Cleaning Up Our Psychic Environment

Joe Stanford is one of Common Outlook's consultants. Recently, he was invited to be a speaker at The Canadian Association for the Club of Rome CACOR. The following is his presentation.

Cleaning Up Our Psychic Environment- How We Can Reduce the Psychological Pollution Which Fuels Conflict 

CACOR's impressive website says that CACOR exists to promote study and discussion of contemporary challenges relating to, i.a. psychology and the environment – and the need to develop new attitudes to ensure a stable future for mankind. I’ve been asked to talk about psychology, and about attitudes. I have agreed to do so, but with a great deal of trepidation. As you may have noticed during the introductions, I am not a psychologist.

My professional life, as lawyer, diplomat, senior public servant and, most recently, educator, has been almost entirely focused on conflict; how to manage conflict and, where possible, how to resolve it.

My lifetime of involvement with conflict led me long ago to the following conclusion:

Conflict is almost never explained by rational factors alone. In virtually all significant conflicts, emotion in one form or another is a major factor influencing how the conflict is waged and what the outcome will be.

And so I turned to psychology to try to understand – and therefore deal better with – the conflicts which I became involved in, either as one trying to help the adversaries toward a resolution, or as a party to the conflict, where I was one of those whose actions could not be explained by reason alone.

Because I am not a professional psychologist, the parts of my presentation which deal with psychology are presented as from one lay person to another. I hope it won’t sound too much like ‘pop’ psychology; it is based on practical experience, what seems to work and what doesn’t.

The two or three concepts of psychology that I will refer to are drawn largely from the model of the human psyche developed by the Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, and his associates. I have been working with this material and doing my best to apply it for over a dozen years now.

The title of this presentation speaks of “psychological pollution.” Let me describe what I mean by the expression.

I've worked with Roger Fisher, the negotiation guru at Harvard. Many years ago Roger was asked to help end a border war between two South American countries. He brought several leaders of the two sides together, including the generals leading each of the two armies. There was a great deal of tension and hostility in the room, as you can imagine, until the two generals learned that each of them had a young daughter who was stricken with a severe childhood disability. Learning this fact about each other enabled the two men to relate to one another as human beings rather than as enemies. From that point on, the dynamics of the peace negotiations improved and a peace treaty was eventually reached.

Roger uses this story to show the importance of personal relationships in negotiation. I want to use it here for a slightly different purpose. Imagine, if you will, the image which each of the two generals had of the other as the negotiations began. To each, the other was ‘the enemy’, the ‘bad guy.’ Then contrast the image each held of the other at the end of the negotiation.

Now, which of these two very conflicting images was the correct one, ‘correct’ in the sense of capturing who the other person really was? Almost certainly the later image for each of them. OK, then where did the first image, that of ‘the bad guy’ come from? Answer: It came from within the psyche of each man. General A’s initial image of General B came almost entirely from within the psyche of General A, and vice versa. I’d like to talk for a few minutes about one of the ways in which these negative images form in our psyches and then, once formed, attach themselves to others.

As we were growing up and in our early adult years, we learned things about ourselves which we didn’t particularly admire; we had many noble tendencies and instincts but we also had other tendencies and instincts which were a good deal less than noble, which did not make us feel particularly proud of ourselves. Now, the psychological objective for each of us in the first half of life is to establish and build up our ego. For that purpose, unflattering information about ourselves was not helpful; it did not serve our purpose. So, whenever possible, such material was suppressed; it was driven into our unconscious and forgotten.  

But – and this is a key point – this unflattering material did not just go away. It continued to be stored in the unconscious level of our psyches. Psychologists refer to this suppressed material as our shadow.

From time to time, in the normal course of our lives, our unconscious surfaces one or another bit of this unflattering information.  Since our ego doesn’t want to hear it, our unconscious shows it to us, not as a quality of ourselves, but by ‘projecting’ it onto someone else.

