An erupting volcano
That year my son J started his 3rd grade. At first, he was placed in a mixed class with 4th-graders. He would come home excitedly talking about how he planned to do various projects. However, two weeks after, the school reorganized the classes, and he was placed in a mixed class with 2nd-graders. That weekend, he said to me: "I don't want to go to school anymore. I already know everything they're teaching, so I'm staying home this year." On Monday morning, he refused to get out of bed and no one was able to pull him out of the bed.
Looking back, I see so many layers of emotions hit me all at once. I was angry, confused, worried, anxious, and sad. Mainly I was worrying about his future, not sure how he would make a living when he grows up.
That school year left me with memories of a long, painful tug-of-war. Every day, J was reluctantly sent to school, and when he came home, he wouldn't do any craft/project like he used to in previous years. Instead, he would start playing video games as soon as he got home. And once he started playing, he wouldn't stop.
He refused to do almost anything that I deemed to be healthy and meaningful. His grades declined compared to the previous year. Almost every day, we would have conflicts over video games, homework, or his refusal to go to school. As I looked at J, with his little face flushed red, teeth clenched, and fists turning white from the grip, I could hardly recognize him anymore. I couldn't understand how that soft and adorable little baby had turned into this erupting volcano. And the volcano ash enveloped the entire family.
Driven by the pain, I started putting a lot of effort into learning how to communicate. I knew J had always been curious about the world. He loved reading and hands-on projects. It was likely what he received from the school wasn’t satisfying him. I understood that his lack of interest in school was actually his desire for new and fresh knowledge. But I couldn’t allow him to drop out of school because of this. Even if we took him out of the educational system (and I have zero confidence in homeschooling by ourselves), I worried about how he would do when he encounters other life challenges. We can’t fix any life challenge on behalf of him.
I had been stuck, until I discovered the concept of projection.
The world we see is a reflection of that of our inner world
In the world of psychology, projection is a widely accepted phenomenon where we unconsciously transfer or attribute our own emotions or desires onto other people. Therefore, even when it seems that external events are causing our feelings, it is, in fact, the projection of our emotions from our inner world. The image below illustrates the relationship between our inner world and the outer world in our eyes.
In my case, it is a fact that J doesn’t like school. But in my eyes, this fact is wearing a hue of emotions. It’s anxiety and fear (“If he doesn’t like school, how is he going to survive in the future?”). This is actually a projection, i.e., A’.
In my inner world, the anxiety had an original form, i.e., A. In other words, anxiety A had existed for some time, no matter if J likes school or not. I then realized that, during that time I hit a bottleneck on my career path. I lost passion in what I was doing, and had no idea what the next step would be. The child’s refusal to go to school was a trigger that stimulated all the feelings.
If I dive deeper into my feelings of loss and fear, I might be able to meet α. It could be traits that we were born with, or something caused by traumatic experiences we had in our lives so far. α would usually be the object that psychotherapists work on.
A’ (in the outer world) = J doesn’t like school and I worry about his future
A (in my inner world) = I worry about my own future
α (deep in my subconscious mind) = traits and/or traumas
Now that I discovered all these, I realized this whole thing was not just about my son. It was mainly about me. In other words, the key to figuring out the whole puzzle is in my inner world. And I am the person who’s holding the key.
From this point on, I stopped my efforts trying to fix my son’s problem, i.e., trying to convince him to like school again. I shifted gear to explore: What can I do, so I would be less triggered by him (or others).
I then learned to focus attention on my own feelings and needs (self-empathy) and the feelings and needs of others (empathy for others).
The more I empathize with myself, the less painful feelings I have and the fewer times I am triggered by other people’s behavior. I also notice a larger and larger inner space for me to empathize with people around me.
Now I was able to truly understand the pain and stress J had been carrying. Young as he is, he also carries the stress he receives from society and his family (including myself). His addiction to games is his attempt to escape this stressful world. I also understood now that underneath his anger and frustration (toward going to school and learning things that he’s not interested in), it is his need for having a meaningful and fulfilling life. All these understandings made me appreciate J more, and truly believe he will have a bright future, a future that belongs to him. I know that I have the life power to be with him, even when he’s still struggling to figure out his life, and support him with my love and empathy.
Our conversations have gone much smoother and our relationship has improved so much.
The Cup of Feelings
Every one of us has a cup of feelings inside of us. Very often there are feelings such as anger, frustration, sadness, anxiety, fear, guilt, shame, depression, etc. already in the cup. When something happens to us, more feelings will be stimulated and added into this cup. From time to time, this cup is so full that some or all of the feelings spill off, causing emotional outbursts.
To avoid these emotional outbursts, which may hurt ourselves and people around us, one way is to seek help from professionals, so that the feelings inside the cup can be released regularly and maintained at a safe level. What we can also do to help ourselves is to train ourselves to be our own empathy buddy. This empathy buddy is with us 24/7 and will be ready to reflect on our feelings and needs wholeheartedly, without judgments.
With our cup of feelings as light as possible, we have the capacity to hold the feelings from other people, and meet them heart to heart.
 Bloom, L. & Bloom, C. (2019, October 2). Speculations, Assumptions, and Projections. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/stronger-the-broken-places/201910/speculations-assumptions-and-projections