Projection: Know Your Inner Experience

Projection: Know Your Inner Experience

Primitive Emotional Defenses

One of the ways that people avoid taking responsibility for their role in their own pain is what I call the BPs – blame and projection.
–Iyanla Vanzant

Projection and projective identification are very common, and very primitive emotional defenses. That is, I use projection to defend myself against certain emotions I may feel, or certain qualities I may possess or certain desires I may have which I may find deeply painful. So painful, in fact, that I cannot possibly tolerate them inside myself. I must split them off from my conscious awareness and experience these things in another person. This person is usually someone close to me but not always. In general, the closer someone is to me emotionally, or the closer I WANT them to be, the more likely it is that I will unconsciously project upon them. I can then hate or fear those feelings, desires or qualities in the other person rather than myself.

If You Spot It…

It is from this very human process that novelist Hermann Hesse derived his famous aphorism. He wrote, “If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. What isn’t part of ourselves doesn’t disturb us.” Notice how that reads. Hesse could not have created a more succinct description of projection. The sole modification to make here is that in projection, it’s too often true that the thing we hate in another is not actually PRESENT in another. We have put that quality or emotion there to avoid it in ourselves.

Cue the Projection

It’s worth noting that very often if we are projecting something into another so that we can experience it in them, they may not quite get the unconscious message. In this case, we will unconsciously CUE them to act out the projection. This way we can experience the projection fully outside of ourselves. A simple example: I am very angry, but when I was a child, anger not allowed in my family, so I find the experience very painful and frightening. Thus, I project my anger into my partner so I can accuse them of being angry. Except, my partner isn’t quite playing along so I have to cue them to play by provoking them to anger. If you think about it carefully, this is a common experience for many people.

Why Would We Do This?

We engage in this behavior for at least two reasons. First, because It’s plausibly far less painful to experience our unwanted feelings, desires, or qualities in another person, where we can hate them or fear them in relative emotional safety than it is to experience those same things inside ourselves. Second, because human beings are inherently social creatures – no human does very well emotionally in isolation – projection is a rather obvious way for one person to help out another: if we accept someone’s projection, we are helping them in their effort to split off a part of themselves they cannot tolerate.  We allow them to hate that part of themselves in us and thus we do them a very large emotional favor.

A Tormenting Inner Experience

Here is one powerful illustration of the first reason. In his book People of the Lie, M. Scott Peck proposed that many sudden, unexplained suicides might well be caused by a person, usually deeply–but not necessarily obviously–emotionally disturbed, by some means, getting in full contact with the dark, unwanted chaos of their inner experience, and that contact is so painful such a person immediately ends their own life. If we are willing to stipulate to the possible existence of such people, it is easy to imagine them projecting constantly, in a desperate attempt to be rid of so much tormenting inner experience. If it comes to pass that such people do contact their inner experience directly, the pain of that would be so severe that death as soon as possible would seem the only solution.

The Polarized Couple

The second reason we do this grows out of our common yearning for harmony. If someone is feeling bad because of their inner experience, as social creatures we naturally want to relieve that someone of their suffering. This reason for projection and accepting projections has all the markers of an evolutionary adaptation. We can see it perhaps most clearly in what Jung called the “Wounded Couple” or the “Polarized Couple.” In the Polarized Couple, the intimate partners have each split off unwanted, unacceptable parts-of-themselves that complement and are accepted by one another. For example, we may see an intimate couple where one person owns all the aggression and competence in the relationship, and the other person owns all the warmth and vulnerability. If you think about it, you’ve probably seen this quite a bit. Additionally, this kind of couple may be reinforced in their mutual projections by societal gender stereotypes.

The Couple Vs. a Healthy Person

As a single social unit, the couple may be highly effective in life. They own each other’s projections and protect each other from deeply painful inner feelings or qualities. This is, in certain ways, a highly functional unconscious arrangement for a couple to make, to own each other’s split off qualities. Problems arise here though. If you think about it, such a couple is going through life as a WHOLE, SINGLE person might. A healthy human does NOT unconsciously split off unacceptable aspects-of-self. An emotionally healthy person surfaces painful inner experiences and takes responsibility for them. Emotionally healthy people address them, work through them, and INTEGRATE all aspects of self into a powerful whole. This is the life-work of a conscious person.

