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Updated: Sep 6, 2021

The psychological phenomenon of projection is fascinating.

Wikipedia says

Psychological projection is a defense mechanism in which the ego defends itself against unconscious impulses or qualities (both positive and negative) by denying their existence in themselves and attributing them to others.[A bully may project their own feelings of vulnerability onto the target, or a person who is confused may project feelings of confusion and inadequacy onto other people. Projection incorporates blame shifting and can manifest as shame dumping.[ I have spent some time trying to understand it from a depth psychology perspective.

One of the best ways of understanding something is using Aristotle's Four Causes. The idea is that there are 4 ways of explaining how a thing is the way it is, or four ways of answering the question "why?" To use the same example that is used in the Wikipedia article, if someone asks "why does a table exist?"

  • You could say the table exists because of wood, because without wood there would be no table. This is the material cause and it maps to the question "what is a thing made of?"

  • You could say the table exists because a carpenter sat down and built it. This is the efficient cause and it maps to the question "what made it happen?"

  • You could say the table exists because it was designed that way by someone who chose to, say, give it 4 legs instead of 3 (that would be a different table). This is the formal cause and maps to the question "how is it designed or structured?"

  • You could say that the table exists because people need a place to sit at to have dinner. This is the final cause which is the thing's purpose and maps to what we generally think of when we ask "why?" about anything.

To give another example, if there is a motel on the side of a highway, the causes would be "because of brick and mortar" (material), "because workers built it" (efficient), "because the architect structured it that way"(formal), and "because travellers need a place to stop and rest"(final).

One could also say that there is a broad correspondence between these four causes and Jung's typology of the four functions of the mind ie.

  • final cause -> purpose, why -> intuition

  • natural cause -> what is it made of -> sensation

  • formal cause -> design, structure, value judgements -> feeling

  • efficient cause -> how does it work, what makes it happen -> thinking

So looking at something in all four ways could lead to a more complete understanding.

So how does this map to projections?

The Material cause - What is a projection made of? These would be contents of the unconscious that the ego is not aware of yet.

These could be

  • the personal shadow (everything that the individual has thus far refused to acknowledge exists within them)

  • the collective shadow (all the things that current spirit or ethos of the time refuses to give validity to),

  • or it could be archetypal (things that we are meant to actualize when we are at the point that we are in our life and in our journey of individuation, but haven't done so consciously yet. This means that certain types of projections are more frequent and intense at different ages, for example, starting to fall in love as young adults, or starting to seek meaning in the second half of life)

The Final cause - What is the purpose of a projection? Living one's life is a process of making unconscious contents conscious and meaningful. Libido or psychic energy constantly flows up to the surface of consciousness in the form of emotion and is meant to be converted into value judgements and meaningful action that is compelled by that (this is the ideal, it does not always happen this way). This involves mediation by the ego. It has to acknowledge the raw emotion, convert it into feeling (value judgements) and channel it into actions that are meaningful to the situation and the person's current stage in life.

What makes this relevant to projection is the transformation involved from emotion to feeling. There needs to be a place where this can take place, a container to hold the emotion or the archetypal autonomous urge in place for long enough to transform it.

We are surrounded by containers. Some are provided by our culture and socienty. There is marriage for sexuality, sports for physicality, work for a sense of achievement, religion for spiritual yearning, various types of clubs or groups with "like-minded" people for specific interests. A society may not have all the containers needed for all types of archetypal expression, the design of the containers different from group to group and different cultures might have chosen to refine particular containers more than others. Sometimes containers are outdated or no longer fit for purpose. All these can cause a great deal of anxiety and aggravation. And mixing containers (using the wrong container for the wrong archetype) doesn't usually end well. We would call it "inappropriate".

Containers may not involve other people and may not be external. For example, fantasy figures in day dreams are another type of container for holding the archetype. Or this could be a particular area of interest like a subject, a hobby like gardening or pets.

And then there are symbols - particular people, places or things that have extraordinary power to attract and marshal emotion (libido would be a more precise term) and hold them. If fact all the things mentioned before are symbols in that sense, and our lives are essentially symbolic. It is just that some symbols are greater and more powerful than others.

