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?