Psychological projection was defined by Jung as an unconscious transfer of subjective psychic elements onto an outer subject—person or object.
Suppose someone perceived-right or wrong-his father as tyrannical. As an adult he may have the tendency not only to act in a tyrannical way but also to project in people with some authority this feature. He will be convinced-again right or wrong- that the subject of his projection is a tyrant. This is a psychological projection.(Happiness Academy Online)
As a son raised by a tyrannical mother (and an emotionally absent father) I have lately become aware that in my youth, it was my mother’s unconscious projections, both negative and positive, onto her only son that both entrapped and exaggerated the potential of my own life. She was determined to put her signature on her offspring so deeply and in 72-point type, that she quite literally forced her absolute will on the number of hours of piano practicing that were required every day from when I was five until I left for university. And within those hours, she also imposed her military marching orders on each piece, slapping the piano case with some hard instrument as an overpowering human metronome. And then, of course, there were the expected recitals, exams, and public command performances. I was convinced then, and am even more so today, that she was living her failed musical career vicariously through her dependent child. Some would refer to her as a “Hollywood mother”, determined to force her child into progeny expectations, whether or not those expectations were achievable. There were certainly situations, such as her nursing practice, in which she functioned as a diligent, compassionate, exacting professional, lauded and much sought after by suffering patients. So, whether my perceptions were right or wrong, they were indeed my indelible perceptions. As an adult, this early experience has coloured many of my perceptions, and thereby my experiences with people in authority, both male and female, but certainly more frequently among women. Projecting, unconsciously, my perception of my “tyrannical mother” onto any attitude, behaviour, belief, body language, verbal expression that even gave a faint scent of the abuse of power, I have become an over-active radar screen for even potential tyranny, whether or not the intentions of the other warranted such a reading.
Along with this aspect of my ‘projection’ dynamic, I have also valued, sometimes too highly, those expressions of support, compassion and appreciation that have been directed to me, once again, particularly from women. Having felt starved for such kindness, I have been like a moth to this often flickering light bulb, without actually acknowledging whether or not such attraction was healthy for me, or for the other. Distinguishing between authentic kindness and ‘political manipulation’, naturally, has been quite tentative, if not misinterpreted. Along the way, of course, an ex-spouse, and later a few ‘significant others’ have suffered from my form of psychic entrapment, as I became increasingly conscious that something about my way of being was ‘not working’ to put it mildly. (These early patterns neither clarify themselves, nor do they have developmental lectures and seminars in which to unpack them, in the normal course of seeking and pursuing both an education and a career! Duh!) Experience, blundering mistakes, bitter interactions, repeated reflections, and even immersion in spiritual direction and counsel might provide some light out of a tunnel and then, perhaps only a faint glimmer. Having been immersed in the white water of cascading projections for most of my first decades, like a salmon swimming to the spawning ground, up-stream, I learned that flayling and deep breathing kinds of hard work were necessary just to stay afloat. And often that hard work, including intense encounters that were at best unproductive and at worst, overwhelming, portrayed my person as the most needy nerd on the block.
Complicating my early naivety, in the realm of masculine-feminine relationships, was the daily, almost hourly presence of a father who, while compassionate and tolerant in the extreme, nevertheless, was either fearful of confronting his spouse, or chose what he considered the ‘high road’, silence, agreement, complicity, and then, when he could no longer hold his feelings in, passive aggression. As an adolescent, I was never sure when the complicity and compromise stopped and the passive aggression began. So I learned both: that men, in order to generate peace and harmony in their marriages, were long suffering, tolerant and always the compromiser, and that, if such accommodations were unreachable or unfeasible, then he resorted to P.A.
Mix into this domestic cocktail a puritan ethic that demanded physical work over mental concentration: “Don’t read, do something!” was the rallying cry of the ethic, uttered whenever I recall picking up a book (infrequently) and settling into its adventures. (You have already intuited that it was not the male parent who uttered such black-and –white commands.) An over-bearing female parent, coupled with a still silent river (or was it a swamp?) of a father, fertilized with a protestant, puritan ethic of hard work, and a maternal ambition to polish her public reputation through piano performances of her son, (and later of her only daughter), will generate complex and unresolved feeling and perceptions that are inordinately loaded, at least in my case, with unconscious projections.
Exploring Literature with high school students, we continually encountered the recurring theme of the tension between “appearance and reality”. Delving into the back stories of novels and dramas and mining, with the students, evidence that helped to inform a degree of discernment among them, for me always evoked by a silent and private pursuit of my own, pulling apart the evidence of secrecy, distortion, personal neuroses and projections that blew through our little salt-box brick bungalow, churning the gestation and the development of unknown and unacknowledged origins of my own discomfort. Overtly and almost ostentatiously church-going, scrubbed and clean were our bodies and our clothes, while underneath, there was always a raging torrent of anger, discomfort, embarrassment and even despondency that “our truth” was deeply buried and hidden from public disclosure, through both the complicity of each member of our family, and through the normalizing of secrecy that came to be our family rule. We were not living with alcoholics; we were not living with addicted adults, in the conventional definition of the word. We were not living in extreme poverty, nor were we living in squalor. In fact, our physical environment was sanitized into sterility, comparable to the operating rooms in most small town hospitals. And yet, emotionally, psychically, ethically, and most importantly, spiritually, we were living in a desert wasteland. Conflict, in the form of weeks of extended silence, without a single word being exchanged between each parent, was not unusual, or even irregular; it was so frequent that when there was what one could term normal conversation, we actually breathed differently, wondering just how long the pastoral interlude would last.
