Dennis could scarcely believe it. Amazingly, it had happened just like Tom Sanders said it would, but he still felt like pinching himself to make sure it had happened. Of course, he had known all about projections from his college days. But back then it had it had mostly been just a cool term, what you might call a buzzword today. It wasn’t something you actually experienced, at least not like this.
"Don't project!" they use to say, which meant something like "Don't distort reality with 'stuff' of yours that isn't really there." But these projections, in an important new way Dennis was just beginning to understand, really were there, part of a subliminal psychological landscape. Tom defined projection, technically speaking, as a clever way the unconscious mind sometimes dealt with feelings the conscious mind found too difficult to handle. But what was happening now was not so much about projecting as about learning how to really understand one's projections by becoming them.
Dennis wiped the sweat off his brow. Two minutes ago he had been standing in his bedroom, doing a simple set of bioenergetic exercises. But now the bogeyman was lurking there right in the bathroom, not ten feet away. Dennis couldn’t actually see him, but he could sense his presence, just as threatening as it had been when Dennis was ten years old. The fact that he was well past his thirtieth birthday at that moment seemed to make little difference. He wanted nothing more than to jump into bed, pull the covers over his head, and hide from the terrifying monster.
However, he knew he wasn't supposed to do that.
"That monster in the corner is one of your demons," Tom Sanders had told him during their last bioenergetic therapy session . "The next time it shows up, don't let it scare you. Remember that it's only a projection. That's what it was when you were a kid, and that's what it is now. The only difference is that now you have another way to deal with it."
"But why is it suddenly showing up now? The last time I remember experiencing something like this was over twenty years ago. In fact, until last week I'd forgotten all about it."
Tom chuckled. "Don't you see? It’s showing up now as a direct result of the bioenergetic work you've been doing. And you're lucky it's showing up so quickly. This bogeyman is a missing part of yourself, whose meaning you won't be able to understand until you can truly reclaim it."
Tom was a tall, handsome, silver-haired doctor, who trained at Harvard and Yale, but taken much of what they'd taught him with a Reichian grain of salt. Dennis liked and admired him very much. But lately he had begun to wonder if the therapist wasn't secretly in league with the Devil.
Particularly when he said stuff like this: “The next time one of those demons shows up, don't just stand there quivering and quaking. Embrace it. Become it!”
"Open your mouth and make a noise just like the monster might make. Let the sound come out! And don't forget to move! For example, if you think the monster is about to jump out at you, jump first! Beat him to it! And keep making that monster sound. You can even make a monster face. Become the monster! And forget about being embarrassed. No one will be watching."
Dennis hoped not.
From the outset, Dennis had known doing therapy with Tom would be different from anything else he had ever tried, that it would involve new kinds of bodywork techniques which were supposed to help him access his unconscious more deeply than ever before. Bioenergetics included all sorts of physical exercises designed to do just that. Dennis had welcomed the fresh approach, too, since none of his previous, exclusively talk-oriented therapy had helped him resolve the conflicts that were wrecking his life.
Tom had trained as a doctor and a psychiatrist, and then gone on beyond conventional psychiatry to study a new therapeutic modality called Bioenergetics. And it was this added bioenergetic aspect that had made therapy with Tom seem so promising. However, this most recent application of bioenergetic ideas, if that's what it was, at first seemed more than a little daunting.
Intellectually, of course, Dennis understood what Tom was saying. The therapist was just introducing Dennis to a new, if somewhat colorful, technique that pretty much fit in with everything else they had been doing together. "The best way out of a problem is through it" had been their theme song from the beginning, particularly when it came to getting through some of the more difficult impasses in the therapy.
But the day he had first been told to "become his demons," Dennis left Tom's office riddled with fear and doubt. How could he possibly do what Tom had told him to do? It didn't seem proper. Become a demon? Not exactly something to joke about. He knew, for example, that most people still actually believed in the literal existence of a Devil. Fundamentalists had raised Dennis's mother; his grandmother had been a Christian Scientist. None of this made it any easier for him to follow Tom's instructions.
