Here in Chicago, we have been experiencing the first tantalizing hints of spring after the coldest winter on record. I am giddy with excitement to see the tips of tiny daffodil shoots poking shyly through the soil. The weeping willows that line our yard have quite suddenly and boldly sported the yellow tone that heralds the imminent growth of strands of elongated, deep green leaves. Chipmunks have dutifully and enthusiastically begun their seasonal scolding of the squirrels.
I paused this evening on my walk from the train station to our house, just to savor the rosy glow of a sunset that lingered on the horizon. My heart strained to hear the first notes of summer’s song that were almost discernible in the gentle evening breeze. The lavender sky above me and my workday-weary self—shirt rumpled and hair standing up in a dozen different directions from dozing on the train home—were reflected perfectly in a puddle of water that gathered among a stand of evergreens. Gazing at myself in the pool of water, I was reminded about the many ways in which we mirror ourselves through a phenomenon that mental health professionals have perhaps inadequately labeled “projection.”
Projection is the notion that we attribute to others qualities that we have difficulty identifying or acknowledging in ourselves. Melanie Klein referred also to “projective identification,” an unconscious attempt to attribute one’s entire identity to a significant other (Klein, 1946). Projection also came to be used with therapeutic efficacy in Gestalt therapy and psychodrama techniques such as the empty chair. This technique allows clients to project (intentionally and with full awareness) emotions centering on important people in their lives, as well as components of the self, and to engage in active dialogue with those parts. For example, my inner critic can, in this way, speak to me through the expression of unfinished business with my father, other authorities, or even component parts of my personality. Any one of these aspects at various points can be purposely projected onto the neutral background of the chair and brought to closure or into healthy and authentic connection through such dialogue.
I frequently encourage my students (and myself) to develop greater awareness of what most irritates us about other people, exploring the realization that such feelings are sourced in ourselves. They are thus opportunities to illuminate our own shortcomings, struggles, and problematic life patterns. The depth of our irritability is a clue to the critical importance of such themes in our own lives. Projection without awareness can delude us into a false, protective belief in our own superiority or perfection, as we miss opportunities to glimpse ourselves in others, their faceted mirrored surfaces offering us different angles and perspectives. It helps us avoid responsibility for mistakes, faults, and problematic patterns. Conversely, projections are also wonderful opportunities for growth of self-awareness as we painstakingly identify them, and consciously assimilate or withdraw them. Doing so enhances the quality of interpersonal relationships, connecting us more intimately with others, and bringing online more of who we genuinely are.
Taking Jung’s lead, Plotkin (2013) asserts that we also frequently project onto others positive qualities that we are unable or unready to acknowledge in ourselves. He refers to this phenomenon as “golden projection.” We over-idealize teachers, mentors, and significant others in our lives, tragically unable to understand that the qualities of leadership and charisma that so often seem to attract us in others are actually evidence of the dormant potential within us that is trying to awaken. As that song by America asserts, “Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man that he didn’t already have.” Golden projections can be dangerous, because they motivate us to relinquish personal power to those who could harm us. They are certainly exploited in destructive cults and abusive interpersonal relationships. Yet, awareness of them allows us the opportunity to unlock potential and claim personal power, cultivating hitherto unsuspected talents.
Sometimes, discussions of projections neglect or gloss over the fact that those individuals on whom we hook these pieces of ourselves are not chosen arbitrarily for our projections. Some phenomenon intrinsic to specific others mysteriously and genuinely connects or lines up with something in us, a core of authenticity at the heart of illusions we construct, offering the prospect of real relationships when all is said and done.
The concept of projection has certainly been embraced in mainstream cultural contexts and seems to me to have become a buzzword in communication. In conflicts, it is often misused as a clever way of turning an argument back on a person. If you tell me that I am blind to certain truths or problems, and I respond that you are projecting that observation onto me, I have then effectively put you on the defensive and sidestepped any possibility for awareness of personal responsibility or need for introspection. In this manner, projection is used (improperly) like a defensive weapon—a mirror that deflects laser shots directed my way. Mental health professionals are particularly capable of abusing the concept of projection in this manner in both personal and professional relationships, with devastating impact and harm. Projection and responsibility are certainly intertwined in convoluted ways!
Gazing at my reflection in the puddle, as spring once again brings opportunities to birth new potential in myself or to start from scratch, it suddenly struck me that I regularly see myself glimpsed in others in an infinite variety of ways. I wondered if life is not a stage, as Shakespeare says, but instead a hall of mirrors—funhouse mirrors—mirrors that would initially seem to reflect in only one direction.
Moreover, it is not only people that offer us reflections of ourselves. I have increasingly come to see myself in the natural world and to learn powerful lessons about who I am through the antics of animals and the behavior of natural phenomena—projecting myself (in psychological terms) onto the natural environment in which I live and thrive. I have also come to understand that we unconsciously project ourselves onto the natural world in terrible ways too, attributing our own personal darkness to the environment while engaging in a misguided attempt to tame it, exploit it, and make it pleasant or acceptable. We fail to fully discern our role in environmental devastation or destruction and could be undermining the prospect of our own long-term well-being and survival.
A startling, less familiar thought also occurred to me as I stood by that puddle, experiencing Something Bigger momentarily looking through my eyes. What if Nature also sees Herself in me, just as I see myself in Her? Other humans certainly see themselves in me. In therapy, I try to be useful and helpful as clients integrate and assimilate their projections—showing them glimpses of themselves through the therapeutic relationship with me. But am I not also an intrinsic part of the natural world? What does Nature, as an intelligence I may not fathom, learn about Herself? What does She endeavor to express through me? How does She express her beingness in me? Am I allowing Nature full awareness and expression through me or am I blocking and distorting Her? Am I giving Her an expressive voice as other animals and plants do for me and others, and as I strive to do for my clients?
I am suddenly aware that in the term “projection,” we have a useful psychological concept that is also only a limited and constricted understanding of a bigger spiritual mystery. What we call projection may be a facet of a much larger, open invitation to understand our embodied connection to the natural world—an ever-evolving, endlessly fascinating opportunity for us to experience ourselves in reflection and grow in the unfolding of that experience. But I also may well be a means by which Nature can understand and express Herself. Nature is a mirror and I am a mirror. I am an inextricable part of Nature. I am a thus mirror that reflects two ways. I AM Nature and She is me. That connection is real, and we both languish in my lack of awareness of it. Indigenous peoples around the world have intuitively understood this truth for a very long time.
And as I type these words, I realize that what I REALLY want to be is not a two-way mirror at all but a clear glass window.
An open window, actually, that lets in all the spring sunshine and breezes.
Klein, M. (1946), Notes on some schizoid mechanisms. In The writings of Melanie Klein, Volume III (pp. 1-24). London, UK: Hogarth Press.
Plotkin, B. (2013). Wild mind: Field guide to the human psyche. San Francisco, CA: New World Library.
— Drake Spaeth