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Published in Person-centred Practice, Vol. 8 (2000), pp. 15-20.

Introjection and the aliens within


Sometimes it seems that a feeling or attitude which we have is in some way alien to us. For example, one may disapprove of oneself having uncomfortable feelings about people of a particular class or group. We may say things like ‘I can’t help having these feelings about X, but they are not feelings I want to have’.  Or: ‘I can’t help getting upset about this, but I don’t want to be that sort of person.’

Feelings like this pose a problem in connection with self-acceptance.  We all have many different aspects to ourselves. We know that if we try to deny or suppress what is a genuine aspect of ourself, this can lead to trouble, because the denied aspect is still there; all we have done is prevent its natural expression.  While it may sometimes be wise to restrain the expression of aspects of ourselves, it is unwise to deny that these aspects exist. They need to be accepted as genuine, though disturbing, aspects of our personality, and we may seek ways of giving expression to them that are not harmful to ourselves or others. Or, rather than trying to eliminate one aspect or the other, we may seek ways of handling the tension between the conflicting aspects of ourself. The principle here is that we are what we are; something in us would like to be different, and that needs to be listened to, but there is also something in us that doesn’t want to change, and that needs to be heard as well.  However, this ‘democratic’ concern to give a hearing to all the different aspects of ourself is fundamentally challenged when we are clear that something in us really is alien to us.  For example, suppose I have been attacked by a dog and have acquired a generalised fear of dogs. So far as anyone can tell there is no deep symbolic significance in my dog phobia: it is just a case of ‘aversive conditioning’. This fear I have is alien to me, because I’m fond of dogs, and really value canine-human relationships, and I don’t at all like responding to dogs in the way I now find myself responding.   Examples of ‘alien’ desires and aversions abound in human life: there are the extreme cases of addictions and phobias, but in lesser ways we are often trying to do something to bring our ways of responding to things more into line with how we would tike to respond.  The discomfort comes from a tension in our experiencing: there is the sense of ourself, of our experiential values, the things we really feel committed to and which underpin our sense of identity, and there are the feelings which go against those experienced values. It is important to see that what we have here is not an ordinary conflict of desires, such as the conflict between wanting to go out and wanting to have a quiet evening. It is a conflict between me and certain of my feelings and attitudes with which I am not happy.

‘Acceptance’ is a slippery term. It is one thing to accept aspects of ourselves in the sense of fully acknowledging their existence, but another to accept them in the sense of welcoming and valuing them. Some of them we really don’t value, and the problem then is what to do about them. In the case of a traumatically induced dog phobia the answer could be a course of behavioural desensitisation.  Whatever one may think of ‘behaviour therapy’ as a general form of psychotherapy, it seems clear that in a case like this such an approach could be effective: after all, what has arisen through conditioning should be eliminable through conditioning.  If such a procedure proves to be effective then something of value to the previously phobic person has been achieved. The client, with the help of the behavioural therapist, has brought their responses into line with what they truly value; with the therapist’s help they have become more themselves. A person-centred practitioner would have to be madly ‘purist’ to deny this, I think. 

However, not all our alien attitudes and feelings are like that. (It is, perhaps, a central error of behaviouristic therapy to think that they are). There are many different kinds of animal in the zoo of alien feelings. They range from the spiritually exotic (for example, demonic possession) to the morally painful (for example, not being able to take pleasure in other people’s happiness). Each kind of ‘alien’ needs to be related to in ways that are appropriate to the kind of creature it is; in the main part of this article I shall be addressing just one particularly interesting kind of beast: the sort that commonly goes under the heading of ‘introjections’.

These are feelings and attitudes which, it seems, we have somehow ‘taken in’ from other people. For example, if we have grown up in a family which persistently disparages X, or has always been afraid of Y, or has always emphatically told us Z, then it can seem plausible that we have ‘picked up’ these feelings and attitudes from them. The feelings are uncomfortable; we do have them, but we sense that they are in some way not truly our feelings. It feels as if we have taken them in from others, that we have introjected them.

