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Notes from a Field Instructor

Posted by Mikey Smith on February 24, 2021

MikeySmith2I feel rejuvenated as I process my last shift in the field. This week I saw our kids share real truth about their character: steal each other’s food, squabble over the most banal topics imaginable, show up as leaders, class clowns, and saboteurs. I saw their old patterns of dealing with the world come into play again and again. I heard their laughter as they scrambled across red sandstone domes overlooking the borders of Utah and Nevada. I listened to them groan, complain, and sob as we hiked into the night to locate our next camp. Some well-worn paths of behavior were archaic and destructive, a few freshly cut footpaths emerged independent and empowering. I felt joy and exuberance as I heard a student check in as powerless, then correct himself: "Wait. I'm not powerless, I am empowered. There are so many things in my control. I am not powerless!" I found meaning and power for myself in that moment.

“Projections change the world into the replica of one’s own unknown face.” - Carl Jung

One truth and side benefit of being field staff: Our kids facilitate the expansion of my own knowledge of self. Sometimes more than I would like. I see my triggers, traumas, and narrative again and again throughout the day. Within those moments are nested potentialities of deepening my awareness. I am in extended wilderness group therapy with these kids; we have zero distractions and mother nature is our host and guide.

Each shift I find some students particularly challenging to deal with. And, perhaps not surprisingly, I find that I see more of myself in those challenging students; they act as a mirror for me and show me where my own personal work remains. A psychological concept I've found helpful in transmuting frustration into personal progress is the idea of projection and the work of reclaiming and integrating those projections.

"... Only that which we cannot accept within ourselves do we find impossible to live with others." -Edward C. Whitmont

The concept of projection is that we project repressed aspects of ourselves (both positive and negative) onto others with the unconscious desire that seeing our repressed parts reflected back to us will provide an opportunity to integrate them into our conscious personality.

We all hold what Robert Bly calls "the long black bag;” Freud and Jung referred to it as the Shadow Self. The Hyde to our Jekyll. In essence, the Shadow is where we store our repressed characteristics. We hold "positive" and "negative" characteristics within this Shadow: anger, courage, guile, defiance, tenacity, laziness, assertiveness etc. And just because a characteristic is repressed does not mean it is fundamentally bad. Each characteristic has an inherent positive and negative essence. For example, defiance in its positive essence is necessary to stand against injustice. In its negative essence, defiance is damaging to relationships and limits potential opportunities. As we grow up we repress some of these characteristics based on our social surroundings, expectations, and cultural influences. These rejected aspects of our personality are often thought to be left behind, forgotten, triumphed over. 'Tis not the case. They have not disappeared, they have simply moved into the basement, the unconscious aspect of the psyche where they still exert influence upon our lives.

A succinct quote from Jung emphasizes the importance of striving to integrate the rejected parts of ourselves: “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate."

We can recognize when we are actively projecting when we find ourselves in the grip of a strong emotional reaction. In these moments there is a high likelihood we are seeing a rejected part of ourselves displayed by another. A young man steeped in defiance illuminates my own deeply defiant nature. The kid with a chronic victim mentality is my history reflected to me in real time. Each week, I look for those areas of similarity, then I make a point to connect with those students. When I take the time to carve away my own projections, I find that the issue of interaction usually returns to a dislike of some disowned aspect of myself. Through connecting with him or her, I connect in some way back to myself, continually being pulled deeper into my own process of pursuing wholeness.

"The long black bag we drag behind us is an all-inclusive, custom-made storehouse of everything we need in our quest to become whole. If we can recognize our projections, then we can embrace the painful opportunity to both heal and whole ourselves." - Bill Plotkin

With each social interaction we have the opportunity to look for our rejected selves in the faces of others. The act of projecting provides an externalization of our internal process; it can lead us into our insecurities, fears, gifts, and unknown strengths. To make a practice of reclaiming projections you can ask the following questions (taken from Bill Plotkin's book, Soulcraft) when confronted by strong positive or negative emotions towards another:

  • What exactly is the quality I like or don't like in the other?
  • What emotions are evoked by those qualities?
  • How have I acted on those emotions?
  • Where do I find these same qualities in myself?
  • What have I done to disown them and why?
  • In what ways might my experience of this person be similar to how I experienced someone from my family of origin?

If we recognize and explore the internal origin of our repressed characteristics we can begin the process of integrating those parts of ourselves. This process can be lengthy and feel stagnant or regressive as we try to welcome the repressed aspects of our psyche into consciousness. Through making the unconscious, conscious we can arrive at a deeper and more full knowledge of ourselves; knowledge of our personal darkness as well as our life-sustaining gifts. The world at large can benefit from those gifts. As we actively stop striving against ourselves we become free to strive for something greater than just our own narrow existence.

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