One of the worst blunders in the history of foreign language translation was made by a Russian interpreter assisting President Jimmy Carter in 1971.  Carter was visiting Poland at the time, a sensitive trip given the country’s then Communist status.  Carter opened his remarks with the words ‘I left America this morning’ which the interpreter rendered as ‘I have been abandoned by the United States’.  He went on to say ‘I have come to learn your opinions and understand your desires for the future’ which came out as ‘I desire the Poles carnally’.

The limits of words

So words don’t always convey what we want them to.  Even in our own language.  A poet I know lamented the fact that some of the things he wants to put into words simply can’t be.

A good example of that comes not from poetry but from spirituality.  The Christian mystical tradition includes the practice of contemplation.  Essentially this is seen as the experience of being touched by the direct presence of God – not so much praying to Him as being prayed by Him.  For hundreds of years mystics have complained that no matter how hard they try no words can be found to get across what they’ve experienced.

And it’s not necessary to look to spirituality to get the point.  Most of us will have tried to make another human being understand something deeply important to us and found our words coming down on one side or the other of what we’re trying to say without hitting the nail on the head.

A hidden way of talking

But we also know that words aren’t the only means we have of communicating.  Silence can speak volumes, the eyes are the window of the soul and body language, even if it hasn’t got a handy adage attached to it, is  part of our currency too.

All those things plus many others can be enlisted in the service of a very interesting phenomenon that psychotherapy calls projective identification. It consists in one person putting their (often disowned and unwanted) feelings straight into another person – making that person feel what they themselves are feeling – without being remotely aware that they’re doing it.  In other words, it’s a completely unconscious way of communicating and transferring one’s emotional state.

You may, for example, be having a perfectly pleasant conversation with someone but gradually find yourself feeling angry and not know why.  It may be that what you’re experiencing has nothing to do with you at all but a lot to do with what’s going on deep inside the individual you’re talking to.

It’s not just anger that can get projected; all kinds of things can be:  sadness, shame, lust, inferiority, envy – you name it.   And positive feelings like love, respect, happiness and peace can be communicated too.

Better than words?

At first it can be tricky to know which feelings do genuinely belong to someone else and which are actually your own but with practice you get better at judging it.  The point is that noticing this process while it’s happening can sometimes be a far more accurate way of knowing what a person is really thinking and feeling than just listening to the words they’re using.

I should add that while awareness of all this can be helpful, projective identification itself is a very basic form of communication that has its roots in infancy.  One of the aims of psychotherapy is to help people move on from this primitive way of communicating to a more age-appropriate way – i.e. putting things into words!