What might this be? Relating in an interpreted world

The famous Rorschach test is administered through the use of a single prompt. The examiner holds up a card and simply asks the subject: “What might this be?” An answer will be given, and the examiner responds, “What else might this be?” This continues until the subject no longer has a response to offer, and the next card is presented.

I used to administer these tests, and I’ve been amazed to discover how rich and textured the portrait revealed by them can be. The cards really are just inkblots, so if a respondent “sees” two baby monkeys fighting to suckle at their mother’s breast, there’s some actual information there. The Rorschach is an example of a projective test, and the information it offers is in the realm of the kind of material a subject would be likely to project upon an ambiguous situation. That is, how does this person interpret the world?

It’s a powerful question, and one that is at the heart of much of the psychotherapy process. Often this process begins with acknowledging that our perceptions of the world, and particularly the hugely complex world of human relationships, rest upon acts of interpretation, and these interpretations are greatly informed by our underlying beliefs about how people operate, particularly in relation to one’s own self.

We tend to think of perception as a one-way process: stimuli reach us through our senses and enter our brains, and we then perceive reality; after all, our eyes are “the windows to the world.” We now understand though that perception doesn’t work this way at all; in fact, as many optical illusions illustrate, our perception of something as “straightforward” as the relative darkness of two squares is largely determined by our preexisting expectation of what we will perceive.

This counterintuitive weaving together of expectation and perception is at the heart of so many relationship issues. By the time we reach adulthood we are possessed of an array of unconscious expectations about what our relationships will bring. These expectations are largely informed by the actual circumstances we were made to navigate in the formative periods of our lives: relationships we had with our parents, siblings, and most influential peer relationships in our youth and adolescence.

If we are lucky, these relationships were kind and satisfying: we felt seen and respected, we were treated with goodness and love. If we were less lucky, we might have experienced any number of dynamics ranging from outright abuse to ostracization to marginalization to an almost imperceptible but chronic misattunement. These dynamics take place during the years we establish lifelong internal representations of what the world is, so inevitably the flavor of these experiences become woven into the basic assumptions we carry forth about what will happen when we relate to other people.

Largely, these assumptions are truly unconscious. They operate at the machine layer of our navigation systems, and most of us go our entire lives not truly appreciating the ways in which our perceptions of “reality” are passed through this particular and wholly personal filter.

One place this process is poignantly on display is the therapy groups I run. These groups typically consist of 5-8 people who meet consistently on a weekly basis. There is very little structure; we sit in a circle and I say “let’s begin.” Ambiguity abounds.

As the members of the group begin to interact with each other, inevitably each participant’s core ways of interpreting the world are activated; that is, their largely unconscious expectations of what will happen within their relationships shape both their behaviors vis-à-vis the other members and their perceptions of what is taking place. The group is a Rorschach test of what happens within each person’s experience in a set of relationships: What might this be?

Vivian, for example, was raised by parents who were entirely misattuned to her needs. Her parents were not abusive or overtly cruel; they were simply distracted by their own needs and desires. More damagingly, they exhibited a subtle (and sadly not uncommon) misogyny, and devoted more resources and higher expectations to Vivian’s brother. Vivian the child was left with an unarticulated sense of being insufficient to the one thing she wanted above all: to feel secure in the loving attention and full support of the people who brought her into the world and were now charged with keeping her safe. Like any child, Vivian didn’t have the capacity to understand that the failure was her parents’ rather than her own (i.e. “a better version of me would have get what I really need”), so she internalized a sense of being inadequate that has lingered into adulthood.

Vivian is now in her mid-40s and comes to the group experience with the utter conviction that she is too boring to hold anyone’s attention. In fact she is quite intelligent and sharp and possessed of an interesting analysis of a wide range of topics. She’s also intrinsically an appealing person, though she is convinced just the opposite is true: she sees the thoroughness of her own mediocrity as quite repellant.

Beyond being merely attuned to confirming evidence of this conviction, she is actually distorted in her interpretation of what is happening within the group in response to her. She believes, for example, that the group member sitting next to her is physically turned away from her because he finds her so repellent. In fact, he is sitting cross-legged and straight-on, in a way that she would have interpreted as being turned away from her no matter which side of him she’d been on.

During one of her first group meetings, Vivian shares the story of how she came to live in the United States (she immigrated when she was a young adult). When she finished, the group was silent. Though she spoke eloquently and the story was fascinating, she was convinced that the group had been bored and had disconnected as she spoke. In fact, each member of the group was silent for his or her own reason (one member was brought back to her own immigration story and was quite stirred; another man found himself attracted to Vivian and felt shy; a third member chronically feels that he too has little to offer of value so tends to stay more inward; etc).

Since this takes place within the context of the group therapy experiment, Vivian’s experiences within her relationships can be named and challenged; hopefully, over time, her perceptions of what is happening can become more clear-eyed and less distorted by the formative, painful dynamics that shaped much of her present experience.

And yet in our day-to-day lives, we can go years – or even an entire life – without challenging the basic distortions within our interpretations of the world. Often these interpretations – these habitual filters - are less egregiously distorted than Vivian’s; yet they still may present no less of a challenge to the creating and sustaining of love that we all so desire.

The call here is not to throw off these filters; they are so deeply conditioned that that would not be possible. We can however increase our awareness of the ways in which our particular filters tend to operate. We can be suspicious of the kinds of stories we tend to tell again and again about ourselves and about our relationships, and in so doing increase our power to be curious about what else is possible other than our reflexive responses. Perhaps we might even find ourselves with a greater capacity to relate with skill and wisdom to a more hopeful investigation of what is actually happening.

I would assert that the maintenance of healthy relationships hinges on our capacity to do exactly this. We must be able to ask ourselves not only “what might this be?” but also “what else might this be?” Perhaps, even, this is close to the essence of what we call maturity.