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When Spiritual Relationships Go Awry – Part IV

digitalcoverZOMany people who come to enter codependent relationships with their teachers are–consciously or unconsciously–seeking to empower themselves by associating with a powerful figure. They project all the qualities they feel are lacking in themselves onto the teacher: perseverance, wisdom, enlightenment, strength, and so on. They become fixated on the belief that they can only develop these qualities the closer they are to the teacher.

Making the teacher their therapist, lover, or main confidante in their lives is seen as healing themselves from their sense of lack and inadequacy. Power is highly seductive in these constellations and easily becomes eroticized. The teacher is seen as the one who has the upper hand in all matters. But it is important to remind ourselves that she or he is not.

In her excellent article “Boundary Violations and the Abuse of Power,” psychoanalyst Andrea Celenza interprets the power relationship between analyst and analysand (which is applicable to the relationship between teacher and student) as rooted in three important basic conditions. She speaks of “the seductiveness of the analyst’s power,” which is derived from its setting: Here the seeker who wants something, there the teacher who has something to give.

It is the most fundamental power play a person can get into, because it mirrors the parental relationships. Secondly, there is the metaphorical nature of the power derived by the analytic/spiritual role, which is “to hold and penetrate.” And finally “power is sexy because it always was, i.e., because this is the way love was experienced in its first instantiation. We are born into a power relation, directing our first loving feelings toward those who have a temporal advantage, to those (parents or a parent) who have come before, so to speak. To be in a relationship with a person more powerful than oneself activates memories and expectations of love relationships structured around a power imbalance, of which the parent-child experience is the prototype.”

Empowerment is the key task of every teacher, if he or she is to work successfully with a student. But true psychological empowerment cannot be achieved by continuing the fantasy that personal power will somehow be transferred onto the student if only she or he spends enough time with the teacher, or morphs into the teacher’s clone. Students often easily transfer their power onto a teacher or a spiritual organization. They put all their trust in them, and in the process give up all responsibility for their own lives.

The belief in one’s weakness becomes a power tactic in itself. By displaying only the fragile parts of the self, the student remains in an ongoing state of disempowerment. She or he signals the teacher not to hurt them but in the process may render the person in authority unable to communicate authentically. This is how a teacher gets stuck in a nurturing position and has to make a conscious effort to not infantilize, but instead to challenge the student so she or he can tap into their own strength.

Some students give up all the power they have previously attained in their lives, hoping that, if they offer it to their idealized teacher, it will be renewed and replenished and enhanced in ways that will enable them to transcend all difficulties they have in their personal lives. Rejecting the ongoing offerings of love is ultimately what empowers the student.

Many students fantasize that becoming a teacher themselves will give them status and power. Just by wearing the robe, or by having the title of dharma heir, they will be elevated to a role that inherently makes them adored and healed in a way that their lives suddenly will be meaningful and without problems. But power cannot be transferred through dharma talks or even the symbolic act of dharma transmission. It can only be achieved by the continuous dismantlement of the inherent belief that the student is inferior and powerless–and by assuming responsibility for one’s own life.

Many people see power in a hierarchical way, as dominance, mastery, or command over others–or, looked at from the other side, as something lacking, vulnerable, inferior, weak. But there is another form of power that is not dependent on the relationship to another person. It is personal power, a sense of inner strength and integrity that represents the power to do something, rather than the power over someone else. “Power originates from a deep psychological source, from the very center of the self,” writes psychoanalyst Ester Person in her highly readable work Feeling Strong. “Power that we can own derives more from a strong sense of self than any position we might hold.”

Compliance and defiance are distortions of interpersonal power. Trying to please someone who seems to “have it all” disempowers because it caters to another person. Power is the ability to act, to try to reach whatever goal we have in mind. The way to get to this place is self-understanding, because it enables us to shake off past learned behaviors and enter new paths of relating and growth. The basic tools to tap into this power are already in us. “Power comes from intelligence, resourcefulness, likeability, creativity, availability, persistence. . . love, compassion, forgiveness, humility,” writes Person. Who among us doesn’t already possess some of these qualities? But we give them up voluntarily in the belief that someone else’s perceived perfection can finally make us whole.

Psychoanalyst Carl Jung believed that much of how we perceive others to be is a projection of our own fears, hopes, thoughts, and beliefs. It has been said that the Dalai Lama too has stated that “all of life is a projection.” We experience ourselves as powerless even though we do have power somewhere in our lives. We were able to grow up, find a profession, form relationships. But these powers are forgotten when we compare ourselves to others.

Yet they are within us. But then we split them off and project them outwards, just as we do in idealization. We split off both, the positive and the negative parts of ourselves and project them onto the teacher. Initially they were the intelligent and compassionate ones, even though we have carried these traits with us all along. We were the ones who felt inept, fallible, like hungry ghosts. When we go through an experience of betrayal, this whole world is turned upside down. That is when we become righteous and victimized, and they turn into villains and traitors.

Whenever someone stirs up intense emotions, we have to look inside and see whether projection is at work. Whatever we become infatuated with, whatever we become enraged by, lies somewhere within ourselves. This doesn’t mean that teachers are off the hook, and that betrayal isn’t a very real occurrence. But we tend to fail to turn the mirror onto ourselves and see just how much we project onto the world. Nobody can make us feel a certain way without our participation.

Looking at our own projections is extremely painful and not easily achieved. The mind blocks off these important insights to protect our psychological self from pain. But it is an important tool on our way to penetrate the confusion of our minds and to become fully ourselves. Jung wrote, “Why it is so desirable that a man should be individuated? Not only is it desirable, it is absolutely indispensable, because, through his contamination with others, he falls into situations and commits actions, which bring him into disharmony with himself. . . . When a man can say of his states and actions, ‘As I am, so I act,’ he can be at one with himself, even though it be difficult, and he can accept responsibility for himself even though he struggles against it.”

If we can slowly introduce ourselves to the concept, working with our projections is a highly valuable tool to attain self knowledge. Jung understood that we can’t pretend or force our projections to just go away. That would be another form of spiritual bypassing. He writes, “The recognition of something as projection should never be understood as a purely intellectual process. Intellectual insight dissolves a projection only when it is ripe for dissolution. But when it is not, it is impossible to withdraw libido from it by an intellectual judgment or by an act of will.”

This means that we simply can’t avoid being hung up on a teacher or professor or some other  idealized person for a while, because we have to process all the emotions that come with it. Intellectual knowledge is no substitute for the process of emotionally working through one’s past trauma. There is no shortcut to enlightenment. 

Growing up is a painful process, and the longer we try to transfer the responsibilities that come with it onto another, seemingly stronger person, the longer it takes to become fully oneself. Yet this is the reward of having to go through all this pain: empowerment, self knowledge, and having a shot at becoming a fully realized being.


When Spiritual Relationships Go Awry – Part IV

Gerti Schoen, MA, LP

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APA Reference
Schoen, G. (2013). When Spiritual Relationships Go Awry – Part IV. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 8, 2020, from


Last updated: 14 Apr 2013
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