At any rate, as we all settled in my wife realized she forgot something and had to go back to the room. The other couple also realized they forgot something. My wife and the husband from the other couple left to navigate crossing the road together, and the wife of the other couple seemed quite friendly and asked me some standard where are you from and what to you do, getting-to-know each other questions. I told her that I’m a psychologist.
She became extremely attentive and told me that she had always wanted to ask a psychologist a question that profoundly troubles her. She was Jewish and from Iran, which she and her husband had to leave and emigrated to the U.S. She always wanted to understand why the Shah hated Jews. I made some reasonably half assed out-of-the-book comment about prejudice, but she did not accept it as a terminal statement.
She told me I didn’t understand what she was asking and I asked her to explain more. She told me that the way children in Iran were taught how to count was to ask them if they killed 5 Jews today and 4 Jews tomorrow how many Jews had they killed.
I was stymied by the power of the story and the intensity of her need to know. I clearly did not have an answer. At that time I was an adjunct professor at Columbia University teaching doctoral students in their clinical psychology program how to do psychotherapy. I decided to bring up the question about hate at the next meeting I attended, thoroughly expecting to get either an answer or at least a clear path to one. What I got instead was not a lot better than my initial response to the woman in Lake Como. This surprised me since the faculty at Columbia were clearly outstanding scholars as well as outstanding therapists.
So the question still stands: where does all this hate come from?
In my travels in the world of psychology I actually believe I found the answer. Stick with me through some more stories and I hope you will be as struck by this answer as I have been.
The answer comes from people studying developmental psychology – how minds develop. Specifically, from an enterprise called “Object Relations”, which is about as misnamed as a field could be. The enterprise is definitely about relations, but has nothing to do with objects but rather with people. It should really be called People Relations. The theory is about how children learn to build up a notion of the external world, how they learn to differentiate between self and others. As an infant develops feelings develop. Part of what the mind does is to split off parts of the self and project them into the external world. Good feelings are split off and projected out, as well as bad feelings.
Any of us who have had children are aware of the profound changes in development as a child develops and builds up their image of the external world. From the perspective of the parent, they go from an infant who takes over your life to a toddler who engages you like nobody else can (as well as scares the hell out of you as they put themselves into potentially dangerous situations), to two-year-olds.
At this two year stage (often called ‘the terrible twos’) a funny thing happens. Your beatific, engaging, endlessly learning, wonderfully cuddly child learns the concept: NO. All of a sudden all kinds of contrary behaviors manifest themselves.
I used to send the doctoral students who came to my office for supervision on their first patients down to West End Ave. to observe mothers crossing the street with their children. The two-year-old drama was remarkably repetitive: the mother starts crossing the street holding the child’s hand (West End Ave. is unusually wide with 4 lanes plus parking on each side of the street street and a large amount of fast moving manhattan traffic). The lights give you enough time to cross, but not much time left over because the street is so wide. The scene is that the child stops somewhere in the middle of the street, doesn’t want to move, and often sits down. Meanwhile the light is about to change and the mother has to do something to prevent disaster. After a brief negotiation, possible yelling, comes forcibly grabbing the child and scurrying to safety on the other side of the street.
From the parents’ perspective something has certainly changed in their loving cooperative child. The notion is that what has happened is two things. One is that the child is developing autonomy. The other is that whereas children develop and have loving and positive feelings, at this stage of development negative feelings need to be dealt with. The task for the child is to figure out what to do with these unpleasant feelings. The virtually universal solution is to project them out to others so that they do not have to be experienced as belonging to ourselves. We all have learned to do this at a very early age.
Projection is a defense mechanism, a way of protecting ourselves from dangerous feelings. We take those internal feelings and experience them as coming from somebody else instead of being inside of ourselves.
You must realize that projection is an unconscious phenomenon: we do something very dramatic but absolutely do not realize we are doing it. Unconscious means the same as unaware. Human minds, all of our minds, are constantly and fervently doing things to protect us from thoughts, from feelings that would threaten our ability to function and to be at peace. These things are things we are not aware of. To use the jargon of psychology, they are unconscious.
