Mixed Emotions: Loving and Hating the Same Person

Each of us has a  mixture of feelings toward those people we’re intimate with, and learning how to tolerate ambivalence is a part of growing up.  Small children sometimes scream “I hate you!” when frustrated by their parents though they may be loving and affectionate an hour later.  Such hostility can be so powerful that for the moment, it obliterates awareness of every other feeling.  Very small children believe that what they are feeling right now is the only reality and they can’t remember they had other, loving feelings not long before.   “I wish you were dead!” they may cry, and in the moment, they may actually believe that’s what they want.  The adults around them hopefully understand that this hostility is a transient state, not the absolute and unchanging truth, and that young children usually can’t help themselves.

As we mature, our experience ideally  teaches us the same thing — that however angry and hostile we may feel right now, we won’t always feel that way, and it might be better for us to keep “I hate you!” to ourselves until the feelings passes.   In my psychotherapy practice, I’ve often been struck by how unable many of my patients are to do just that.  Saying “Fuck you!” in the heat of an argument seems to be very common.   One of my favorite quotes (from the old Laurence Olivier/Greer Garson film of Pride and Prejudice) is:  “Honesty is a highly over-rated virtue.”  I hold to this in general  in social relations, and in particular, I feel that hurling abuse and saying cruel words during an argument, even if you honestly feel that way at the moment, is destructive to long-term emotional trust .  Some truths are better left unspoken.

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The Pot Calling the Kettle Black

Projection is another one of those concepts that has entered the culture and is widely understood, even by people who’ve never had any kind of psychotherapy.  “Oh, stop projecting,” a friend might say.  What is usually meant is that you are criticizing another person for doing something when you, in fact, are the guilty party.  Our expression, The pot calling the kettle black, neatly captures this idea.

But projection is a much wider and more common phenomenon and everyone projects to some degree.  The basic process is simple:  when there is something too painful to bear or accept, we block it out or disavow it, we unconsciously disown awareness of that experience.   And because parts of our psyche don’t simply disappear when we disown them, they show up someplace else outside of us, and usually inside of somebody else.

Here’s a classic example.   Perhaps like me you’ve known a very calm, cerebral, almost detached sort of man.  He might be an engineer, a lawyer or some kind of scientist, someone with an analytical mind and his emotional life severely under control.  I’ve known a number of men like this and they often end up married to extremely emotional and needy women.  From my experience, it’s a familiar dynamic:  the one partner gets rid of a large slice of his emotional life and projects it into the other partner, who carries it for him.  I’m not needy, you are.  I don’t experience a lot of painful and scary feelings, you do. This happens outside of awareness, of course; that is, it’s unconscious.

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Why Most People Don’t Really Change

Most people don’t change; they just become more the way they already are.

I must have said these words hundreds of times in my life — to clients, family and friends.  While there are exceptions, most people find change difficult for several reasons.  They don’t know themselves very well, to begin with.  Few people have an accurate view of who they are and therefore don’t recognize the aspects of themselves that could use improvement.  Most people want to believe they’re well-balanced and even exceptional in many ways:  how many of your friends would describe themselves as creative, talented or intelligent?  Do you know anyone who would say to you, I’m just average?  We all want to think of ourselves as special and gifted.

Then there is the human propensity to explain one’s difficulties, short-comings and failures by blaming somebody else.  Look around you at the people you know.  The co-worker who’s careless and lazy but blames her poor evaluations on an exacting boss, or colleagues who have it out for her.  The cousin who gets under your skin because in every story he tells, he paints himself as a victim.  Have you ever known anyone who told you, “I got fired because I was doing a lousy job,” or “A lot of bad things have happened in my life because I make so many impulsive bad choices?”  Few people are willing to accept that their own character traits and choices are the main determinants of the kind of life they lead.

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Psychological Defensiveness and Self-Deception


Almost everyone understands the basic concept of psychological defense mechanisms.  At one time or another, we’ve all said (or been told), “Stop being so defensive!” We understand that the defensive person is protesting a little too strongly against something he or she doesn’t want to admit is true. Take that dynamic inside the mind and you have an internal defense.

One of my favorite theorists, Roger Money-Kyrle, looked back over his long career as a therapist and the different ways he had conceived of defenses; in the end, he came to think of them as lies we tell ourselves to ward off truths too painful to accept or unbearable emotions and feelings.  What makes them so difficult for us to recognize ourselves is that we’ve spent a lifetime believing those lies and we want to go right on believing them because the alternative is to feel pain.  It’s much easier to identify someone else’s defenses than our own.

If you think about your friends and family, I’ll bet you can identify someone with a defense that you and others around him can easily see but he can’t.  For example, I have an acquaintance who regularly falls out with her other friends and becomes indignant about the insensitive ways they treat her.  The other person is always to blame for the disagreement.  She isn’t my client, and I’ve never talked to her about this pattern, but I’m fairly confident she suffers from deep-seated feelings of shame and unworthiness.  She can’t face those emotions and wards them off with an indignant sense that others have treated her badly.

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