In writing these posts about the defense mechanisms, two points have become clear to me. First, it’s easy to forget that our description of the processes we have named projection, denial, spitting etc. are simply the best way we have of talking about mysterious and intricate mental events. It’s important not to think about them too concretely and to bear in mind that our descriptions are merely approximations to a truth that may alter in appearance as we change our vantage point, the way a three-dimensional object presents a different aspect depending on the viewing angles. A psychic event described as denial, for example, might just as easily be described as a form of splitting; it depends on how you look at it, though only our language and not the psychic event itself has changed.
Second, while we may talk about defenses in isolation as if they were discrete processes, they tend to occur together, as part of a global mental event. A painful experience may be denied and at the same split-off and projected into the environment, then experienced as if it were coming from outside the self. In my school of thought, we often use the phrase “splitting and projective identification” because those defense mechanisms usually occur in unison.
One of the earliest posts written for this site discussed two functions of projection: as a primitive form of communication, and as a means to get rid of experience too painful to bear. Building upon that article, I’d like to focus now on how we use projection to avoid
conflict rather than resolving or bearing with it. I don’t mean external conflict with other people but internal conflict where, for example, impulse comes into conflict with common sense or long-term goals. If you have teenage children, this process should be easy to
Say, for instance, your son or daughter has homework to do that conflicts with a social invitation. With younger children, we simply insist they complete their school assignment before play; we may have to remain firm in the face of an ensuing tantrum. By their mid-
teens, most kids have an internal parent who understands the need to defer gratification, though this doesn’t mean they always listen to it. Often the desire to have what they want right now leads them to split off and project the internal parent into the external one; in this way, they don’t have to know what they know, don’t have to give up an immediate pleasure for their longer-term benefit. When this type of splitting and projection comes into play, it tends to occur in exaggerated terms of black-and-white: your teenager is a free spirit who wants to embrace life; you’re an unreasonable dictator who no longer remembers what it’s like to be young.
Often the child wants to perceive you that way so they can react against you, thus keeping the split/projection firmly in place. They may do or say things that subtly inspire you to validate the projection — that is, to respond as if you really were a dictatorial “square”, or to lose your temper. You may feel moved to lay down the law in an authoritarian style of parenting; as rebellion escalates, you might hear yourself sounding increasingly shrill and insistent. In these ways, you confirm the projection and, by battling with your child, thereby enable him or her to avoid an internal conflict. The client I described in my last post on the hatred of authority often related to me in this fashion, remaining a rebellious teenager well into her thirties. She didn’t want to know what she knew and as a result, give up her grandiose dreams.
(In many families, the parent actually is a dictatorial, controling figure, but that’s a different problem altogether.)
One of my professors once related a clinical anecdote that illustrates a similar process. A woman who had made an unsuccessful attempt on her life by cutting her wrists ended up on a locked psychiatric ward. To the nurses on that ward, she appeared indifferent to her own welfare and the idea of death. In ingenious ways, she continually found sharp objects and concealed them in her room, objects she might use to make another attempt on her life. As a result, a high level of anxiety to find these objects pervaded the nursing staff. All the nurses felt deeply concerned about the patient’s welfare though she did not. She had projected her own concern and anxiety into those nurses; at the same time, she found a way to confirm that projection — in concealing those sharp objects, she “made” the nurses
feel and act upon those very feelings she had projected. Many suicidal gestures that appear manipulative, without full intent to follow through, may reflect a similar dynamic.
While we usually think of projection as involving some unwanted, painful-to-bear emotion, notice that in the case of the argumentative teenager, what is projected is maturity. Also, in the clinical example, the patient has projected a concerned, caring part of herself into the nursing staff. You see this process when the forces for destruction dominate a personality; in a way, the healthier parts “don’t stand a chance” in such an environment and projecting them out is an attempt to preserve them.
From another point of view, we could also look at it as a type of communication. As I described in my earlier post on projection, infants communicate uncomfortable states of mind to their caretakers through screaming, crying, etc., thereby stimulating a similar experience in the listeners; those caretakers hopefully can bear that state of mind and respond to it in ways that address the source of discomfort. In a similar way, the suicidal patient communicates her terror to the nurses, who then absorb that communication and respond in ways to protect her.
On another level, both of the transactions I’ve described can appear (and feel) highly manipulative to an outsider: whenever we project a part of ourselves into someone else and then try to get that person to act in keeping with our projection, on some level we’re attempting to control him or her. (I described this dynamic in greater detail in my post of emotional dependency.) Most people don’t like to be controled, and if we find ourselves caught up in such a dynamic, we may feel irritated or resentful, even as therapists. In those cases, I find it’s important for my interventions to focus less on the control aspects (which can feel like criticism to the client) and more on the internal experience he or she wants to avoid.
Finding Your Own Way:
If you have or have had teenage children, do you recognize the dynamic I described? Have you ever found yourself reacting in ways you didn’t like and couldn’t quite understand? Maybe this description will help you identify the ways your child projects into you and then gets you to validate that projection.
Do you know other adults around whom you tend to become more parental than usual, inspired to give advice or “come to the rescue”? Such people are often projecting something into you, disowning (for example) a concerned adult part of themselves. If, on the other hand, you tend to inspire such reactions in those around you, do you present yourself in ways that inspire such a response?
What about the issue of control? Do you know people who “force” you into playing a particular role in their lives? How does that make you feel? What do you think they’re projecting into you? Has anyone ever accused you of doing the same thing … said something like, “Don’t make me play the heavy”? There may be ways in which you project a part of yourself, or some awareness, into other people so that you don’t have to live with it yourself.