Learning to express his emotions directly--the key to most successful bioenergetic work--had never been easy for him. Why should it? It ran counter to what he had been brought up to think of as correct behavior. Emotions, if acknowledged at all, were to be controlled, and released only at set times. Bioenergetics, however, had given him a new context in which to think about the direct release of emotion, and it had already begun to pay off big for him in terms of self-knowledge.
But this newest stratagem had presented him with the most unnerving challenge so far. Could it possibly work? Dennis had come seeking Tom's help because he had found himself between a rock and a hard place in his life. Conventional therapy, he firmly believed, could take him only so far and no further. If Tom couldn't help him, he didn't know what he would do. So if Tom turned out to be wrong or just somehow too strange or off base where it really counted, Dennis would be back where he started, more or less at a total loss insofar as solving his personal problems was concerned.
So now, as he made his way down the street to his car, Dennis felt unusually desperate. He thought hard about what Tom had told him to do, and tried to make some solid personal connection with it.
Dennis knew that what Tom was suggesting was that he literally act out his anger, rage, terror, or whatever other emotion those monsters seemed to represent, within a relatively safe and peaceful bioenergetic context. Well, come to think of it, Dennis had done some acting once. In fact, in his very first performance, he had played the villain in a high-school melodrama. Dennis remembered how much fun he'd had swirling the dark cape up around his face and cackling evilly out at the audience. And he remembered how much the audience had enjoyed watching him, too. Well, wasn't that old-fashioned villain a monster of sorts?
He decided to stop for a hamburger before heading home. As he walked toward the restaurant, he noticed that the street was empty. This, he thought, might be a good moment for an experiment. Right there on that Connecticut sidewalk, he decided to become the villain from that play again.
Taking another furtive look around, he stopped walking and, in what he hoped to be a suitably villainous fashion, swung his arm up in front of his face, then arched his back a bit and cackled.
"Hahaha!" he snarled, in as menacing a tone as he could muster, but keeping his voice down, just in case someone did pass by. "Hahahaha!" he hissed again, a bit more loudly and boldly now, lifting up his arm with a flourish.
He noticed that each time making the sound and motion definitely felt good, just as it had during the school play. Even though the expression and movement had been completely removed from their original context--this time there were no props or scenery or costumes--they still had the same pleasurable effect.
Dennis felt an immense sense of relief. Maybe Tom was on to something after all, something that had much less to do with monsters and devils than about peoples’ usually pent-up emotions and what happened when they released them.
At which point, gratefully, he put the whole thing out of his mind for the moment and headed for the restaurant.
But now that bogeyman from so long ago had suddenly reappeared during the latest solo therapy work; it was time to really put the theory to the test. As usual, Dennis had begun his bioenergetic work at home with a series of muscle-stretching exercises to ground his legs, and open up his chest, arms, thighs and neck. This helped to release the chronic tensions there and improve the flow of energy in his body. But only a few minutes later he had felt—felt was the operative word--the strong presence of something in the next room. He now recognized this feeling immediately, even though, with the exception of that one other time the week prior, he couldn't remember having such a feeling since his childhood.
No question about it, though. That bogeyman was lurking over there right this second, just waiting to get him.
He tried hard to focus on Tom’s words.
"Don't let it scare you.”
Hmm. Easier said than done, particularly since this was just the kind of fear that seemed to appear right out of nowhere and caught you by surprise, the terror that grabbed you in a nightmare and didn’t let go until after you woke up and expelled it out into the night with a deep breath of fresh air. But supposedly, Dennis now had an entirely new way of dealing with it.
Ok. So, after a tense moment, he swallowed the fear, opened his mouth, and made a sound he thought he might make if he were the monster, right before it jumped out of the bathroom and rushed down the corridor to get him. Just as though the monster were the villain in the play.