What do I mean by ‘projecting’ in this context?

Late one March afternoon, as dusk fell, I was sitting in my family room watching television. I glanced out the window and was startled to see that the small tree just outside the family room window was engulfed in flames! My alarm lasted only a couple of seconds, until I realized that I was seeing a reflection of the fire in the family room fireplace. The reflection appeared in the window glass just in my line of sight to the tree. A reflection of the flames was superimposed upon the tree.

This alarming image was a combination of what was really outside: the tree, and what was inside: the fire. The image of the fire had been projected upon my view of the tree, with startling results. Similarly, the projection we’re talking about here involves material from within our psyches superimposing itself on our image of the person or group outside – the “others”.

Projection of the shadow contents of the psyche is just one of several forms of projection which brings energy from the unconscious to consciousness. Falling in love is a form of projection of positive energy, but that discussion is for another day.

When an undesirable quality in ourselves which we have suppressed makes itself known to us by projecting itself onto another person, we are likely to react very negatively, more so than when we encounter in someone else a negative quality which is not a part of our own shadow. This is the basis for the folk saying that “Those qualities which annoy us most in others are qualities we have ourselves.”

As we continue our inquiry, in order that you may enter into the spirit of our little journey here, I would ask each of you to acknowledge silently to yourself – just as a working hypothesis for the next few minutes, and without admitting anything to your neighbours at your table – the following: “I probably have qualities which I don’t particularly admire. Early in life I hid these qualities from myself, for very good reason. Now I’ve forgotten what some of these qualities are. However, whenever I notice in someone else a quality which particularly upsets me, I must consider that it might be one of my shadow qualities trying to make itself known to me.”

Why do I ask you to do this, to make this perhaps uncomfortable acknowledgement to yourselves? Because of what happens when we don’t do it. And this is another important point: It is when we deny the existence of our shadow that the trouble starts; that’s when we start polluting the psychic atmosphere. Here’s how it happens.

If I don’t recognize that the reason the other person’s behaviour upsets me so much is that it is also a quality of my shadow, then all the irritation, anger and hostility that I feel on experiencing this objectionable behaviour, all this negative energy, I direct at the other person. He or she is responsible for me being so upset. These toxic feelings enter my relationship with the other person and feed tension and conflict between us. This is the pollution I’m talking about.

Now that we have a sense of the dynamic we’re speaking of, let’s turn to the ways in which this dynamic manifests itself most commonly, and most harmfully, in everyday life.

We all know, from sad experience, that there are those who seek to manipulate others, for their own advantage, by arousing their emotions, in other words by getting them upset. Political leaders, TV advertisers, special interest group leaders, journalists, even some religious leaders. Not all the people in these groups, by any means, but enough to be a serious problem.

I recall a barber shop I used to patronize many years ago that always had its radio tuned to a local station with a talk-show host. Each day the host would choose a current issue which was attracting public attention. He would describe the side he disapproved of in caricature, hold that side up to ridicule and contempt, all conveyed with great passion, and invite his listeners to call in to express their opinions. Most who called supported his views and his attitudes and shared his strong emotions. Those who tried to moderate his views or express a contrary view weren’t kept ‘on air’ for very long.

This program’s stock-in-trade was anger, mostly in the form of self-righteous indignation at whoever the target for today was. It was releasing all this toxic emotion into the atmosphere, the host’s and that of his listeners, for commercial gain. At the same time it was legitimizing this approach as an acceptable way of discussing public issues. It was successful in attracting listeners and therefore advertisers. It must have been successful because the program went on for decades; maybe it still goes on.

Listening to this program for half an hour, once a month, gave me an experience of just how good it feels to indulge oneself in righteous indignation. Probably most of us indulge ourselves in this way from time to time. There is a cost to this practice, however, and we need to reflect on whether sometimes the price might be too high.

