#470 Chuck’s Place: Projection as Defense

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My last article on the animus, or the masculine side of a woman, stirred considerable interest in the psychological dynamic of projection, which has fascinated me since I first encountered it nearly forty years ago. I would like to break this concept down in a tangible way, making it readily available as a tool for self-study and every day interactions. This is a broad topic that I will build upon in coming weeks. Today, I begin with the first identification of the phenomenon of projection as a psychological dynamic, as an ego defense. The core mechanisms of how projection operates defensively are critical to understanding the broader functioning of projection in the psyche that go way beyond defense, hence, it is necessary to begin with this more narrow application.

Freud was the first to identify projection as a major psychological defense. In a nutshell, he determined that the psyche had the defensive ability to unload parts of it self that were disturbing to its own balance by literally giving them away to someone else. It is as if there is a movie projectionist inside us that can take a part of our inner selves and project it out of and away from us, onto another person in the world who serves as a screen for an unwanted aspect of the self. This relieves us of the tension of housing a disturbing inner struggle. This action of projection on the part of the psyche is not a conscious process; it is quite automatic and functions outside of ordinary awareness. If we were conscious of a disturbing factor within our selves we would already own it, although we would certainly feel the tension and conflict of it because it remains inside us. For example, if I know that I lost my keys, it would be impossible to blame another. If I don’t know that it is I who lost my keys, my unconscious could protect my ego from such uncomfortable feelings and judgments, like anxiety, badness, failure, etc., by providing me with the strong suspicion that it was definitely someone else, perhaps my spouse, or child, who took or moved the keys. The anger that I might have felt toward my “inadequate” self could then be directed at someone else. My ego is thereby protected, as my psyche would have projected the disdainful “scatterbrain” self, that I might in fact be, onto someone else.

This type of defensive projection can also extend to social causes. Last night I watched the movie, Milk, which offers an excellent example of defensive projection. Here was depicted a social battle that still wages heavily today, of a vitriolic hatred toward a minority, in this case, homosexuals. There are many instances of latent homosexuality in individuals. In fact, Freud hypothesized that all humans are born polymorphous perverse. What he meant was that human sexual impulses are originally undifferentiated, they can attach to anything to derive pleasure. It is only through the process of socialization that these impulses are funneled into categories, such as heterosexuality. However, beneath the veneer of the conscious personality may reside latent sexual impulses interested in other categories of expression, such as homosexuality or bi-sexuality. In many instances, as a result of a powerful socialization process, an individual’s conscious personality or ego may be strongly attached to a firm heterosexual identity. The very idea that one might have a sexual impulse toward someone of the same sex would be utterly ridiculous and abhorrent to the conscious personality. Let’s say that, unconsciously, within one’s own psyche there are, in fact, latent homosexual impulses. This would indeed create a serious conflict for the psyche. One way to protect the ego from this intolerable adversity within the personality would be to unload, via projection, the homosexual aspect of the self onto an openly gay member or collective homosexual group in society.

Once the psyche is unburdened of this unwanted aspect of the self it becomes equally necessary to hate and reject the individual or group who houses the rejected self. This ensures the defense: the ego is still rejecting, it doesn’t have to get “in bed” with this unacceptable part of the personality, which is now safely disposed of outside the self. This emotional tie to the rejected, projected, object insures an inner psychic balance, as the rejected part of the self is still included in the psychic economy through an ongoing energetic attachment to itself via the projected object. In effect, the homosexual impulse within the self, though disowned, is actually unconsciously continuing to be owned via a compulsive interest in the individual or group who carries the projection of one’s inner self. In this case, the boundary of the self is actually extended to include the person upon whom the projection falls. The advantage to the conscious personality is that it can disown the hated part of the self, yet remain safely attached to it, achieving some form of psychic balance. In the case of Milk, this took the form of passionate attempts to remove the civil rights of homosexuals through intense moral and political movements. In this case, the passion suggests a defensive projective dynamic on the part of those attempting to rid themselves of unwanted aspects of their own psyches. Though I have narrowly suggested that the causal root of the projection onto the homosexual may be a disowned latent homosexual impulse, this may, in fact, not be the actual derivative of the projection. The homosexual, like any minority, may simply be the scapegoat for any aspect of a hated, uncomfortable part of the self, releasing the psyche from housing the tension of opposite tendencies.

The bottom line is, that to maintain psychic balance we must remain attentive to our outerly projected parts. Even if we hate them, that hatred is a form of involvement with them that keeps us connected to our hidden inner selves as we vicariously live these disowned parts through the lives of other people. Expanding our awareness or consciousness to our fuller selves requires that we allow ourselves to face uncomfortable truths or parts within our selves. In the case of a latent homosexual impulse, the challenge is to allow the ego to acknowledge its existence first, which requires bravery and openness. There can be great fear and anxiety with this, as we are confronted with the possibility that our understanding of who we are, is not really who we are. In some cases, the truth might be that we are, indeed, primarily bi-sexual or homosexual. Or it may mean that, though dominantly heterosexual, there is a part of us that enjoys homoerotic urges.

Once an individual can reconcile the truth within the self, the outer projection ceases. There is no longer a need to disown and dislodge a rejected part of the self onto another. We are freed to see the other as they are, without a knee-jerk or compulsive need to hate. Perhaps, our reaction might become compassionate or neutral, but no longer is there an intense emotion or compulsive tie, as we are owning, containing, and reconciling our disparate parts within our selves.

I suspect the commandment to love thy neighbor as thy self was an ancient instruction on how to resolve the defensive projection dilemma. For, in order to love thy neighbor as thy self, one must first remove any projections of disowned, rejected parts of the self from the projective screen of thy neighbor’s face. To achieve compassionate love requires an inner acceptance and ownership of all rejected parts of the self.

Next week, I will build upon this core definition of projection beyond its role as a psychological defense. In an ultimate sense, the notion of a solid world is a projection. But you have to start with the basics, and Freud does deserve his due.

As always, I am open to discussion or comment. Should anyone wish to write, I can be reached via email at: chuck@riverwalkerpress.com

Until we meet again,