Conflicts were resolved through the only method available, apparently, maternal edict. Father did not dare to ask,
“Could we re-think this decision and talk about it some more?”
Nor did he consider, as was the case with all of his peers, seeking counsel outside the home, given the masculine requirement to fulfil the maxim: “You made your bed, now lie in it!” without public complaint or even public discussion among close friends. Questions about the length of piano practice were never a matter of discussion; they were ‘settled’ by a unilateral edict, with which I completely complied. I never recall even once uttering a voice of protest that I really wanted to ‘take a break’ and go outside to play with my friends, who would sometimes knock on our door in their attempt to ‘free’ me. Of course, it was inevitable that our public “mask” would crack, and, also apparently it would be inevitable that I would be the agent of the cracking, unknowingly: Taking my father’s half-ton truck out on a Saturday night, without formal permission, I rolled it into a large immoveable boulder, on our return from the local YWCA, where three of us had been visiting counsellors in training. The next morning, Sunday, the whole town could witness the crushed truck, blazing my father’s name, keeled over on the lot of the most prominent car dealership on the main street in town. Whether walking or driving, everyone rounded that corner almost daily, and my embarrassment was extremely difficult to hide. I doubt I was successful.
In school, I was a generally compliant student, as I found the atmosphere collegial, although I could not have described it that way then. I deeply enjoyed learning, reading, answering questions, and especially discussing the various nuances of a situation, whether in history class or in language class. Teachers, too, were collaborative, collegial, and fair disciplinarians, for the most part. ( The incident in which I was strapped, in grade four, and later punished more severely at home, is told elsewhere in this space. However, another angry, controlling female, this time the teacher, was the agent of the unwarranted punishment. I say, unwarranted, but so do all other witnesses of the event).
Later, in college, I ran up against two notable female professors, one in Child Psychology, the other in Zoology. Both had eminent and laudable credentials; both were engaged in honourable research and both were fully committed to their teaching assignments. Neither, however, even seemed to make it to my list of role model educators. And that reality was the result of no action or omission on the part of the two professors. It was, on deep and long reflection, the sole result of my own unconscious projections, about which neither they nor I were ever fully conscious. As proof of my conviction of my responsibility, I failed in my first attempt in Child Psychology as well as in a supplemental examination. The professor’s memorable quote, on appeal was, “I can only conclude that you know absolutely nothing about Child Psychology!” As far as Zoology goes, I also failed that course, and had to enrol in an alternative science course, before graduation. These were in years when I was just entering my twenties at least chronologically. Emotionally and developmentally however, I was still a very young, naive and innocent adolescent, blinded by my own painting another with a brush that neither of them deserved.
Projections are, almost predictably and universally, at root, agents of self-sabotage. People will neither know cognitively, nor acknowledge psychologically at the time of the encounters, that they are attempting to cope with another’s projection. They will, just as I and many others have done, puzzle over why things do not seem compatible. How could they be? When one comes to the table with an unseen and unknown and unacknowledged impediment to healthy compatibility, one tilts the scales in the direction of turbulence, fractiousness and potentially disappointment, if all parties remain connected.
Seeking to fill the gaps in my own development, especially those in the realm of emotional intelligence and maturity, I have fallen into unhealthy relationships with various women who, themselves, were projecting their own unconscious “hero” or “rescuer” onto me, without their, or my knowing I was the target of their projections. Of course, such encounters take inordinate amounts of psychic energy, rise to inconceivable heights of joy and fall almost immediately to deep and dark caves of disappointment.
It is no surprise then, not only that my father was handicapped and restricted from taking healthy and caring initiatives to confront his spouse’s shadow, but that millions of men and women continue to labour under the clouds of competing projections, seeking shelter where none is available, seeking solace from dried-up sources, seeking companionship from another who is also attempting to break out of her own emotional swamp. However, let’s be very clear!
There are helpful resources, reflective retreats, professional psychological and spiritual guides available and open to entering into professional relationships that can and do lead to enhanced clarity, enhanced self-awareness and thereby enhanced potential for healthy reciprocal, dialogic and collaborative, and most importantly mutually supportive relationships. That is especially not only to be sought, but also attained, with another who also acknowledges her own unconscious projections, and the role they play in her life, and relationships.
I can speak with some considerable confidence about that last statement. For the past fifteen years, I have had the good fortune to participate fully in such a relationship. Michelle has both her inner and physical eyes open to the moments when our projections sand-paper each other, and we continue to identify those moments, and seek the ‘threads of gold’ that inevitably emerge from a loving unpacking of the entanglement. Words are inadequate to express my gratitude to Michelle especially, and also to all of those whose lives have intersected with mine, less than happily and less than in complete fulfilment. Nevertheless, there is no final termination to these explorations, except death, and even after death, these projections, and those of our sons and daughters, will continue to dance in the universe of their generations.