Another common example of toxic projection is found among fundamentalists. I’m not speaking specifically of religious fundamentalists but of all forms of fundamentalism. If I am convinced that ‘right’ is entirely on my side, then I am equally convinced my adversaries are totally wrong. In that situation I am denying my shadow, which will almost certainly then project itself onto my adversaries. I will then see my adversaries not just as wrong but as evil. And if I don’t acknowledge my own shadow, it is very difficult for me to feel compassion towards my adversary. Human compassion is not a characteristic of fundamentalism, as we saw in its most virulent form on 9/11.

Contrast that attitude with the conviction, arrived at quite independently and by different routes, by Roger Fisher, the negotiation guru I mentioned earlier, and by Carl Jung, that in Fisher’s words “there is nothing as persuasive as being open to persuasion.” In other words, others will pay much more attention to what you say if you are not dogmatic.

What are the consequences of this pollution we’ve been speaking of? Why does it matter? Why should we take it seriously?

Forgive me if, at this point, I become a bit serious for a few moments. It has been calculated that, during the last century, about 175 million men, women and children were killed in war, that is to say killed by the deliberate and organized efforts of other human societies. If you do the math, that works out to about 200 people an hour, or a group the size of ours here every 12 minutes, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 100 years. That doesn’t include all the other injury, destruction and waste caused by war, but you get the idea.

The anger, the hatred, the toxic emotional energy which fuels this violence among people, leading them to devote so much effort and so many resources to the destruction of other people, is a product of the human psyche. And I’m not focusing here on the psyches of the leaders but on the psyches of the general population, whose support the leaders require to carry out their destruction.

If all this sounds abstract or remote, please recall the role played by psychic manipulation, of the kind we’re talking about here today, in the run-up to the current Iraq war. Remember, for example, the ‘mantra,’ so beloved of George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice and their associates, about the smoking gun being a mushroom cloud? That’s very scary stuff, and it was chosen deliberately to induce fear in their listeners.

Leaving aside the tens of thousands who have died in the Iraq war and its aftermath, what other uses might have been made of the hundreds of billions of dollars that war is costing? (Now over a trillion, I understand, and counting.) These are examples of the costs of psychic pollution. And lest we look on this simply as finger-pointing at our neighbours to the south, recall that almost all of Canada’s major print media and large parts of our business community urged our government to participate in the invasion of Iraq.

We can do better. Indeed we must do better if we are ever to co-operate effectively within, between and among societies to address the challenges presented by the kinds of critical world issues which concern the Club of Rome and its supporters.

So, how do we go about doing better? How do we carry out the environmental clean-up?

First thing: it is not my advice that each of us run out to a psychologist to begin analyzing our shadows. There are many reasons why that might be bad advice, one of which is that it is not necessary.

All that is required of us, in order that we may begin to contribute to the clean-up, is that each one of us simply be aware that, in everyone’s psyche including my own, the shadow exists and projection takes place.

It is sometimes said that “we project.” This is misleading. Projection of unconscious contents, like the shadow, is not something we do consciously. It is a function of that part of our psyche which our ego doesn’t control, our unconscious. Where we, acting consciously, can play a part is in recognizing the possibility of projection when we find ourselves particularly upset by another. That simple act of recognition, in many cases, takes a huge chunk of toxic energy out of circulation.

And we can make a further huge contribution to cleaning up our community’s, our country’s and the world’s psychic environment by being aware when someone is trying to manipulate us by getting us angry at someone else, and distancing ourselves emotionally from that manipulation.

A word of warning: This environmental awareness may not be as easy to do as it sounds. It does require a certain amount of self-discipline. Self-righteous indignation can feel very good, and if we aren’t completely happy with our condition in life (and who is), it may feel very good to have someone else to blame it on.

I could go on at great length about all this stuff. There’s the whole question of the huge role our complexes play in discharging toxic emotions into our psychic atmosphere. There are the efforts to play upon our fears by casting us as victims. There’s the matter of the need for those who would be peacemakers to be on intimate terms with their own shadows; otherwise they will simply add to the psychic pollution of the conflict. But I don’t want to abuse your time and patience.