Projection in the Workplace

If we look at how projection works in more general social and professional situations, consider the phrase at many workplaces “we’re a family.” This is, in a way, classic projection. Work is not a family. Ever. But I may identify my father or mother in my supervisor, I may ascribe to my supervisor all the good and bad qualities of my parent.  I may identify siblings in co-workers. I may identify my other family members in people I work with. This is all too common, and it’s often a recipe for disaster. Because, of course, my boss is NOT my parent, nor are my co-workers my siblings. But if I’m projecting qualities of those people onto my co-workers, I may well be assuming qualities in those co-workers that do not, in fact, exist.

The Therapeutic Alliance

Projection is often at work in the therapeutic alliance. As the therapist and client move closer to each other, inevitably, as a result of the alliance, the client or the therapist might well start to project inner parts-of-self onto the other. This can turn into a serious problem if the therapist is unconsciously projecting onto the client, or accepting projections from the client without realizing it. Projection in the therapeutic alliance can also be a great opportunity to co-create change if the therapist can accept or decline the client’s projections in a pro-therapeutic way.

Some Projection Homework

This week, explore the problems and possibilities of projection and projective identification. Do we come from families in which there was a lot of projection? How do we then carry that through the world? What kinds of projections do we send or receive?  How might we project our inner experience outward, into others, and experience it there, where it’s easier and safer to do so? Can we become more acutely aware of our inner world, and thus begin to take back all parts of ourselves in service of becoming more emotionally intelligent and healthy and effective in the world?

Awareness and the Inner Experience

There is an inverse correlation between being aware of and knowing my inner experience and my projecting. If I am thoroughly aware of my inner experience at all times, I will very seldom project anything outward. This is because I am owning all parts of myself. The bad with the good. The painful and the pleasant. That which may shame me and that which makes me feel valuable. If my inner experience is chaotic, or I have very little ability to know my inner experience–because I simply haven’t learned to how to know it–I will do a LOT of projecting, as a way to make sense of my existence and/or avoid emotional confusion and pain. How well do we know our inner experience? Do we have ways of knowing it? Or is that entire process a mystery?

Make the Change: Forgiveness, Part 2

Make the Change: Forgiveness, Part 2

Forgiving Too Easily

“Change is the end result of all true learning.” ~Leo Buscaglia

Forgiveness is a tricky business, enough so that we want to expand on our blog from early April. This week an interesting essay by Annette Roberts from Tiny Buddha leads us through the problem of forgiveness. I want to quote a bit from the essay and comment as we explore further the road Roberts has walked toward, around, and beyond forgiveness. Roberts describes her life in childhood, and forgiveness came easily in her family:

“When people were hurtful or insulting or inconsiderate, I didn’t take it too personally and didn’t hold grudges. I tried to see it from their perspective; I just assumed whatever they did had nothing to do with me or they had things going on in their life. Or I assumed they were trying their best at the time.”

Roberts is describing a very common problem with forgiveness. As she develops her essay, she describes a life in which she forgives FAR too easily. Or, maybe more accurately, far too quickly. Roberts bounces through life, forgiving people right, left and center, without ever really thinking much about what she is doing.

The Danger of Forgiving Too Soon

It develops that as a young adult Roberts ended up in court on a misdemeanor charge. Surprisingly, she had violated a restraining order against her taken out by an ex-boyfriend. She pinched the ex-boyfriend during a fight and now she was in trouble for it. She relates the all-too-common story of a bad relationship gone very wrong. In doing so, she realizes something profoundly important: she had been forgiving her ex, and many other people in her life, far too easily. She had been forgiving them BEFORE she had fully felt and integrated the injury these people had done to her. This includes the righteous anger she would have felt toward them for that injury. Her ex-boyfriend had hurt her in many ways but she had just “forgiven” all of it. She didn’t take the time to feel her anger toward him deeply, down where she lived.

Carrying the Weight

Forgiveness is important because without it we end up carrying around a lot of weight that doesn’t do us much good. At the same time, forgiving too soon, too easily, also leaves us with a weight, the weight of unaddressed, unfelt anger and hurt. When we don’t forgive at all, we nurse our rage and hurt. Furthermore, when we forgive too easily we IGNORE our rage and hurt, trying to act as if it is no longer there.

