For the past several months, we have been exploring the topic of religion, looking at it from the perspective of early development and psychological processes and motives.
We began by investigating the external imposing of religion, and the past few months we have become curious about the internal dynamics.
This month we pursue the fascinating and complex issue of how we try to understand what is external and what is internal...how much of our perceptions of the so-called external world are based on our internal dynamics. How much are the external and internal merged and influencing each other?
This, of course, is a massive topic, with large psychological, neurobiological, and philosophical works of literature. However, it is beneficial to examine this in order to shed light on what psychological dynamics underlie religion, religious extremism, terrorism, and other various behaviors. As we will see, these issues have been explored in wonderful writings by folks such as Chuck Strozier, Leon Hoffman, Nancy Kobrin, David Terman, Vick Kelly and Mary Lamia, and others.
Much of what we will be discussing involves externalizing of thoughts and feelings, with various behaviors resulting, i.e., perceiving aspects of the external world and people through the influence of our own internal world and experience. Of course, our perceptions of the outside world will always be influenced by our own perceptual apparatus and life experience—the question is how much might we distort so-called external reality (consensual validity).
Leon Hoffman and his colleagues have written a wonderful book on externalization and early development—Manual of Regulation-Focused Psychotherapy For Children (RFP-C) With Externalizing Behaviors (2016). One way to convey the importance of this issue is to look at some of the basic terms and define them, and that we will do in the rest of this newsletter.
Two general and somewhat overlapping themes emerge from this discussion of our capacity to perceive, i.e., what is inside and what is outside.
The first is our tendency to project of own thoughts and feelings onto the outside world—or, to put it differently, how we all perceive the outside world through the glasses and lens of our own experience. The second theme concerns our tendency to repeat patterns from our earlier years.
Let’s look at an example of each.
The first is an example of projection. One sees this readily in children, in their nightmares, and with the monsters in the closets or under the beds. Often, these are due to the child having angry thoughts and feelings which are then dealt with by putting them onto fantasized monsters or real people—in this way, the child no longer has to deal with their anxiety about their own internal rage. The child’s own anger and rage are scary. Why? Often because the caregivers have not understood how anger works and have attempted to prohibit the child’s angry feelings and expressions.
Sometimes, of course, the outside world is of a threatening nature—some sort of abuse via siblings, parents, or other circumstances. Here, the monsters may be as much a reflection of what the child understandably expects from the outside world—perhaps in addition to the projection of his/her own internal rage. This brings us to the next example.
Repeating earlier patterns…
Among the important functions of the brain is organizing stimuli, to create order out of disorder and predict outcomes of behaviors and circumstances. One way the brain does this is to create generalizations and transferences—to use past patterns to help navigate present circumstances. However, present circumstances may be different from those of the past, and the present may require different responses. One aspect of mental health is adaptability. Remember Abraham Lincoln’s words in his annual message to Congress, December 1, 1862?
“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present…As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves…”
Similarly, much of Darwin’s work suggested that evolution involved the capacity to adapt to local circumstances.
Let’s go back to our example of the nightmares of children. Interesting, if there is no major trauma occurring, these are often quite treatable. It involves helping the child—and the parents—to understand the child’s fear of his/her own internal anger and put it into words and/or play. If there is trauma, this becomes more complex and involves a focus on the external world and trauma as well as the internal world.
REFERENCES FOR INTERESTED READERS
Hoffman L, Rice T, & Prout T (2016). Manual of Regulation-Focused Psychotherapy for Children (RFP-C) with Externalizing Behaviors: A Psychodynamic Approach. New York: Routledge.
Kelly VC, Lamia MC (2018). The Upside of Shame: Therapeutic Interventions Using the Positive Aspects of a “Negative” Emotion. New York: WW Norton & Company.
Strozier CB et al eds. (2011). The Leader: Psychological Essays. New York: Springer-Verlag.
Strozier CB, Terman DM, Jones JW (2010). The Fundamentalist Mindset: Psychological Perspectives on Religion, Violence, and History. New York: Oxford University Press.