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Why Haven’t They Called – and the Rorschach Test

In the 1930s, the Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach was seeking to understand more about the contents in the unconscious minds of his patients – when he hit upon the notion of asking them to respond to the legendary inkblot test that still bears his name. Rorschach found that ink randomly poured onto pieces of paper that are then folded ends up leaving an array of distinctive shapes behind. These shapes don’t actually represent anything, they are inherently ambiguous, but they are suggestive of a number of things in the outside world: one shape might look a bit like a bird, another might resemble a fish or a cloud. The interpretations they can give rise to are almost infinite – which was precisely the point in Rorschach’s eyes.

By being shown an ambiguous image and asked to say what came to mind, Rorschach believed that we would naturally reveal some of our latent guiding fears, hopes, prejudices and assumptions. The test would be a guide to how patients really felt about themselves and the world. Any Rorschach inkblot image will have no one true meaning, but different people will see different things in it according to what their past and underlying mentality predisposes them to imagine. 

So, to one individual with a warm childhood and a rather kindly and forgiving conscience, the image below could be seen as a sweet mask, with eyes, floppy ears, a covering for the mouth and wide flaps extending from the cheeks. Another, more traumatised by a domineering father, might see it as a powerful figure viewed from below, with splayed feet, thick legs, heavy shoulders and the head bent forward as if poised for attack.

The image isn’t in itself of anything, but what we end up saying that it ‘is’ or that it ‘means’ is really a story about us – not an account of what is going on in the real world.

Many situations we encounter in life have something important in common with Rorschach inkblot tests: we don’t quite know what they mean. They are ambiguous. The facts are unknown – and could point in a whole host of directions. For example: someone is late, but we don’t know why. Or someone has asked to see us, but we don’t yet have a reason. Of these ambiguous situations, none is more painful, more intensely scrutinised or more telling of the state of our own self-worth, than what we can call the missing phone call.

Let’s imagine we met someone at a party a few days back. They seemed friendly. They smiled a bit. We couldn’t tell for sure if there was a spark of interest in them – or indeed quite how much there might have been in us. But there was a little something there for sure. On parting, we exchanged numbers and they promised to give us a call.  But that was a few days ago now, and still there has been nothing.

We are deep in an ambiguous situation where we don’t know what something means – and in this sense, we are right back to Rorschach’s inkblot test. Because we can’t solidly interpret the meaning of the silence, what then starts to count is what is in our unconscious. If our unconscious mind is benign, if we broadly like ourselves and trust the world, then the missing phone call can be interpreted benevolently: probably they’re busy, maybe they had a partner and thought twice of it, maybe they’ll get around to it next month, perhaps they lost our number… 

But if on the other hand our self-esteem is low, and our past predisposes us to feel unworthy and unlovable, then the interpretation will be quite different: now the ambiguous ‘inkblot’ comes to represent something altogether more sinister. It’s proof of what we are always on the verge of suspecting; that we are unworthy, that no one can ever love us, that we are disgusting and it’s only a matter of time till everyone finds out, that it’s a joke to even imagine that anyone could delight in us: that we are – in essence – unloveable.

What we need to cling on to fervently at such moments is the moral of the Rorschach test: that we just don’t know – and that what we’re saying we can ‘see’ is actually a projection from the past, not an assessment of reality. We don’t, and never will know the facts. All we have is pure ambiguity and what we’re doing in the absence of information is projecting ideas that say far more about us than they do about the motives or circumstances of the person who hasn’t called (and which we’ll never know). 

We need to be kind to ourselves; the missing phone call isn’t yet another proof of our wretched, unloveable condition. It isn’t one more harbinger of unkindness and sadism. It is – through adult objective kindly eyes – one thing above all else: a missing phone call for reasons we’ll never know and should never presume we can know. The catastrophe we fear will happen, that no one will love us, has already happened, long ago. We don’t need to keep seeing monsters in every inkblot and every missing appointment.

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