Roberts comes to an insightful realization from this:

“Forgiveness—expected and given willy-nilly—if it is too easy, that can mean you can miss the lesson.

It can mean you don’t make the change.

You don’t up your game, you don’t alter the gear, you don’t recognize the necessity for more effort, more time, more learning, changed behavior—either from yourself or someone else. You go back to doing the same thing over and over again; staying stuck in the same habit, the same place. You don’t grow; you stagnate [and] continue unhelpful habits.

If someone hurts you or you hurt them, and it changes nothing about either of you or your relationship, you or they are likely to be hurt again. Pain can help to figure out what went wrong, what boundary was crossed.

Easy forgiveness can sometimes mean you put yourself back in the way of the bus that just mowed you down, making yourself vulnerable to disrespect from yourself and others—bullies, people who take advantage of you.”

Make the Change

She points out that easy forgiveness is, essentially, an act of laziness. If we forgive without feeling the pain of hurt first, and effectively, we are never really forced to learn the lesson, never forced to make the CHANGE. If the experience of being hurt or injured in some way by another person, and the experience of forgiving them is not significant work, then there is no learning and no change. THAT becomes the lost opportunity of hurt and forgiveness. Read the entire essay, it’s worth your time. This week, explore the complex nature of forgiveness. There is little doubt that emotional problems can be exacerbated by a confused relationship with forgiveness, and someone with a substance use problem is almost certainly slogging through a disorienting swamp of forgiveness and being forgiven.

Judgment: The Consequences of Knowing

Judgment: The Consequences of Knowing

From Unknowing to Knowing

If “unknowing” leads us to non-judgment, then “knowing” leads us to judgment. If we think we know something, we start judging everything and everyone around us in the light of our “knowing.” Our “knowing” or “certainty” coupled with the inevitable judging that goes with them always leads to suffering. The Buddha said that “a day spent judging another is a painful day. A day spent judging yourself is a painful day.” Conversely, time spent unknowing, in non-judgment, may lead to a cessation of suffering.

Judgment Closes Doors

Knowing may involve an opening up to new possibility, but more often knowing takes the form of a certainty that closes doors and makes our world smaller rather than larger. What is a judgment that always accompanies certainty? It is a decision we make about the inherent nature or quality of communication, a thing, or a person. It is a decision of right or wrong, bad or good. An assumption. Judgment always has, or is part of, some agenda. What if we were able to drop all of that, and let things be as they are? What then?

Criticism = Judgment + Demand

Probably one of the most personally corrosive things to emerge from a state of knowing and its judgments is criticism. What is criticism? Well, it is an essentially emotional statement that contains a judgment and a demand. All criticism is made of these two things, although often the judgment and demand are camouflaged in some way. It’s also worth remembering that self-criticism, while occasionally useful, is more often as corrosive to our progress and growth as any criticism we might make of another person.

Converting Criticism into Effective Communication

A plain, albeit relatively mild, criticism might sound like this:

“I really wish you would wash the dishes every day. You are such a slob for not doing it!”

The demand: wash the dishes. The judgment: you’re a slob. Simple enough. Think about how it works as effective communication, though. Not well, most of the time. Inevitably the object of this communication will become defensive, even hostile and my criticism of them will not only be an abject failure in achieving my goal – consistent washing of the dishes – it will likely make things worse between us. A better way: dispense with the criticism and do something different. More effective communication might be: “When you don’t wash the dishes I feel angry, sad and dismissed.” I talk about myself, not about the potential object of my criticism. This seems simple enough but it can also be quite powerful in getting my partner, say, to actually listen to what I’m saying, and is less likely to provoke defensiveness or a fight.

Some Homework

So how do we experience our “knowings” and the judgments that follow from them? Is judging pleasant or unpleasant? How does constantly judging everything and everyone help or hurt us? M. Scott Peck once observed that “The quality of our judgments determines the quality of our lives.” While this is true, it’s crucial that we are all deeply aware of our inner experience driving our judgments and how we can communicate our judgments in a way that they can actually be heard and considered seriously. This week, explore judgment in all its manifestations and what it might be like to judge less and observe more, including judging ourselves. Does more judgment really result in more suffering? Is the converse true? Consider if judgment and criticism make us more distant from other people, more alone, or if less judgment and criticism bring us closer to others and to ourselves.