I’ve been meaning to write this post for more than a year now; from the beginning, I’ve had this particular title in mind although I’m not 100% sure that it’s the right one. If anyone has a better suggestion for how to name this particular mental process, feel free to submit a comment.
I call the phenomenon I want to describe a “law” because it seems to be a fundamental principle of human mental functioning, an in-built assumption that if I am feeling bad, then someone or something is causing me to feel that way. In other words, we attribute a cause-and-effect relationship between the way we are feeling and the actions of people around us. Sometimes this attribution may be accurate — Your continual criticisms are causing me to feel terrible — but on other occasions, it may be false: The way you chew your food is driving me crazy! In the latter case, I am probably feeling irritable, tired and grouchy; rather than recognizing that I feel the way I do because I didn’t get enough sleep last night or because work today was highly stressly, I falsely account for those feelings by attributing them to you and your irksome way of chewing.
I’ve used the example of grouchiness before, describing it as a type of projection: the bad feeling inside becomes a persecutor outside. The idea for this post re-surfaced one day last week when I was feeling extremely grouchy; the inconsiderate members of my family kept doing one incredibly annoying thing after another! It was their fault I was feeling the way I did (and not that I was exhausted); I naturally wanted to retaliate with sharp and angry words, to punish them for making me feel that way. At this point in my life, I know myself well enough not to believe this process of false attribution, although I can’t claim that I was entirely successful at keeping my bad mood to myself. At such moments, I sometimes remind myself of my mother, who could fill a room with her silent accusatory rage. When the mood passes, I am often filled with profound shame.
I believe this law of false attribution underlies the process of projection; as a principle of mental functioning, it’s built into our brains at birth, coloring our perceptions of the world and our earliest relationships with people around us. For those of you familiar with Melanie Klein and object relations theory, I’m talking about the origins of primitive objects — the good breast and the bad breast. With my students and supervisees, I often say that the notion of an actual mother who happens to be absent at the moment is a very sophisticated concept, beyond the mental abilities of an infant. The newborn does not understand that this feeling in its body is hunger, and the mother able to satisfy it hasn’t yet responded. Instead, the infant “thinks”: something bad is causing this bad feeling in my body. In other words, the baby attributes its bad feeling to the actions of something external, something bad. It responds with feelings of fear and hatred toward the bad object.
So rather than reognizing that the good breast is absent, the infant believes that a very bad breast is present, inflicting this pain upon it. As the infant’s brain matures within the context of a good-enough mothering experience, the baby eventually achieves what is called object constancy: it “realizes” that the painful feelings of hunger and longing are not caused by a bad object but instead result from the absence of a good one, its actual mother. Instead of hating the bad object because of the bad feelings it causes, the baby develops an ability to endure its own painful feelings and wait for Mommy to come back.
This may seem abstract and theoretical but at moments, many of us react just like infants even if we don’t always show it. I expect that most of you can relate to my description of grouchiness. You might have felt absolutely convinced that the incredibly annoying people around you were causing you to feel the way you did but restrained yourself with the same kind of self-awareness that kept me from snapping. By contrast, men and women who struggle with the symptoms of borderline personality disorder may be unable to understand the actual reasons for the painful ways they feel; instead, they falsely attribute blame to the people around them. For example, the friendly way you’re talking to the sales clerk might make me feel insecure or jealous … that is, it causes me pain. On an unconscious level, I then assume that you are deliberately causing me to feel that pain and I may hate you for it. You might abruptly transform from a person that I love into someone I attack and vilify.
Treating people as “bad” because of the painful ways they make you feel also sheds light on some features of the narcissistic personality. When the narcissist feels threatened by an experience of shame, for example, rather than becoming painfully aware of her own damage and limitations, she feels attacked. The unacknowledged bad feeling (shame) is being caused by something bad outside; she then wants to retaliate against the supposed cause of her bad feelings. As a result of this law of false attribution, his behavior toward the people close to him can become quite savage.
This dynamic underlies the character of the vindictive narcissist — the subject of my next post.