Psychological projections are ordinary human things, like breathing. It’s what we do with our projections that can lead to good or ill.
Projections are tricky business. Some part of me of which I’m unaware appears to be about you. But it’s not. It’s about me. But, in the moment, I don’t know that. Because all the emotional evidence points to you. It feels like I’m responding to you. But I’m responding to me.
Psychological projections are a fact of life. All human relationships eventually include projections. And, because projections are by definition unconscious, no amount of self-awareness can make them stop happening. The trick is to be willing to become aware of them as soon as possible when they happen.
How? Here’s the general rule: Whenever I have an especially powerful emotional reaction to someone or some thing, I remind myself there’s a good bet the experience includes projection. That is, I’m not merely encountering the person or the thing; I’m encountering some part of myself about which I’m largely or even completely unaware.
Again, projections aren’t bad things of themselves. Projections, responsibly faced, are of great benefit to those who desire a growing, authentic selfhood. The benefit is that, once I recognize a projection, I have the choice to “pull it back” and integrate it into my core, to make this part of me more intentional and dynamic. Now the chances increase that I can act instead of react. I become more in charge of me.
Projections come in two forms: positive and negative.
Positive projections include falling in love, spontaneous sexual attraction, going gah-gah over a celebrity, and the powerful emotions evoked by paintings, photographs, great novels, dance, music and other art mediums.
Positive projections are very pleasurable. And very important. But we don’t want to get stuck there. In interpersonal relationships, for example, getting stuck in positive projections puts a lot of pressure on the subject of your projection. You tend to “put people on pedestals.” Healthy people don’t like that. Pedestals are lonely places. Great love affairs often begin this way, but, to survive, thrive and grow, it’s important to move through these projections and see your mate more realistically.
I look back on my days as an Episcopal priest. The title that comes with a master’s degree in theology is “the Reverend” Steven Kalas. Sheesh. Like me, if you do. Appreciate me, if you do. Love me, even. But please don’t revere me. Not if you want to be close to me. Not if you want to know me.
Negative projections range from unhappy to destructive and even dangerous.
In the 1988 film “Mississippi Burning,” an FBI agent tells the story of growing up in the Deep South. His father poisoned the mule of a black farmer, ruining the farmer’s livelihood. “That racism is a terrible thing,” observed his fellow agent. “Racism?” says the Southern agent, his face a collision of scorn and amusement. “It wasn’t racism. My daddy was just too stupid and ignorant to know that it was poverty that was killing him.”
A powerful insight. Racism is a negative projection, either individually or out of the collective society.
The opening line of the 1986 film “Platoon” is a Vietnam veteran saying, “Looking back, I think we were fighting ourselves.” Wow. Is that possible? Can a country go to war convinced in a noble cause, only to find that some part of the impetus was a collective projection?
The band Blue October released the song “Hate Me” in 2006. It’s a song about a relationship suffering from a negative projection:
Hate me today/ Hate me tomorrow/ Hate me for all the things I didn’t do for you/ Hate me in ways/ In ways hard to swallow/ Hate me so you can finally see what’s good for you.
Parent/child relationships simply beg for projection! Let me put my tongue in my cheek and say that it’s unlikely your child is either the Baby Jesus or the Antichrist. It’s unlikely that your mother is The Madonna or altogether evil. My constant mantra as a father is “My children are not me. … My children are not me.” They are not mine. They are themselves and belong only to themselves.
Ever decide you’re in love after one date? Ever have an instant antipathy for someone you just met? There’s a good bet you’re projecting. If you’re willing to pay attention, these moments can pay off in the growth of selfhood.
The only alternative is that the subjects of our projections will be forced to pay the price for our pernicious oblivion.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 227-4165 or skalas@ reviewjournal.com.