth of psychoanalysis, and also for providing a delayed acknowledgement of the indispensable contribution of an overlooked woman pioneer. Her role can now be studied, acknowledged, and incorporated into our understanding of where we have been, where we are, and where we might be going.