“I’m rubber, you’re glue, what bounces off me sticks to you.” Recently one of my colleagues taught me this childhood taunt and response to name calling. It is one of the simplest and most accurate descriptions of projective identification that I have ever heard and makes me think of my client Nancy.

Nancy and I occupy different ends of the political spectrum. It is interesting to me that I can work comfortably with clients who are different from me in very many ways, yet the issue of political ideology is one that I have frequently found internally troublesome. Nancy hates Obama. She listens to conservative talk radio. She makes racist comments and I squirm in my chair, miserably caught between my values as a human and my experience of what is effective in a therapist. When she launches into a political rant, which is not uncommon in spite of my best efforts, I find myself backing up so far I could tip myself right out my window. I feel pissed off, defensive, and, weirdly, a little afraid.

I have a lot of theory at my disposal to think about this. Melanie Klein comes to mind most of often with this particular client, because Nancy occupies the paranoid-schizoid end of the spectrum more often than not (and oh how tempting it is to view our political differences in these developmental terms). Her world is peopled with mother and father substitutes who withhold and reject in ways that feel to her completely random and unpredictable. In this world, she is both utterly powerless and omnipotent. At a slightly different angle, her internal world (and through this lens, her external world as well) is peopled with victims, perpetrators, and passive observers. She bounces on and off these different self-concepts, always in motion, always caught within their confines. Or, afraid and disconcerted by her own aggression and hostility, she locates it in others. I think about all these things, and more, and these thoughts provide me with a little distance, a little room to process my own uncomfortable feelings, a space from which to offer observations, and, on good days, genuine empathy.

Nancy believes I am naïve about the nature of evil. She is certain that my trust in others and their motives is dangerous. Often, she accuses me of being the passive observer, allied with those who would stand by without protest and allow Jews to be herded into boxcars (and I share with her my thought that she fears I am like her mother, standing apart and not protecting her from her father’s abusiveness). For my part, I feel that, in her fantasy life at least, she would give Goebbels a run for his money. We are both right, in our way.

She hits a nerve with her accusations. It is true that I am uncomfortable with aggression and confrontation. I hope I would risk all for what is right, but confronted with risk to myself or my family, would I stand up to real evil? Or would I rationalize my cowardice? I have been fortunate enough to have had relatively few opportunities to test myself on any really grand scale, but on a smaller scale I am well aware that have sometimes been less courageous or morally upright than I would like.

The problem between us is not new, on the grand scale or the small one. Our worldviews are so wildly different that just expressing our perspectives feels like a fundamental and dangerous challenge to our disparate values and perceptions of reality. Hers is a world of impingements and threats, a world that requires constant vigilance and active self-protection. How can I say she is wrong, with all the objective evidence to the contrary? She feels like I counter the Holocaust with Sesame Street. I feel like she would be perfectly willing to napalm my village to secure her safety from the very people—gay, black, poor, Muslim, “Others”—that I wish to protect. We scare each other at a very primitive and regressed level.

What I end up doing is what we all do as therapists. It seems so simple when I write it. “You are frightened to think that I might not stand up for you if you were really in danger. You are right, I can be naïve. Is it possible sometimes you are afraid to see, or trust, what is good in people? Maybe we are sometimes both wrong, or both right.” Though it is a trial, I do not defend Obama or taxes or affirmative action or gun control or “socialist” medicine to her. I will not convince her through argument, that is certain, and there is no therapeutic gain to be had. Sometimes we are invigorated and challenged by our dialogue.

We have years between us, a small room, a therapeutic contract, and many opportunities for repair. Without this, I wonder, how easily could it happen that we would be willing to harm each other, each deeply convinced of the malign intent and potential for cruelty in the other? I fear it would be very, very easy.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy