The problem with social interactions: Projection

When I was a child every once in a while my family would go to the movie theater. It was a magical place full of giant images and even gianter popcorn buckets. My family would sit in a row, careful to separate myself and my younger brother, and I would bear witness to magic.

I saw space fights and pirates, I saw men fly and I saw cars race, I saw heroes save the day and villains rue the day. All these amazing images and sounds, all larger than life presented right before my wide eyes.

To give you some perspective the 20 foot tall, what looked like 100 feet wide, screen was roughly twenty times talker, and like a million times bigger, than the 12 inch screen my family had at home. This was after all in the time before flatscreens and the old tube televisions were very expensive.

I remember waiting in line for two hours to see Star Wars when it first came out, and I remember my first 3D movie, Jaws 3D. And I remember seeing a Disney movie I cannot remember the name of where the plot was essentially that an astronaut somehow went back in time and ended up in a time of knights and adventures (but I dragons).

That movie was special not for its forgettable title and equally forgettable plot line, but because that was the movie I was watching when I saw behind the curtain so to speak.

As you may imagine this movie was not all that attention grabbing for my 8 or 9 year old self and I was doing what any bored child might do. I was looking around the theater to see what everyone else was doing.

In my looking around for something more interesting than the dragon-less knight movie on the screen (who makes a movie with knights and swords and armor and doesn’t put a dragon in it????) my young attention was drawn to a small squarish window in the back wall of the theater. The opening itself was nothing special but the window (the pane of glass covering the opening) that was interesting. At first only because there was a small window, like in our house back home, inside a room I knew was inside a building and therefore needed no such thing as a window, but after a few minutes of staring at this anomaly I noticed something else.

On this small sheet of glass was the movie I was supposed to be watching on the screen in front of me!

How could this be I wondered? And why was the version of the movie in the back of the room so much smaller than the version in front of me? Oh this mystery had to be solved and I was just the man, albeit young, to do it.

I stared and I stared at the little window. Yup definitely appears to be a movie there. I darted my gaze from the little window to the big screen and back again several times. Yup definitely appears to be the same movie. But how could the same movie be in two places at the same time? And how is it slightly different on the small window in comparison to the big screen?…..

So many questions but they would have to go unanswered because my mom had noticed I was not paying attention to the movie we had paid good money to see, so my attention had to remain fixed toward the big screen. At least when she was watching me….

I remember puzzling over this mystery from time to time but it was not until a summer camp field trip a few months later that I learned there was a large camera called a movie projector in the little room behind that out of place window and that projector is actually where the movie comes from. Where it originates in the theater.

I learned many years later while in graduate school that people have a movie projector in them too. When not literally but the do have a mechanism called the psyche or the unconscious and one of the things the psyche does is project things out into the environment around us, and it does this all the time.

I also learned, reading sone Marie Lous von Franz that just like the screen in a movie theater has a special coating which is designed to reflect light making the movie easier to see, some people have a bit of a hook in them which another person’s projection hangs on. Each type of projection has its own type of hook. That is why not all projections “stick” to all people.

The way this plays out in actuality (my word for the external world) is not terribly complicated to understand but it has been my experience it is difficult for some folks to accept. Those folks tend to be mesmerized by, or “in the grips of” von Franz would say, the projection.

To explain this process I will give two examples, the first of which I may have mentioned in my discussion of the shadow.

As a recap personality traits which the ego (consciousness) finds objectionable tend to get pushed down into the upper layers of the unconscious into the area known as the shadow. Once the trait is pushed down far enough the ego can no longer detect it directly and can then go about the day to day business of thinking it’s in charge of things.

The psyche doesn’t accept this and begins to gently encourage the ego to first notice this trait and then accept it as part of the self. This process causes emotional discomfort in the form of an emotional emergence (anxiety for example) which not only does the ego not like but it uses this emerging emotion to push even harder to get this trait out of awareness. The ironic part is that once the ego accepts this trait the emotion will go away.

This process plays out roughly speaking with rejection so powerful it has been called rageful anger by some in my field. Essentially you see someone do something and your unconscious recognizes that behavior or emotion is also a part of you. The projection of that trait in the environment is what helps the psyche to bring that trait to the ego’s attention. That is why you noticed it for more than the briefest of moments. You see the act, say someone getting a promotion or recognition you feel you deserve and that triggers your inferiority complex which was installed so to speak by how you grew up. The part of you (the psyche) which is trying to get you to recognize this sense of inferiority is part of you and accept it, because you will always be less than (inferior) some yet greater than others (superior) cries out, “Look! There we are!”

Of course the ego doesn’t accept this and attempts to reject this acceptance in the strongest of possible ways and that way is anger. “How dare that person get MY promotion! They are nothing but a (insert massively disparaging comment here)!”