It helps to think of investing emotion in containers in the same way we think of a financial investment portfolio. There is debt, equity and savings. You might take on the debt of investing in a child or community or society itself in order to make it something more than what it is now, or you might enter into an equity based partnership with someone where both invest so that both can have returns, or sometimes you create savings by investing time and effort into an area of expertise or learning. And of course a good portfolio is a balanced one. Sometimes there is a debt that you can't pay for because you don't have enough, or because all that you have is invested somewhere else. Sometimes investments don't pay off or have to be written off and doing this unconsciously without knowing what you are doing is never a good idea - you will just get hurt.

Here is the thing - the process of an archetypal urge seeking a container / symbol is automatic and largely similar in all of us. This is the projection. We still have a responsibility to hold the container intact for as long as it takes to transform into feeling and meaning. And this is our role. If we don't make this process conscious and be aware of it, it is as good as making blind financial investments. Money is lost, energy dissipates.

The Formal Cause - What is the structure of a projection? As mentioned earlier, the process of an archetype seeking a container is automatic. At best we can only be aware of it (if an attraction to an object truly belonged to us, it would have been expressed in the form of one of the four functions of the mind - thinking, feeling, intuition or sensation). Some Jungian analysts have described this automatic process.

In Edinger's book "Ego and Self" about the expression of divine nature through Old Testament prophets, a common theme is "Jehovah's Wrath" which is often directed at the nation's, and sometimes at Israel itself. God or the Self is seeking his people, but they have turned away. And this makes Him very very angry. Another example is falling in love.

You may think that you as, say, a man, have encountered a goddess in human form. She seems perfect in every way. But it is the opposite is what is actually happening - a god in you, an archetype, has encountered a human woman. If she can't live up to that and lets you down, by virtue of, well, being a human woman, it is a god that is betrayed or offended. Eros wounded is a terrible thing and may manifest as disappointment, hurt or even rage. Our role would be to mediate this process to channel and modulate this, i.e. not let the container break.

So the archetype is seeking a mirror, a place where it can see a reflection of itself. Something in its own image and likeness. If it is indeed a reflection, it does not take a large leap of the imagination to see why the inversion take place just like in a mirror - a yearning to really want to be accepted by a group of people turns into "they will all hate me". This is of course, the most commonly understood manifestation of projection.

The Efficient Cause - How does a projection operate? In Dr. Marie-Louis Von Franz's Projection and Recollection in Jungian psychology she gives a quite graphic description of this process. In one place in the book, she likens projection to electricity seeking the easiest path to a place of opposite polarity. If there are two places of differing voltage with a non conducting material between them, like two metals with wood between them, when the charge is high enough, electricity might arc from one pole out to a third object and jump to the other pole from there.

In other words, when the layer between the conscious ego and the unconscious is too dense to be directly traversed, the archetypal charge in the unconscious has to seek another object first so that it can be transmitted back the ego from there. And there are natural conductors for this.

This means two things. First that it is legitimate to engage with and seek meaning in the external world since it is part of a natural process, and also that once the barriers between the conscious and unconscious start breaking down (by honoring our dreams for example), we will not need to project onto external symbols that much any more.

Also, in places that continue to have high barriers between the conscious and unconscious, like personal complexes, seeking another object might be the only way left for a archetype to express itself.

Then in another chapter, Dr. Von Franz goes on to describe this process of withdrawing projection, that is of recollection, in five stages.

  • The first stage of participation mystique, where there are no borders, and the archetype only sees itself in the mirror.

  • In the second stage, we start to get involved, and start to realize that things are not exactly what they seem. The tree or stone itself is not magical anymore, but there is a spirit living in it. So she is not a goddess as such, but she has goddess like qualities.

  • In the third stage, we start to realize that it is not all good - these spirits and goddesses have a mind of their own and might have good and bad characteristics, sometimes even depending on their mood or time of day. A sense of opposites emerges - and things are classified into good and bad.

  • In the fourth stage, we start to realize that this is indeed a projection, i.e. it is all in our mind. Things are just things. Maybe, just maybe, the lines that we drew between good and bad are also only in our minds too.

  • In the fifth stage, we have made the projection conscious enough that we can directly engage with this autonomous force. The third object is not needed anymore. We might continue to engage with the object, but that would be from a place of truly valuing it through authentic feeling.

That's as much as I understand projection now.

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1 comentário

28 de ago. de 2021

This is one of the clearest expositions of the process and causes of projections. Very enlightening in every respect

Jasbinder garnermann

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