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On Suffering

‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison’


A thought without belief is harmless; it is our attachment to our thoughts that gives them power and causes suffering. No thought is self-employed, it cannot think itself, it auditions for our attention. A belief is a thought we have been attaching to repeatedly, often for years. Thoughts appear like clouds moving across the vast sky of our awareness. They are neutral until we invest in them as if they are true and make them personal by combining them with our identity. We are constructing our reality by what we think, we give certain ideas attention and perpetuate them. If we meet our thoughts with curiosity and cluster patterns of thoughts together, examine the identification, notice key narratives that repeatedly galvanise and compel us, we start to be in touch with our power.

Most stress is wanting reality to be different from the way it is; traffic jams stretching ahead, intermittent internet, insomnia, sickness or more internal sensations of exclusion, sadness, martyrdom, victimhood. Suffering is induced by emotional responses to relational patterns that we perceive and then interpret. Chloe tells me her new partner hasn’t been in touch, they have spent two weekends drinking, talking and having passionate sex. Now he hasn’t messaged her for days and she believes it’s over. She feels used again like all the previous men in her life and vows to not trust anyone. Slowly as she talks she gains perspective; she recognises a possible alcohol problem in him that matched the party girl in her, a longing for intimacy he seemed to share if they kept drinking, a chaos in his life style she didn’t judge because it resonated with her own childhood in care. She plummets into an old belief that she is worthless and not good enough. She recognises the familiar construction and remembers the history that created it. Surfacing from the intensity of feeling she tells me she needs to be a little more cautious and take better care of herself.

A projection is a form of defence in which unwanted feelings are displaced onto another person where they are then experienced as a manifestation from the external world. For example an individual uncomfortable with his own angry feelings accuses another of harbouring hostile thoughts. We defend an unpleasant impulse by attributing it to another. Our projections and ideas about ourselves argue with other beliefs we hold creating a complex and conflictual web that we construct throughout our lives, woven with conditioning, culture and influences from society. You are the storyteller, the projector of all stories and the world is the projected image of your thoughts.

Edward described a disappointing, inadequate but angry father who constantly throughout childhood undermined any academic striving Edward attempted. Currently Edward was depressed and defeated by his inability to meet the academic demands of the research he was undertaking despite an intelligent and developed grasp of the subject. Over time he talked about an esteemed older academic colleague with whom he spent many hours discussing ideas. What became apparent was that he was sharing hypotheses with this colleague who was promoting Edward’s thinking as his own and gaining substantial credit. In his unconscious efforts to redress his childhood disappointment and create an impressive father worthy of admiration, Edward had infused his older friend with his own intellectual substance, sabotaging his own progress. Not only did he attribute his abilities to his friend in order to admire him but also evoked competitive feelings which filled him with guilt and depression. Understanding this dynamic enabled Edward to break the spell of the projection and reclaim his own talent.

The mechanisms of projection and introjection are the mainstay of therapeutic work. Recognising and exploring feelings and attributes that are given to others facilitates reflection, we see a disavowed aspect mirrored in the other person and then we can retrieve it. By taking back our projections we become more whole and defined, we are in touch with our own self and thus our wisdom. By identifying projections it is possible to challenge them and hopefully reintegrate an ameliorated version. Chloe anticipated that like her mother who repeatedly disowned her I would be judgemental of her need to be wanted and her longing for emotional closeness. I understood her yearning for care and attachment and how very appealing her boyfriend’s statements of planning a long term future were for her. Discussing her feelings she identified her own internalised harsh and moralising parent in conflict with a hedonistic and unboundaried one. Most importantly she was discovering that safety and acceptance comes from knowing herself.

‘We are healed of a suffering only by experiencing it in full'

Marcel Proust

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