My background is in neuroscience – I love neuroscience…I love science. Some of my most exciting experiences have been in that world. The truth is I don’t really believe something until I see it – until I witness an experiment supporting the existence of whatever it is that is being talked about. As interesting as these notions are, I need to see it in order to believe it.
So how do you see this operating in the world? Well, look at child literature, fairytales, the beginning literature. What do we see? The good guys and the bad guys are always there. There’s the evil witch (holder of the bad feelings that need to be projected out somewhere) and the hero fighting the witch. Here we have an external representation of an internal process of mind.
Early on in my practice, when I was just beginning to learn about these things, I had agreed to do one session with the child of a single parent in therapy with me. Even though I do not work with children, I thought meeting them would help me figure out a way to help them. She was particularly troubled and how to help her had become of great concern to her parent. As best as I can remember she was about 10 or 11 years old.
She came into the office wearing what looked like army fatigues, had each hand in one pocket of her jacket, and sat down in the chair just like that – with her hands still in her jacket pockets. After talking to her for a little while to try to understand how she was seeing his world I found myself asking her what was in her jacket, since she seemed to be holding onto whatever was there for dear life. It had become very distracting for me.
She proceeded to take one hand out that was holding a GI Joe figure – the good guy. When she took out her other hand she was holding some sort of ‘creepy crawly’ weird somewhat slimy looking creature – the bad guy. My thought was holy cow – here it is – she’s carrying the two separate domains of feeling separately - and she can’t figure out how to put them together. She can’t deal with her own bad feelings, projects them out, and is constantly playing it out with someone in the external world. At school she is always fighting with someone. Hopefully someone will be able to work with her to own her own feelings so she doesn’t have to be in an eternal external struggle.
Owning our own feelings is what it is about. To whatever extent we are unable or unwilling to do that, we are destined to project them out and struggle with them by a conflict with whomever we have projected them to.
More evidence for this notion in our fantasy world: the most successful modern day literature is all about such a struggle. Literature today often takes the form of plays which takes the form of movies. Star Wars is an amazingly engaging struggle of The Evil Empire versus Hans Solo. Yoda, incidentally, is the guru showing the power of being in touch with your feelings. He is the voice saying not to worry about the bad feelings, to confront them, and the good ones will prevail.
More evidence in the real world: Nixon described Russia as “The Evil Empire” in one of his television appearances. It was clear that he really believed it and couldn’t understand how anybody on the planet could see it any other way. When the cold war ended psychologists who were interested in the notions we have been discussing brought up an interesting question. If, on a societal level, the bad guy, the place we had put all our own bad feelings, was Russia – what happens when the cold war comes to an end? Where are all the bad feelings going? One hypothesis back then was that it would go to Aliens. We would see aliens as the new bad guys. Indeed for a few years after the end of the cold war there was a clear increase in the interest in worrying about being invaded by aliens (although I’ve never seen any actual data).
What happens after a war when the hated enemy becomes a neighbor we interact with politically, economically and socially. It is amazing how all that hate dissipates and the vacation industry thrives on bringing people to Germany, Japan, Vietnam, etc. However, the notion is that the hate has to go somewhere, and of course today there are endless candidates in the Mideast. Politicians, I think, are really good at mobilizing reservoirs of hate towards countries for their own political goals. This is not to say that evil does not exist – of course it does, unfortunately it does. However, it behooves us to understand how to separate real evil from ‘convenient’ evil. Awareness is the key to this ability.
Whenever politics takes advantage of the hate reservoirs, whenever religion takes advantage of it to tie people to it, whenever any individual or culture does that, we see bizarre episodes of seemingly senseless hate do great destruction. It is a profound challenge to own our own bad feelings, to not project them out, and for sure not let them be manipulated by individuals or by crusading groups.
One of the rewarding parts of doing psychotherapy is seeing people become aware of their feelings and figure out how to deal with them. Many people have told me that one of the reasons that they came to therapy was because they did not want to repeat a negative family experience like the one they grew up in. In couples therapy people have often said that they want their children to grow up in a much better environment with much less conflict and anger than the one they grew up in. It is extremely gratifying to watch people figure out their own unconscious reflexes, come to terms with their feelings, and not have to repeat the same mistakes they have made themselves or seen in others. As one person put it, to become a more evolved human being.