Flying Dutchman Syndrome is the Pact You Make to Play Out Projections Like Theater

A nautical look at the impact of the parent-child bond on your sense of self + strategies for docking the ship

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

If you’d like to experience unbounded psychological freedom and the capacity to enjoy the present free of limitations from the past, reflect on whether you have flying Dutchman syndrome.

The flying Dutchman is a legend about a cursed ship with a ghost captain doomed to sail the oceans, forever unable to port. However, every seven years the captain’s curse is lifted. He gets six months on shore. If, during this period, the captain finds a woman who loves him enough to die for him, he gets unhooked from the curse. If he fails, he’s back at sea.

If you’re a member of the human race, you too have a vessel you’re trying to dock. The difference between living on land and forever sailing the seas depends on whether you’ve successfully withdrawn the projections you’ve cloaked onto your parents or children. If you don’t, you’re risking a smoke screen of misapprehension between yourself and everyone you interact with.

How to embrace your archaic identity without getting waterlogged

Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung wrote that every person projects implicit models onto those they interact with based on an architecture of primordial images common to all humans. He believed that this network, the collective unconscious, formed the foundation for the individual human psyche. Jung’s theory of projection was an elaboration on his analysis of the archaic identity or participation mystique, a phrase he borrowed from anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl.

According to Archetype: A Natural History of the Self by Anthony Stevens, Jung believed that parents and children engage in this participation mystique, or the mutual activation of archetypes in each other’s psyches. Conflict occurs when the activation of these archetypes gets repeatedly thwarted.

When the parent fails to embody the child’s in-built mother or father archetype, or the child doesn’t align with parent’s puer aeternus (Latin for eternal boy), participation mystique breaks down. When such a breakdown becomes pervasive, a person goes on what Stevens calls a “flying Dutchman quest,” or an unconscious pursuit of anyone who exhibits archetypal characteristics of the mother, father, or child they didn’t get to know and love.

“Children begin by loving their parents; after a time they judge them; rarely, if ever, do they forgive them.” Oscar Wilde

Stevens explains this state of disillusionment like this: “When actualization has been deficient, [a person] finds themselves, despite their conscious will in the matter, sucked into personal involvements and situations which promise to bring to light characteristics adequate for the constellations of the un-lived archetypal elements.” While the captain of the flying Dutchman must find someone willing to die for him to finally dock his ship, parents and children cling to their projections, slapping them onto anyone interesting, until they can disentangle their ego from their caregivers. When the people they idealize also thwart the archetypal containers they’ve been squeezed inside, conflicts occur, and the quest continues.

Recognize your own flying Dutchman quest

“We seek our medication according to the configuration of a wound.”-Charles Eisenstein

Flying Dutchman syndrome manifests in two distinct ways: On one level, your interactions with your children or caregivers will be saturated with conflict. You’ll feel a sense of pushing against a big metal door. No matter what you say or do, nothing changes. Neither party understands each other.

The corollary to this disharmonious parent-child dynamic manifests in the following way: as you meet new people, you’ll transpose the unmet needs and hurts associated with your parents onto new relationships. You’ll struggle to disassociate your projections from the person in front of you, interpreting their behavior in order to put the sting into all the wounds you haven’t yet addressed. With your defenses ready for action, you fall consistently into self-fulfilling prophesies.

So, before you create harmonious intimate relationships, you’ll need to withdraw your archetypes and relate with your parents and children for who they really are, not to your conception of who they should be. This isn’t easy, of course, because those conceptions are only the surface-level manifestations of a network of unconscious coordinates.

Stevens describes four distinct ways that the parent-child dynamic unfolds:

1. The parent withdraws their projections and the child does not;

2. The child withdraws their projections and the parent does not;

3. Both withdraw their projections simultaneously;

4. Both persist in their projections and never withdraw them.

If number three on this list isn’t feasible, you can still benefit immensely from being the party who parks the ship. Seeing your projections as projections, not the cold, naked, and sweating truth, can help you engage with the other person with far-reaching clarity and intention.

So how can you engage with people instead of projections? Start journaling. Get your thoughts in front of you by writing without restraint or judgment, and do so long enough to dip into the subconscious. You will learn more about the inner conflicts and conversations driving your reactions and perspectives. When you journal, you’ll also see differences between the confabulations and the subterranean conflicts that are truly to blame for your inertia, confusion, pettiness, and anger.

How long it takes to dip into the subconscious which will differ depending on how often you write. For some, writing 300 words is enough to unearth long-repressed understandings, for others, 2,700 barely scratches the surface. The point is to consider reflection the most-self respecting act you can engage in.

If you want to dock the ship, remember this

“People talk about how there are no frontiers left anymore; actually it isn’t true, you can turn your living room into the helm of Magellan’s ship, it’s simply that the great unexplored dimensions are internal and psychological.” — Terence McKenna

The better you know yourself, the less it matters whether those around you have withdrawn their projections about you. If you commit to constant reflection, soon it’s going to take significantly fewer emotional or intellectual resources to interact with people beyond the limits of your projections, even if those you interact with are still overlaying projections onto you.

The truth is that your psyche is a repository of secrets. You contain all the hardships, regrets, insights, and heartbreaks of your ancestors and the human race at large. You consciously and unconsciously bear the burden and celebrate the successes of everyone who came before you.

When you begin to approach your own mind as you would an intriguing stranger, the world around you shifts. You’ll automatically engage in activities that align with the person you’re becoming, leaving behind the artifacts of your early struggles.

A friend of paradigm shifts, human nature, creativity, systems change, hypnotic language, guitar, & subconscious mind reprogramming. Talk to me at

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