Prodependence: Competing Against Projections

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By Angela Spearman

A common mistake many therapist and professionals make these days is projecting pathology onto clients. Some might phrase this as “assuming the worst” in people rather than giving them the benefit of the doubt. For example, it’s easier to see the victims of domestic violence as unintelligent, weak-minded, and foolish for going back than it is to face the very real obstacles to their freedom from abuse.

If, however, therapists’ hearts, minds, and spirits are honest about the injustice, we must consider the ways we might be able to help. Unfortunately, instead of taking responsibility for our shortcomings, our natural tendency is to tell ourselves that if those victims really wanted to stop the abuse, they would leave. In this way, we release ourselves from responsibility to engage the matter further.

But the situation isn’t really that simple. Projections, biases, and educated guesses are an inescapable part of being human. How could we perceive others any other way? We all have things we’ve learned that cause us to think a certain way, and we all project those assumptions onto the world. If we learn that the glowing red rings on a stovetop are hot, we automatically avoid touching them. We have a bias that we use to stay safe.

The question is: When it comes to how we perceive and deal with other people, especially therapy clients, can we be honest with ourselves about our biases and projections?

I’ll never forget the time I made a bid for connection with a professor I had looked up to. In the previous months, he and I had disagreed on a number of issues and I had begun to feel alienated in our interactions. That morning, he tossed something toward a trash can next to me and missed. I saw my opportunity to connect in a relaxed, no-big-deal kind of way. When I leaned over to pick up the trash, he said, “Don’t do that.” I stopped and looked up at him with confusion, as he declared with confidence, “You are doing it out of a sense of obligation.”

At that moment, my desire for connection was labeled as undifferentiated and codependent. I was rejected by someone I looked up to and wanted a connection with, and it was done in such a way that I was declared manipulative and controlling. And it happened in front of colleagues.

I was hurt by the rejection and I was angry about the projection. Was I even human to him? Or was I just some pathology to be counseled away? Of course, if I placed my worth and identity in his perception of me, I would have doubted my goodness and capacity for love. But I knew that my heart was simply longing for connection with someone who mattered to me.

Projections have a way of dehumanizing a person. Projections strip others of their freedom and flexibility to engage in a meaningful way. Projections put them on a “less-than” level, rather than offering them an egalitarian role in relationships.

Unfortunately, I see projection rather often in the psychotherapy profession. Rather than identifying and recognizing the human need for connection, attunement, and empathy, many professionals make the mistake of projecting a “codependent” motive onto clients, as my professor once did to me. Perhaps this occurs because it is a lot harder on the psyche of a therapist to open up to the real pain and loss experienced by every client he or she works with. Perhaps it is a protective maneuver to view clients through the lens of pathology, rather than offering acceptance of their hardships while maintaining the belief that they are intelligent, longing for connection, and doing the best they can with the resources available to them.

That’s why we need the new model of prodependence. Prodependence recognizes the effort that loved ones of addicts and the chronically ill exert for the sake of safety, connection, love, and well-being. Prodependence recognizes that connection is a critical human need at every developmental level, but especially so during crisis and hardship. With prodependence, therapists recognize that withholding support and positive regard from clients reinforces to them the experience of isolation that they are already overwhelmed by in their daily life.

Prodependence is emancipation from the restrictions of labels, projections, and pathology. (For more on this concept of emancipation, please read my previous article on the fallacy of the concept of the internal locus of control.) Projections push therapists (and others) into the outdated codependency model, limiting the therapeutic alliance and unnecessarily pushing clients into the limitations of a pathological label. Projections separate therapists and clients, whereas prodependence brings them together and helps to forge a therapeutic alliance.