How is it possible to feel invisible? What does that even mean: “feel invisible”? Why does it hurt so badly when it is not a physical act of cruelty? It not as though I look in the mirror and see no reflection, but reflection might have a lot to do with the lived experience of invisibility. Marie-Louise von Franz, whom many call Carl Jung’s closest follower, offers and idea that I would like to explore in relation to the pain of invisibility:
“When unconscious identity operates negatively it causes us, naively and thoughtlessly, to take for granted that the other is like us and that what is valid for us is also valid for him, so that we feel justified in “improving” him, that is in raping him psychologically. This is the origin of active projection.” – – von Franz, 1978, p. 16
The language she chose is highly provocative in today’s political atmosphere, and though the notion that one could be “psychologically raped” is not something we hear of much today, we do hear about countless acts of non-consensual sex or sexual harassment on a daily basis. So what does it add to our understanding of the word rape to consider the idea of a psychological raping?
The defining characteristic of the word rape is right there: non-consensual. If an act is consensual then the act is not rape. In some ways this is why all rape is psychological in nature, since offering enthusiastic consent is predicated on the notion that one is also in a state of personal autonomy and responsibility sufficient to allow them to consent to what is happening to them. In other words, a society collectively holds values as to the requirements that must be met in order to consent at all. In contemporary United States culture we have laws that protect consent standards such as the age one must be at the time of the act, the state of one’s mental health, levels of intoxication, and power differential between parties.
Because consent standards are culturally derived it is a complex issue that deserves attention on the parts of all persons. On the other hand, this complexity is what allows for more nuanced freedom between a diverse population. If the issue of consent is understood to be complicated, perhaps we can encourage each other to slow down during not only sexual acts but during other contexts of communication in order to gain a deeper understanding of what each individual needs in order to feel seen, taken into account, and thus honored as a human being.
So what might it mean that one is psychologically raped, from the standpoint of consent-based freedoms? Von Franz was referring to the idea that projecting one’s own psychological reality onto another is a volitional act that is violent in the sense that it dehumanizes the other. In popular culture today, there seem to be two divergent attitudes regarding this experience. On the one hand there is the idea that we must not require each other to protect each other psychologically, that sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you. Far over on the other end of the spectrum is the idea that the utmost care should be taken to warn people of the content of your upcoming words in the form of trigger warnings and the creation of safe spaces where certain ideas are left out of the conversation for the sake of the emotional wellness of those in the space. These two vastly different standards are often held out as the only two options. But of course, as with all things, there is a wide range between them.
In order to find a more productive middle ground we might turn to Jung’s words on passive versus active projection.
“The passive form is the customary form of all pathological and many normal projections; they are not intentional and are purely automatic occurrences. The active form is an essential component of the act of empathy. Taken as a whole, empathy is a process of introjection, since it brings the object [object refers to any other, including persons] into intimate relation with the subject. In order to establish the relationship, the subject detaches a content—a feeling, for instance—from himself, lodges it in the object, thereby animating it, and in this way draws the object into the sphere of the subject.” -Jung, CW6, para. 784
If I read the quote only this far I might assume that he means to assign a wholly positive value to active projection, especially at a time when empathy is a frequent buzzword for creating an atmosphere of community and wellness amongst a group. But importantly, Jung continues to examine the possible outcomes of psychological objectivity:
“The active form of projection is, however, also an act of judgment, the aim of which is to separate the subject from the object. Here a subjective judgment is detached from the subject as a valid statement and lodged in the object; by this act the subject distinguishes himself from the object. Projection, accordingly, is a process of introversion since, unlike introjection; it does not lead to ingestion and assimilation but to differentiation and separation of the subject from the object. Hence it plays a prominent role in paranoia, which usually ends in the total isolation of the subject.” – Jung, CW6, para. 784
What does this mean in the context of our discussion on psychological rape? We can establish a need to carefully bring awareness to the relationship between subject and object in communication. Jung tells us that the human capacity to empathize, to understand the feelings of another, requires a projection of our subjective self into the other while simultaneously maintaining the container of individuality. In other words, we must step into another’s shoes while understanding that we have not merged into the other and can never completely experience the other’s experience. This is the beginning of all diplomacy, compromise, and community; to see the other and ourselves as both overlapping and separate, requiring individual care and communal wellbeing. These are critical issues for our time, as world population continues to rise and the needs of many must be accounted for if we are to maintain peace.
Practically speaking, perhaps it is most fruitful to bring this discussion back to a personal scope. That sensation of invisibility, the painful self-awareness of being a devalued individual to the point of questioning the reality of one’s own experience is a potentially devastating experience. If we are to work towards psychological wellness for all individuals, empathy is certainly required. But there is reason to exercise caution in our attempts to empathize. As Jung stated, empathy begins with a projection onto another and continues with the differentiation of self and other. While we take this challenging task on, it is easy to accidentally mistake our attempt to feel what the other feels as reasonable enough approximation of the other’s experience. But is this true? Certainly we can never fully reconcile our own viewpoint with any other individual to the point of perfect understanding—we are still mortals after all! So in the space between you and I, there will always be an unknown. In that space, I think, is where most of the hurt occurs. It is actually easier to block out the devaluation of someone who is not even trying to understand, someone who has stated values that objectify and diminish my perspective than to sift through the misunderstandings of feeling that occur during a failed attempt at empathy. This is, I think, what psychological rape might actually be… more coercive than violent, more undermining than threatening, and more good intentions than malevolence.
Empathy is a wonderful goal, a skill we must teach to our children and to each other as adults. It is the beginning of a future where all of life is valued, from persons to animals, to the earth itself. Yet clumsily done, it might be quite damaging indeed. A step in empathetic listening I have rarely heard discussed is the withdrawal of one’s projection in order to retain awareness of the fact that we can never completely understand each other and must learn to gentleness to compensate for this shortcoming of the human experience.
In order to avoid psychological rape we must remember that our experience is both valid and narrow, as is each other individual person’s. This will require an increase in our dedication to communication, a willingness to ask more questions, and to reframe both our assertions and questions to move toward a more nuanced understanding of each other. It will take more time, it will require slowing down, and maybe most importantly it will require us to be both right and wrong at the same time. Living in the ambiguity of the situation is challenging because it is not what most of us where trained to do. Decisiveness and quick wit are highly valued traits in the United States culture, and these features make it difficult to live with the gap of our empathetic ability. I know because this is my own struggle, I have decisiveness and wit down pat, and I have harmed individuals with my reliance on these skills. But, also, because invisibility is my own scar, because I spend much of my very privileged life feeling quite misunderstood and I still hope for that to get better, to be seen and heard for my unique self, and for my kids and yours to be visible and gentle, loving and loved, decisive and patient.
Jung, C.G. (1971/1990). The collected works of C.G. Jung vol 6. Psychological types.(R.F.C. Hull trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Von Franz, M.L. (1978) Projection and re-collection in Jungian psychology, reflections of the soul. Peru, IL: Open Court Press.