I do, however, ask one last indulgence of you. Because I am not a psychologist, I would like to read to you a few short quotations by people who are qualified psychologists and recognized authorities in their field. These are a few short passages from their books, dealing with our subject.

Marie-Louise von Franz, one of Jung’s closest collaborators, wrote that: “…certain shadow projections onto the opponent can be shown on both sides in almost all emotionally loaded conflicts.” (1)  

The Jungian analyst and author, Mario Jacoby, developed this theme further. He wrote:   "The danger of shadow contents, as long as they are repressed or split off from consciousness, stems in part from the fact that they generally manifest themselves as projections onto other people.  Traits and tendencies which we unconsciously reject in ourselves irritate us terribly in people around us. Feelings of hatred are thus generated…" And Jacoby continued: "Most hostility is based on such processes, by which other people are made to carry the projections of our own shadows. The all too familiar social and psychological consequences include the grisly persecution of racial and religious minorities. Similarly, countless interpersonal problems derive from such projective mechanisms, and are as harmful to our own psychic health as to the objects of our animosities." (2)  

Marie-Louise von Franz called projections “reflections of the soul.” She concludes her book on the subject with the following advice:    "We average human beings…will hardly be able to avoid the necessity, for the rest of our lives, of again and again recognizing projections for what they are, or at least as mistaken judgements. It seems to me, therefore, to be extremely important to bear constantly in mind, at the very least, the possibility of projection. This would lead to much greater modesty on the part of ego-consciousness and to a readiness to test our views and feelings thoughtfully and not to waste our psychic energy in pursuing illusionary goals." (3)  

James Hollis, noting that the best relationship we can ever achieve to others who are important to us is a function of the relationship we achieve to ourselves, writes:   "If all that is true, and I believe it is, then the most loving thing we can do for those we claim to love, and for the world, is to withdraw our projections and consciously assimilate them into our personal journey. But who wants to hear that?" (4)

Wallace B. Clift, in his Jung and Christianity: The Challenge of Reconciliation, wrote:

“The political propaganda of mass movements has exploited the phenomenon of projection. The only defense against this kind of danger, Jung said, is recognition of the shadow. Such an integration of previously unrecognized components of the personality amounts to a widening of consciousness.” (5)

Let me give the final word to a psychologist who is not a Jungian but who is a Pulitzer Prize winner for his writings on psychology. Erik Erikson is writing here specifically about manipulation through fear. The book from which this is taken is Childhood and Society. When Erikson uses the adjective ‘infantile’ in this quote he is not using it as we might use it in everyday parlance. He is referring to a psychological characteristic rooted in infancy. He writes:

“…political and religious institutions, in vying for the allegiance of men, have learned to exploit infantile panics common to all mankind or to particular sections of it. To their own eventual disadvantage, “shrewd” leaders, cliques, and pressure groups can make people see exaggerated dangers – or make them ignore existing danger until it is too late. Thus it comes about that even enlightened and democratic men are blunted in their capacity to fear accurately and to co-operate judiciously.” (6)

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for your kind attention.

1 –  von Franz, Marie-Louise. Projection and Recollection in Jungian Psychology: Reflections of the Soul. Open Court, 1980, p.18.

2 – Jacoby, Mario. Longing for Paradise. Inner City Books, 1985, 2006, p.155

3 – von Franz, op. cit. p.199

4 – James Hollis. The Eden Project: In Search of the Magical Other. Inner City Books, Toronto, 1998 p. 138

5 – Clift, Wallace B. Jung and Christianity: The Challenge of Reconciliation. Crossroad Publishing Company. New York (1982), pp. 46-47

6 – Erik Erikson. Childhood and Society. W.W.Norton & Company Inc. 1963 and 1985. p. 408

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