In person-centred theory this would be explained in terms of ‘conditions of worth’:

because of our need to belong and to be valued by others we form a self-concept which is incongruent with our own experiencing. A familiar way of expanding on this would be to say that through the taking on of the conditions of worth our self-concept no longer accurately reflects our organismic self or our true nature. But this way of putting it has its difficulties.  It presupposes that there is an ‘organismic self, a ‘true self’ hidden beneath the facade of the self-concept.  There is the suggestion that in early infancy we are ‘truly ourselves’, but then parents and others come along and impose conditions of worth on us so that we lose touch with our essential nature. Yet at the same time person-centred theory emphasises the relational nature of human beings; in line with much sociological and philosophical thought in the last hundred years or so it holds that people exist essentially through their relationship with others. But if that is so, what are we to make of the idea of an ‘original’, ‘natural’, ‘organismic’ self that becomes distorted through its relationships with other people?  I think that we are touching here on a fundamental divide in approaches to the nature of the person. On the one hand there are those who hold that people can adequately be understood in terms of an organic analogy. That is, a person is held the have an essential organic nature which may be damaged or distorted by circumstances, but which is there, and which makes them what they are.  A potato may grow in a stunted or bizarre way if deprived of light, but its intrinsic makeup and form of life (ultimately traceable to its DNA) remains unaltered. It is this ‘essential nature’ of an organism which allows us to refer to what is ‘natural’ for the organism in terms of its environment, its nutrition, etc.  What is natural to the potato is what goes with its essential nature. In this sense an infection, such as a potato blight, is not part of the potato’s nature. The potato has defence systems which may or may not succeed in coping with the blight, but certainly the blight is alien to the potato.

The analogy with people would be that each person has a certain essential nature (determined by DNA, or Fate or God) and that any attitude or way of being which that person takes on, which goes against that essential nature, is alien to the person.  Thus one might think of a young child who has an essentially reflective, introverted nature, but through being brought up in an extraverted family comes to learn a way of being that is alien to them. They perform well enough as an extravert, but it is at considerable cost to what they truly are. Or, a child that is naturally lazy’ is deeply affected by a ‘perfectionist’ parent, and only later in life discovers that they can drop the introjected perfectionism and be their true (original) self.

The reality of such scenarios, and their centrality to psychotherapy, seem undeniable. What I want to question, rather, is the way we think about them. It seems as if the scenarios commit us to an essentialist view of the human person, yet that view of the person always had its critics.  In particular there are the Existentialist and the Buddhist traditions, both of which deny an essential nature to the human person: rather, it is said, we create ourselves through the values we live by. The person-centred approach in psychotherapy sits rather ambiguously between essentialism and anti-essentialism. On the one hand we have in the writings of Rogers a pervasive emphasis on organic analogies, such as his famous potato analogy, and the use (by others) of terminology such as ‘the organismic self: on the other hand there is a genuinely existential current in the person-centred approach (stemming mainly perhaps from Gendlin) which sees people as being able to create their own lives in ways which may not be categorisable at all in terms of an ‘organic’ psychology. Rogers’ earlier phrase ‘client-centred therapy’ was introduced partly, I think, to distinguish his approach from all those approaches that centre around theories of what a person is. The ‘existentialist’ view is that there is no essential ‘way a person is’; rather, we choose, we create, how we are through what we value. (In Buddhist terminology we are the results of our karma - our intentional actions, or ‘works’). If we have an essence at all then that essence is our value-imbued creativity. In suggesting that the account of introjection which follows is a person-centred account I am adopting an ‘existential’ rather than an ‘organic’ interpretation of the person-centred approach.

Given an essentialist view of the person it is reasonably clear what introjection amounts to. An introjected feeling is one which has come to exist in the person through emotional or other pressures. It is not a part of the essential nature of that person, any more than the blight is part of the essential nature of the potato.  But if we take a non-essentialist view, what account are we to give?  If, following the Existentialist line, there is no essential nature to a person it would seem that nothing can be intrinsically alien to a person, since nothing is intrinsic to that person. But while the Existentialist tradition does not think in terms of what is essential, it does think in terms of what is authentic. That is, the important question is not whether one’s attitudes or feelings are aspects of one’s essential self,  but whether they are one’s own, whether they are rooted in one’s own experiential valuing. This, I think, can provide a way in which we can develop a non-essentialist view of introjection.

What we need is an account of what it means to say that an attitude or feeling is alien to a person, without referring to a given essential nature of the person. For instance, when someone says ‘this frightened feeling I have is not really me - I think I absorbed it from my mother’, or ‘I don’t really think badly of oriental people -I know these feelings just come from my parent’s attitudes’, what is meant by ‘it is not really me’ or ‘I don’t really think this?’  First, it is important to note that in examples like these there are always other people involved, and significant other people. We don’t introject attitudes except where there is an important emotional connection with a person who embodies the introjected attitude. Cases of introjection always involve feeling what someone else feels (or taking the attitude someone else takes, etc). Now the phrase ‘feeling what someone else feels’ is crucially ambiguous.  If you are indignant at something and it happens that I also am indignant at it, then in a straightforward sense I feel what you feel. But suppose you feel indignant, and it is very important to me that I should be in tune with you and share your feelings. Then I may feel what you feel not through my own emotional sense of the situation at which you are indignant, but through my emotional sense of what is needed for me to be in tune with you. We might say that in this example I do feel indignant, but that it is not my indignation I feel, it is yours. I am not turning towards my experiencing of the situation, but towards yours.  Hence my indignation is inauthentic.

