Three Great Truths from Psychology

Psychology needs a consensus on its basic principles to illuminate the truth

Psychologists are failing to identify and teach the essential truths of psychology, the basics that help us to minimize emotional suffering. Experts on the subject of the mind can’t make up their minds about their profession’s most important knowledge. They are too invested emotionally in their own pet theories as they battle one another on the field of competing ideas.

Of course, our mind can’t be expected to produce or assimilate absolute truth about the human condition. We usually settle for practical truth, which is the best approximation of reality that our experience, intelligence, and soul-searching identify from among competing ideas. Ideally, learned experts would have produced by now a consensus of the best psychological knowledge. Yet consensus has not occurred in the field of psychology. Scholars, academics, and researchers are blinded by the radiance of their own ideas, while essential truths float by invisible to the people.

Three discoveries by Sigmund Freud deserve to be identified as essential facts or practical truths. These discoveries revealed the existence in our psyche of the dynamics of transference, projection, and identification. In psychological circles, these dynamics or processes are identified only as psychoanalytic concepts. Yet millions of people suffer unnecessarily because they are ignorant of these inner processes. The knowledge needs to be well taught in our schools so it can begin to benefit individuals and society.

Let’s start by explaining transference. It is most helpful to understand this process through the idea of negative transference because this is how the suffering is experienced. Negative transference occurs when one individual (Jim) senses or believes that another person (Jane) is directing negative emotions such as criticism, disapproval, disappointment, or rejection toward him, even when that impression does not correspond with her actual feelings or behavior. In other words, Jane could be quite neutral in her feelings and thoughts about Jim, yet he still “reads” a negative intention from her. Jim is transferring on to Jane some unresolved emotions from his own past concerning feelings of being criticized, rejected, and so on. Because these negative emotions are unresolved in Jim, he is interested unconsciously in recreating and recycling them. Hence, he transfers on to others the expectation that they are “transmitting” (or will transmit) these negative emotions toward him. Convinced that his “readings” of the situation are objective and accurate, Jim consequently regards others with less trust and openness. He also suffers unnecessarily because he is “taking on” negative impressions that are not justified by actual circumstances. This is the inner process behind the problem of being emotionally “thin-skinned.”

As the saying goes, men “marry” their mothers, while women “marry” their fathers. This happens, in part, because of this unconscious propensity to repeat with our partners—through transference—the old unresolved emotions that we experienced with our parents, siblings, and caretakers.

While transference is about what we feel coming at us from others, the second process, projection, is about what we feel as we project our own impressions on to others. An individual (Larry) “sees” a defect or weakness in someone else (Judy) that upsets or annoys him. If Larry’s negative feelings about Judy’s alleged defect are intense enough, he might overlook her good qualities and be cold and distant toward her. Unconsciously, Larry is disapproving or critical of himself for having a similar weakness. (Frequently, this weakness involves a person’s emotional entanglement in self-doubt and other variations of passivity.) Larry’s defense could be saying, “I’m not the one who is passive—she is!” He is defending against his inner critic’s or superego’s disapproval of his inner weakness. As he deflects the inner criticism outwardly toward Judy, he can feel toward her a negative intensity that is the equivalent of the negative aggression coming at him from his inner critic. When he understands this dynamic, he can turn inward with the power of insight, learning to deflect his inner critic’s unwarranted harassment and illegitimate authority. (See“The Tyrant Who Rules Our Inner Life.) Projection, which often leads to personality clashes, has many variations, and the Wikipedia article on the subject is enlightening.

The last process, identification, can be understood as the unconscious tendency or temptation to identify with what another person is feeling (or what we imagine the other person is feeling), regardless of whether that’s a positive or negative feeling. Positive identification is usually harmless, yet consciousness of the process is still important because young people, as an example, can identify—in a way that feels positive to them—with unsavory influences or characters. Identification is usually most troublesome when it is negative. For instance, a father (Sam) identifies strongly with his son (Tom) when the boy plays badly on the golf course. Both Sam and Tom have unresolved issues with feelings of being seen in a negative light and being a disappointment. These unresolved issues sabotage Tom when he attempts to perform well, and his father unconsciously can’t resist getting “hit up” with this negative feeling and resonating with it as he sees his son struggling. If Sam understands his identification with his son, he can refrain from getting triggered, and he can have a better chance of helping Tom settle down emotionally and avoid self-sabotage.

When we are alert to these three dynamics, we can “take ownership” of the negativity they produce in us. We avoid the self-sabotage that these dynamics can produce. We understand that the negativity is coming from within us and that the other person is not causing this negativity, only triggering it. None of this is our fault. We just want to be able to observe the processes objectively, like a scientist looking through a microscope. Taking ownership of the negativity produced by these dynamics is a powerful act of consciousness. It’s the method that eliminates the negativity.