This rejection by the ego can cause all kinds of problematic behavior. Maybe you begin to resent this person and start sabotaging the relationship. Maybe you spread rumors around the office about how that person earned that promotion, not through appropriate means…..

Or maybe you collapse into your inferiority complex and become dark or depressed, because after all you never really had a chance at that promotion because of how worthless and weak you really are.

Another way projection plays out in actuality is in romantic partner selection.

Before I get into this part let me first address one of the biggest misunderstandings regarding Freudian Psychology, that being the myth of wanting to have sex with one’s opposite sex parent. One way to look at Freud’s theories is that human behavior is all about satisfying one drive or another. Drive would be most easily translated I think to desire. You have a drive to eat and to drink (also known as the drive to consume) and you have the drive to procreate (the sex drive). These drives would also fall under biological needs but biology is not the subject of my blog. Humans have a finite amount of energy of which to direct and achieve these drives and that energy Freud called libido. He also referred to libido as sexual energy as he saw sex as the greatest pleasure and pleasure as something humans were designed to desire. He thought this for many reasons (not the least of which was likely because he and his wife stopped having sex when Freud was in his late 30’s early 40’s because his wife kept getting pregnant) but mostly I think as a basis of comparison. So no you don’t want to have sex with your lunch, it is just the pleasure you get from your hamburger after eating it is almost sexual in nature.

For the child the parents are everything and the opposite sex parent is the first of that gender which the child falls in love with. The result of this is the desire on an unconscious level for the child to replace the same sex parent as the opposite sex parent’s primary love object. Not in a sexual nature but in a “I need my needs for food and shelter met if I am going to survive and if I have all of mommy’s or daddy’s love than I will definitely be taken care of” kind of way. Children are not sexual in the have intercourse sort of way, they want to survive.

How does this play out in adult life? Simply put: in much the same way. The only difference is that instead of the drive for food and safety (in most cases) it is the drive for companionship and the drive for reproduction. A person has these drives activated through the process, or as a part of the process, of adolescence and then goes back through their psychological development and assigns the feelings they had with and for the opposite sex parent as what love is, what attraction is.

And then as the saying goes, the person is off to the races to find that “perfect” partner. But what if your mother or father was abusive? What if they were absent or demeaning or any number of some of the other horrible things I have seen parents do to their children, what kind of partner are you going to be looking for than?

One who makes you feel the same way and the way you go about finding that person is by projecting your needs out into your environment until someone with the right hook happens by and then the sparks do fly!

There is an old saying which goes something like what you seek is also seeking you. That really is what is going on with romantic partner selection. Let me explain.

Say you were an abused child or your opposite sex parent was/is an alcoholic. Your definition of love is going to be this type of relationship. So you will be projecting the need to be with an abuser or an alcoholic into your environment. At the same time an abuser or alcoholic will be projecting their need for a victim or a codependent person into their environment. The two of you happen to meet one day and blam-o your projections mesh. A real Romeo and Juliet moment.

The reason you were attracted to that person and they were attracted to you was because unconsciously you both recognized the trait you need to accept in you, the trait you need to accept is going to be presented by the other person right in your face.

As soon as you resolve the issue at work in you that other person becomes less attractive. Maybe unattractive. Think about your exes. How many of them are people you still find attractive?

I think I’m getting a bit long in this post but maybe that is because I’m typing on my phone. Either way let me finish with this bit of proof to what I am saying.

Have you ever known a pair of identical twins? These people are the same person essentially down to the genetic level. Yet if you have known a set or are a member in a set of identicals (sorry I don’t know another word to use there) you know there is a difference between them. In fact you may have noticed that you can tell them apart by sight. Now how is that possible to look at two people who are identical in every way and yet see the difference between them?

That is projection at work. Each of the two identical people biologically are vastly different psychologically. Those psychological differences are communicated to you, are projected at you all the time, but your ego can’t understand, or maybe it won’t because your ego refuses to accept the psyche is even present let alone at work in you. The ego then does its job. It rationalizes the unconsciously perceived differences as physical differences. The ego literally says, “I know there is a difference between these two people so I must be able to see it.”

And just like that you do see differences. The same thing happens with romantic partners or friends. One day they appear to be everything you want in a person, then they reveal their unconscious to you and the next day they literally look different.

A couple of points of clarity to hopefully limit the hate mail I usually get from posts like this. It doesn’t matter if your parents were the same gender or you and your partner are the same gender. It does not matter if you identify as a gender which you may not have been assigned at birth based on you genetic or physical presentation. At the level of the unconscious we are all both genders, neither genders, and the gender we choose at the same time. The psyche operates based on symbolism of gender not what you have or do not have in your pants.

For those wondering, yes I am saying that all people have mommy or daddy issues. I am also saying we all have both mommy and daddy issues. In fact we all have all kinds of issues and are trying, to one degree of desperation or another, to resolve those issues.

So be kind to each other.

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