Welcome to my monthly newsletter, “On the Couch.” My goal with this endeavor is to examine social and political events from a psychoanalytical viewpoint and to point out public examples of a little-understood but widely practiced behavior and coping mechanism known as projective identification. I feel there are far too many confusing terms in my profession, the field of psychoanalysis, that prohibit would-be patients from seeking treatment, and so it is in that spirit that I decided to rechristen projective identification with the term blame shifting.
I believe understanding blame shifting will illuminate just how widespread this behavior is. For thirty years, I have focused my energies as a psychologist and psychoanalyst helping patients heal from traumatic experiences and toxic relationships, but when Donald Trump became president, I noticed a significant increase in patients unable to cope or communicate with others. Many claimed the political rhetoric made it all but impossible to even suggest a discussion with people of other viewpoints, let alone engage in a full-on debate. Americans are pitted in a toxic relationship with one another, and it’s time to heal the wounds using clear language and by offering practical, actionable guidance that each of us can incorporate into our daily interactions with our fellow Americans. These toxic mental head-games are not limited to the United States, and in this newsletter I will also examine the global spread of populism and malignant narcissism. This kind of extremism has significant consequences for citizens of the world as well as for the delicate environmental ecosystems upon which we depend for our survival.
The first step to healing is recognizing the underpinnings of a dysfunctional relationship, oftentimes caused by one person who exerts outsize influence on another.
And I can only think of one man in the past five years who meets those criteria.
Donald Trump is an expert blame shifter. I believe his use of this defense mechanism has left the American people mentally battered and scarred. Can we just pick up and move on now that he’s out of office? Trumpism is not going anywhere anytime soon, especially if his ambitious acolytes Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz have anything to do with it. However, I believe this brand of ideology has always been here and is merely populism, jingoism, and racism rebranded and backed by Trumpian star power. The American people have been bullied and manipulated to a state of paranoia and cynicism that allows little room for thoughtful discussion or negotiation.
In fact, since Trump’s victory 2016, Americans have become less capable of engaging in thoughtful and productive debate and are increasingly anxious. Many of my colleagues and I have noticed a dramatic increase in patients focusing on politics intertwined with their emotional well-being. Perhaps the last time we saw such a dramatic increase in sessions focusing on current events was in the aftermath of the terror attacks on September 11th, 2001.
But, just like any dysfunctional relationship, there is always a way out. I’ve seen it happen in microcosm with my patients, and I believe that by applying those tenets on a larger scale can help us collectively bridge the ideological divide that has only grown deeper since November 2016 made worse in the days following the 2020 election, and ripped wide open after the riots at the Capitol. Trump’s slapdash approach to the pandemic put us well behind the eight ball in the country’s medical and economic response, but mental health professionals like me have a moral and ethical duty to help, namely, by implementing a multi-step process that includes acknowledgment of the situation and cultivating empathy for those caught up in this toxic web. My hope is that this newsletter will be a safe space for those necessary and honest discussions.
Before we start on this journey, you probably want to know a little about me. Here are the brief bona fides: I have been treating patients with psychoanalysis for the past thirty years. I am a psychologist and supervising and training analyst at the Washington Baltimore Center for Psychoanalysis and am on the medical staff of Johns Hopkins Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland, USA. I maintain a full-time private practice in Chevy Chase, Maryland and was previously the director of the Meyer Treatment Center at the Washington School of Psychiatry and the director of Continuing Education for Women at George Washington University.
I have written two books on the topics of misogyny and projective identification, with a third in the works. My first book, Misogyny, Projective Identification, and Mentalization: Psychoanalytic, Social and Institutional Manifestations
(Routledge, 2019), explored the genesis of hatred and ingrained prejudice towards women and blame shifting. In my second book, Aftermath: Healing from the Trump Presidency
(International Psychotherapy Institute, 2020), I argue that we the American people were stuck in a toxic, psychologically harmful, four-year relationship with President Trump and offer ideas on how to heal. I am now working on a third book that examines projective identification as it is manifested by populist leaders, to be published by Routledge Press.
Thank you, and I hope you’ll find this newsletter informative and educational.