Parataxic [par-uh-tak-sik] distortion is term coined by american psychiatrist Harry S. Sullivan to explain the inclination to skew perceptions of others based on fantasy. The ‘distortion’ is in the perception of others, based not on actual experience with the individual but from a projected fantasy personality. For example: when one falls in love they can create an image of the person as the ‘perfect match’ or ‘soul mate’ only to find out later the person did not match the original perception.
The fantasy personality is created in part from experience and from emotional stress. The stress of forming a new relationship or finding a life mate, where one contemplates reproduction, can be seen as stress, although it is perceived as pleasurable. ‘Falling in love’ can create the atmosphere where parataxic distortion is primarily involved in the perception of the object of affection. It is possible in these situations for chemical influences to play a role in the process.
Parataxic (Greek: ‘placement side by side’) distortion also results when the therapist’s evaluation of the client is affected by past experiences, either clinical or in life. For example, a particular trait of a female client might remind the therapist of his or her own mother and therefore distort the perception of the individual. Parataxic distortion is very difficult to avoid completely, because of the nature of human learning and interaction. Media could also be a source of parataxic distortion, for example, stereotyping of a drug addict as having certain traits and personality components can have an impact on the clear assessment of a client with a history of substance abuse. This sort of stereotyping and classification of people in groups has a distorting effect on the clear perception of an individual.
The tendency to distort the perceptions one has of others can and generally interfere with interpersonal relationships. Humans are constantly and subconsciously stereotyping. According to professor of communications Paul Martin Lester, ‘our brains naturally classify what we see, we can’t help but notice the differences in physical attributes between one person and another.’ Parataxic distortion run parallel to stereotyping while it remains in the subconscious. As we use our affect to make quick judgments, we are drawing from previous experiences that have been stored in our memory. When parataxic distortion occurs, it can be a positive emotion at first. Leading one to believe false expectations.
Parataxic distortion can begin its stages of development as an infant. Infants have decent long-term memory. They could relate their mother’s personality of nurturing when they were a child to a girl they have found attractive later in life. This could build a stronger bond and connection because the girl is being positively reinforced by the positive attributes that child perceived from his mother. This example of attachment theory correlates with Parataxic Distortion.
It has been studied that adults are beginning to display attachment styles in romantic settings. This can lead to negative effects in a relationship. When someone decides on an image to associate another individual with, it is difficult to be detached from that thought. It is almost like having an addiction. Something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming. This can lead to anxiousness and insecurity. It can also lead to personality changes because they are so consumed by their relational life. People begin to adapt to the images they have created for other people. Because some people see reproduction as a stressor, it can create a fantasy within someone’s head that someone is right for them. If a thirty year old is trying to find a partner to start a life with, and they are having no luck, then they might resort to parataxic distortion unconsciously to create an image that someone is perfect. They will see another person as they wish to see them instead of who that someone really is.
Based on past experiences, we can create a negative or positive image as we see other people. We are constantly meeting and interacting with new people and we make generalizations about that person and find common ground to relate with them. This can lead to parataxic distortion because they could draw from their memory bank that someone reminds them of a particular person. If they do not like the person they relate them to in their head then it will influence their judgment on whether or not they will like the person they are interacting with.
If someone just got a divorce and is starting to date other people and they come across someone that they are interested in. After getting to know the person they start making judgments and inferences that the new person has the same personality as their ex-wife. This could be either positive or negative depending on how the person wants to see it. They could be perceived as negative because the person and the ex-wife divorced; however, it could be seen in light because they were together for a long period of time so they know that they would hit it off.
Dealing with current situations or current people that relate to a past event or remind someone of a person from the past can have negative effects on a human from an emotional standpoint. If the person from the past was a negative figure or the past event had a negative influence on a person, the person may create a self-sense of identity for the new individual that they have met. The negative emotional response happens when the individual realizes that they have been creating a fake identity for the new individual. Parataxic distortion is also often seen by physiologists. For example, if a child is mistreated by his or her father, the child may not only attach the fear and anger towards the father but will also relate this fear and anger to other men that look, talk or act like the father. The human mind keeps track of situations that we have encountered in the past to help us deal with future situations. The unconscious memory, without our knowing, helps us understand and deal with situations in the present that we have dealt with in the past. Parataxic distortion and our unconscious mind make us act the same way in current situations as we did in past without even realizing it.
When a person uses parataxic distortion as a defense mechanism, it is to protect one from the feeling or consequences from a past event. These events are stored deep inside the brain and kept open to be drawn from, if needed. A person may not even remember a certain event but will act a certain way to protect from an outcome with the use of parataxic distortion. The use of distortion at this level is always pathological and makes coping with reality impossible for the individual. The gross reshaping of reality in order to cope with internal struggles makes an individual seem irrational and insane to people in the outside world. Parataxic Distortion used as a defense mechanism starts in childhood and continues through adulthood, if not properly treated. The major problem with using this distortion as a defense mechanism is that the individual will create a non-realistic world that nobody can interact with or understand.