The important question here is: do I really feel indignant or not? It is important to clarify this question, and this can be done by looking more at the curiously ambiguous structure of ‘feeling what you feel’. The structure is closely related to the structure of ‘saying what you say’. For example, if you say that the project is in trouble, and Jones has the same opinion, and says so, then in a straightforward way Jones says what you say. He says it too.  But what if Jones, at least in relation to you, is a ‘yes-person’ who unthinkingly echoes your opinions. Jones says that the project is in trouble not because he has considered the details of the project and has formed that opinion, but because it is very important to him that you and he should stand together, that the two of you should be, and be seen to be, of one mind.  In that case what Jones is doing is simply parroting your words. There is an important sense in which although he utters the words The project is in trouble’ he is not saying that it is in trouble. He is not really saying anything, any more than a parrot would be saying anything if it uttered the same words.    What  he is  doing in uttering the words is not saying something, but preserving a facade of agreement. It looks like a case of saying, but it is not.

This would be brought into the open if someone became suspicious about what the yes-person was doing, and asked ‘But what do you think?’ The yes-person replies 1 think the project is in trouble’, but the questioner persists with 1 know you said that, but what do you really think? What do you say?’ This is a question which probes the source of what they say. Does what they say arise from their own engagement with the project under discussion, or does it arise from their engagement with you? If the yes-person is to respond to this question they will need to turn their attention inwards and focus on their own experiential valuation.  I suggest that exactly the same points apply in connection with the difference between ‘really feeling indignant’ and ‘ feeling indignant because you do’. The analogous question would be: ‘You say you feel indignant, but do you really feel indignant?’ , and the question is again about the source of what is being said.  Does what the indignant person feels arise from their engagement with the indignation-making situation, or from their engagement with you? If it is the latter then although they feel indignant, it is not they that are indignant. They feel your indignation, but misrepresent it as their own.

The inauthenticity here comes from the misrepresentation, not from the feeling of someone else’s feelings. It is perfectly correct - though it goes against some powerful philosophical prejudices - to speak of ‘feeling what someone else is feeling’.  All that that amounts to is that often we are aware of what other people are feeling.  We often also share feelings in a quite authentic way.  That is, we can be aware that what we feel is the same, and this is normally a happy state of affairs. The inauthentic situation arises where we are aware of someone else’s feelings, lose track of our own feelings, and misidentify our feelings with those of the other.  The motive for doing this seems to be fear of being different, or fear of emotional separation. We naturally want to be in tune with others, and this desire, like any strong desire, can distort our perception of how things are.  I conclude that a non-essentialist account of the person can give an adequate account of the phenomenon of introjection. The introjected feeling or attitude is alien on a non-essentialist account, not because it competes with some essential nature the person has, but because it is not truly that person’s feeling or attitude.  It is, literally, not theirs, but someone else’s, but they are mistaking their awareness of someone else’s experiencing for an awareness of their own experiencing.

What are the consequences of this account for therapeutic practice?  I believe it strongly indicates the importance of staying with any feeling that an aspect of oneself is alien. On an essentialist view, the picture is that something has come into me from outside, but is now a part of me - as a tumour could now be part of me. Then what I would need to do is destroy it, or spew it out.  But how?  On a non-essentialist view nothing has come into me, and therefore nothing needs to be removed. Rather, I am in a state of confusion; I am misperceiving someone else’s feeling for my own, and I need to bring my vague uncomfortable sense of this into full awareness. I am not trying to get rid of something, and I am not trying to accept something. What I need to do (but it is not easy) is to try and stay with that vague sense of confused discomfort. Then something may shift; there may come a sigh of relief that this that I thought I was feeling, I wasn’t authentically feeling at all.  It is not like having to have an operation for the removal of a tumour, but more like waking from a bad dream.  But to emerge from the dream I may need to take the risk of no longer being in tune with someone with whom I am terrified of not being in tune, and that may well require the support that therapy can provide.

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