When it comes to my experience, perception is always more powerful than reality. Everything that I am is influenced by that which I perceive to be true, whether it is actually true or merely imagined. As a therapist, I have a responsibility to notice and, at times, even confront perception. I would do well to proceed respectfully, empathically, and without unnecessary provocation. At times, those real or imagined perceptions that infuse every marriage and family that I sit with act as that great big pink elephant in the room—standing between spouses and parents and children—that, unacknowledged, has a way of impeding growth in relationships and, consequently, our work together.
Sigmund Freud believed that we are forcefully determined by underlying inclinations. He believed that such inclinations maintain their power by our oblivion to them. There is a force to my perception of you. As my emotions about you interact with your emotions about me, the reality of us takes on a third identity that is quite a thing to behold. And as we scan further out into the layers of human development from family to culture to society, it is as if I am not only a system of emotions and perception but that I am embedded within increasingly complex systems of emotion and perception.
Our experiences feed our perceptions and, in turn, our perceptions influence our experiencing. Along the way, we collect these bits and pieces of emotion and reaction in our own personal bag. Oh the power of this baggage! We experience others, and so much of life, through the innuendo of its interpretations.
Our mind holds a vast collection of imagery and symbolism. Most of those images and symbols lay dormant in the dark confines of Shadow, a term Carl Jung coined to appreciate that aspect of memory and personality that we disown. Often, the Shadow becomes the most dangerous place of storage, for it requires such a vigilante guarding that the task of protection becomes the threat of projection. We inflate our Shadow by repressing these experiential images and symbols, and we become defensive to the same degree. The pretentious pomp and circumstance of some colorful personality may betray the insecurities and fear of vulnerability that lie within.
We live in constant risk of projecting the threats of childhood: the way a coach cursed and slung us into the mud by the sidebar of a face mask; the way two friends mocked or betrayed, leaving us in silence and agony; the way a pastor listened with such careful eyes to our heart’s sharing with quick darting glances to the business and files of his office, uncharmed by the grace of the moment; the way the lunch lady screeched at our clumsiness with such fire and terror that our hearts pulsed with anxiety.
Certain stimuli naturally affect certain responses: the smell of appetizing food induces salivation, touching a hot frying pan causes a reflexive jerk of pain. Pavlov taught us that these natural physiological responses can be corrupted. Every time we encounter an intense situation that produces anxiety, unconscious memory bytes associated with the original stimuli (e.g. food, frying pan) surface. These are the emotionally-loaded experience-laden images and symbols that we so often project onto our world.
During critical years of attachment, we unknowingly work to consolidate our view of the world and the general predispositions of our personality. Upon individuating from our families, such experiential fragments continue to unknowingly influence our thoughts, emotions, and behavior. Could it be that the course of our existence is determined on a far broader scale than we could have imagined?
© Copyright 2011 by Blake Edwards. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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