Negative and Positive Projected Importance

An account of how I learned to be a helping professional – not an instruction manual, but a prompt for you to explore your own story .

When I first took up the authority role as a trainee probation officer, I soon had to come to terms with the preconceptions people applied to me. Somehow, it was easier for people to accept that they were subject to negative or hostile preconceptions, given that for many offenders, their whole life had been one in which ‘authority’ only seemed to take interest in them when they were angry or putting them right for some misdemeanour. At age 23 however, life can still be rather simple and I had yet to discover the ways in which these negative patterns in relationships are interactive. It was much easier at that stage to identify with the victimhood, the offender as the misunderstood. My tutor once said that the people who did the most effective work were students – we were still mindlessly optimistic!

Of course it was puzzling in a way to find that these negative projections were not overcome by my (to me) obvious benevolence and sympathy. The positive projections though were more of a surprise. My very first client, Paul, followed me through my life for the next 10 years, finding me through moves from Exeter to Sheffield and Milton Keynes. My supervisor took me aside after this lost and highly disadvantaged young man announced he was getting married to a disturbed wheelchair bound young woman, to say that my first reaction should not be ‘oh my God, what have you done’, but ‘congratulations!’. He suggested saving this engagement with reality for a time when Paul might have had some chance of looking at it.

It is surprisingly difficult to remain aware of this habitation of other people’s projections. People in leadership roles with years of professional experience can easily lose sight of it. I had a boss once who had a habit of calling unannounced on some female managers and having ‘private’ conversations with them, seemingly oblivious to the fact that everything a boss does is observed and interpreted by staff in the light of their various preconceptions. There was one memorable occasion when he was participating in a discussion about racism with black staff and community leaders.  He had the habit of nodding encouragingly to show his responsiveness and attention to what people were saying, a habit that was useful to him when he was bored and inattentive. Unfortunately on this occasion, his attention must have wandered and he was observed to be nodding as if in agreement as someone spoke of racist and discriminating behaviours. Uproar ensued.

Certainly at the outset of my career, it would surprise me to become important to a client. This surprise I have seen in others as a real shock. One new probation officer that I was supervising, in undertaking his first social enquiry report, an apparently straightforward case chosen for that reason, was leaving the offender’s home at the end of the interview. To his surprise, the client followed him down the front path to the gate on to the road. Here he stopped the officer and told him that he was worried by the feelings of arousal he was experiencing in relation to a young pre-school child who was part of the family. So much for careful induction of a new worker!


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