He cringed. He hoped none of the neighbors could hear him. Suddenly more embarrassed than scared, he considered giving up all this . . . well, what he himself would have considered incomprehensible nonsense only six months ago. But just at that moment the most amazing thing happened. The monster vanished. That is, any sense he'd had that there was a bogeyman lurking in the bathroom disappeared, just as though that feeling had been expelled the very moment he’d made the sounds.
"Those demons are just projected parts of yourself, or of the authority figures and significant others in your life," Tom explained. "Throughout our childhood we are forming such images, both positive and negative, and putting them to work for ourselves, often subliminally. This psychic process is called introjection. Overpowering negative emotions, such as rage, pain, and extreme loneliness get split off and repressed along with the corresponding negative image of the parent. Unable to express the unconscious negative parts of our own and our parent's image, we turn them into monsters that we project upon the outside world. Such projections can also take the form of fear of strangers, or turn into prejudice or paranoia. Alternatively, we may install the introjected image of our parents into our own personality as an idealized superego or severe conscience, shining example or haunting specter.
"And since so many of these projections are simultaneously represented in the body by chronic muscle tension, opening the physical tensions up through bioenergetics often brings the conflicting feelings and images underlying them to the surface. Hopefully, by rendering this material more conscious, we make it, and ourselves, more malleable.
"If the pleasurable and stabilizing effects of bioenergetic grounding, as well as the support of a good therapist, can help us learn how to open up the corresponding closed-off parts of the body, and express our conflicts more directly, we can begin to reintegrate what has been habitually repressed and split off back into our personalities."
"So the bogeyman never actually 'existed,' did he?" Dennis asked.
Tom raised his dark eyebrows--adding a mock Karloffian cast to his otherwise patrician face. "Well, perhaps he never would have existed had we been able to heal the wounds that created him soon enough. Or if we could have expressed our pain at the time, and had it recognized compassionately for what it was. But that didn't happen, did it? So I guess the answer to the ultimate reality of that bogeyman's existence is, “yes and no.'"
"It really worked!" Dennis proclaimed proudly. The monster vanished, just as you predicted."
"Sure," Tom smiled. "That monster was nothing but an unexpressed part of you."
"So how come it was finally so easy to get rid of?"
"Well, first of all, it wasn't so easy. You've worked hard to reach this point." Dennis nodded, remembering how he'd sweated through the initial bioenergetic exercises, learning to do the basic grounding, standing disbelievingly with bent knees until his legs trembled.
"Second, it's only possible for you to do this now because the original situation of your childhood, the one during which you and most of us unconsciously develop this subliminal kind of “introjective” strategy, is long since gone. You aren't that little kid living at home with your parents any more.
"Third, as is normal in therapy, you are transferring your need for approval to me. I am your parents now"--Tom laughed mischievously--"and I'm here to tell you, 'Feel your feelings, don't deny them; express them, don't repress or displace them.' You see. I'm giving you a counter-instruction. So to some extent the way you process your emotions is being modified, if not actually reversed."
"Tell me one more time how we come to project our feelings."
"Well, as children it's often hard to know what to do with our fear and anger, or handle our disappointment, particularly when it involves parents, teachers, and other people generally bigger and more powerful than ourselves. Plus, more often than not, we probably love the very people who are causing us pain. It's natural for us to think, therefore, that if we express our negative emotions directly, that we will get hurt, or they will be hurt, or both. On the other hand, just holding our feelings in is not only mighty uncomfortable, but also potentially hazardous to our health.
"We can, and do, tighten up chronically and bury some of that emotion beneath the resulting 'body armor.' Even body armor, however, can't hold it all. Projections, which take the form of bogeymen when we are children--and then are converted into real or imagined enemies as we grow older--help us get rid of that excess of negative emotion in ways that usually don't immediately threaten us or our family and friends, since it tends to be transferred to people and things that are alien to us.
"By learning to use this kind of emotional ventriloquism as children, we can even garner our parent's sympathy and protection: they run to our rooms to comfort us, to tell us that there are no such things as bogeymen. And at the same time, we get to express, indirectly through the agency of that monster in the corner, our own true feelings of anger and fear, even sadness. And of course, some of these same tactics serve us in good stead as adults as well, often with very little alteration.
