If we’re all projecting onto one another, where is true, authentic relationship? – Lee Beach
Lee Beach was a professor at Trent university. He taught psychology but was also interested in English literature. Dr. Beach’s reading list contained just about every neurotic in literary history, categorized by the psychoanalytic system of the day.
It was a great course. A bright moment amidst a sea of competent but sometimes superficial psych professors.
Two types of projection
Projection is an old idea, alluded to in religious scripture, literature and philosophy since ancient times.¹
Sigmund Freud conceptualized projection within a systematic theory of mind. Freud had a knack for doing that. Many of his ideas had been around for centuries. He was just the most successful in naming and fitting concepts into a larger theory of his own making.
Projection for Freud has a dual meaning. The most popular use in everyday speech refers to attributing our good and bad qualities to someone else. We “project” our own overlooked qualities onto another.
If it’s Tiger Woods, for example, some might project their own impulses toward infidelity onto him. Woods becomes a bogey man and the projecting person feels self-righteous and justified.
Likewise, a good deal of Trump detractors seem to project their own undesirable, unconscious shadow onto the American president.
That sexist, unstable Man is not a role model nor fit for office!
On the other hand, Trump supporters may project their own desire for prosperity onto equally simplistic images, tropes and slogans.
Make America Great Again!
The second meaning of projection is similar to the first, but more disturbing. Here a person believes that what is going on inside their head is outwardly real. For them a dream or hallucination becomes reality.²
A tragic aspect of the second type of projection is found in the violent psychotic who cannot distinguish between their turbulent inner fantasy world and personal acts of violence.
These people walk around in a kind of waking dream state, not realizing they’re harming real people as they live out their twisted desires, defend against non-existent threats or blindly obey inner voices.³
Projection is often perceived as negative. Freud, in a letter to his disciple Carl Jung, jokes that one should not be “led like Faust see a Helen [of Troy] in every woman.”4
However, projection can be positive. When projection involves our first love, we tend to project our own idealized hopes and aspirations onto another. Love is blind, the old saying goes. Bodily chemicals rush through our system and our love object becomes a goddess or god. We are supremely happy, even exhilarated. For a while, anyhow. Once reality kicks in our dreamy cloud-like romance usually comes tumbling down.
Jung and the mythographer Jospeh Campbell also believe projection can be positive, providing the activated material is mutually beneficial and facilitates What Jungians call the individuation process.
A (usually) young man and woman under the spell of projection reenact the archetypal contents symbolized in tales like Romeo and Juliet or Tristan and Isolte. Here we see the perfect, idealized other in our lover’s eyes—again, for a while.
Dear Mr. Fantasy
Like professor Beach, some ask if we can ever entirely rid ourselves of our projections. If not, human relationships are mostly mutually agreed upon fantasies or temporary infatuations.
Thinkers like Erich Fromm disagree. They say our ability to love makes us uniquely human. For Fromm, reducing this divine mystery to a psychoanalytic or philosophical dynamic does great injustice to the beauty and sanctity of love.
Perhaps the goal is to progressively move beyond projection to develop more profound relationships, realizing that we will always fall short of true, selfless love.
¹ See my highlights at LINER for more. http://lnr.li/0zfjV/
² (a) For some, dreams and hallucinations are also real. This issue is touched on elsewhere at earthpages.ca. (b) Charles Rycroft says projection literally means “throwing in front of oneself” and both types of projection are one of Freud’s defense mechanisms. See Charles Rycroft, A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1977, pp. 125-126.
³ These voices are imaginary or demonic, depending on your belief system.
4 Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, New York: Vintage, 1965, p. 363.
My Conversation with Mary Roach (marginalrevolution.com)
What are your desert island philosophy essays? (ask.metafilter.com)