"Keep in mind that, in a psychological sense, we are both us and the monster. So we get to express our real-life anger indirectly through imagining the monster's anger, and our real-life fear through our fear of the monster. We also get a lot of attention out of it. Think about it! For a subliminal mechanism, it's really very clever. It can satisfy a lot of needs."
"And so we aren't even aware we're doing this?"
"That's right. In fact, the subliminal character of the process is what makes it so effective. As kids, we really think there is something lurking in the corner. And, even as adults . . . well, what do you think gives most good horror films their punch?"
Dennis grinned. "Ok. Now just don't start messing around with my toilet training."
They both laughed.
Then Dennis had another idea. He had remembered something from his work in sociology. "Tom, this is great! Don't you see what this means?"
"Yes," said Tom, "it means you are starting to 'flush' out your demons, hahaha."
"No, really! Bad puns aside, there's something else about all this that's very exciting."
"Well, think, for example, about those witchcraft trials. And, for that matter, a lot of other historical events similar in nature to them. If individuals can unconsciously harbor these projections in their bodies, why couldn't whole groups--neighborhoods, towns, states, nations . . .?”
"So you think there's a social-psychological connection here?"
"I'm practically sure of it. Entire groups sharing the same bogeymen, the same projections? That's not such a wild idea, is it? I mean, look at the history of prejudice, so much which has been of questionable validity in the first place or has persisted long after the original incentive for it has passed?"
Except, instead of the changed conditions being about no longer living at home with parents, they’re about new technologies that make going to war with each other obsolete. And, depending on the group, the bogeyman in the bathroom may be a Jew or an Arab, an Englishman or an Irishman. It can be any historical rival just different enough to conjure up ancient threats to their security, which they then wind up imagining lurking around that next corner, just waiting to get them. In these cases, though, they don’t always freeze or run for cover. Sometimes they initiate “a preemptive strike.” Then what began as only a psychological reality becomes a physical one, and the age-old cycle of violence is given fresh impetus, but all based on a state of affairs that no longer really has any reason to exist, except in peoples’ minds.
"Perhaps," said Tom, "but the violence people do to each other is still a real fact of life, not just a matter of psychology and illusion."
"Ah, but how often has this kind of violence just been the result of psychological triggering, the unthinking response to ancient bogeymen, pointlessly recycling an outmoded reality and blocking social change. And could a heightened awareness of this fact on the part of all our Hatfield’s and McCoy’s be a key to making the world a much better place?
"As much as this work is helping me personally, another really exciting thing about all this for me is how these bioenergetic techniques may help to heal more than just the separate individual. A social extrapolation of it might eventually serve to help free up whole groups, even entire cultures, from their self-destructive habits. After all, what's a group but a collection of individuals?"
Tom smiled, managing to look doubtful and thoughtful at the same time. "So you really think we can change culture through some application of bioenergetic/biological/social-psychological bodywork techniques?”
"Could be, Tom . . . could be," Dennis nodded. "Certainly it wouldn't be sufficient. But it's inclusion in any plan for real social change might well be essential, and make the difference between success and failure. If enough people were only able to develop an awareness of these bioenergetic patterns, it could be just the thing to turn the tide. In any case, wouldn't it be great if, on a cultural as well as a personal level, we could learn how to exorcise all the bogeymen, private and public that we no longer need to have there?
"Those bogeymen could be keeping us perpetuating our vicious cycles of fear and projection, revenge, racism and paranoia, for no other reason than the fact that we're still locked into these outmoded, subliminally based habits. You say this stuff was formed in our childhoods. Then isn't it about time we grew up?"
Tom grinned. "Well, it seems you've come a long way since the day you thought I was in league with the devil."
Dennis smiled back. "A long way, and then some!"
Lee Strauss (Copyright @ 2015)