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Projection and Identity

How much of who you think you are is really just incorporated projection?

It’s time to consider the possibility that there is a self—a part of us that is real, unique, and essentially "us"—which can be seen as distinct from what we’ve incorporated as an identity based on others' projections, rejections, actions and reactions towards us. And if that is true, how much of you is really authentic self, and how much is identity?

We have to look at those projections, rejections, actions, and reactions and how they become identity—an identity that is not who we actually are.

We'll start with projection. Projection is just what it sounds like. Imagine the old design of the movie projector in which the film was passed over the light, sending the image on the film to a projecting lens, which then reflected that image onto a screen.

That’s exactly how it works psychologically. Some issue has been pushed into the unconscious. But that issue has energy and is constantly looking for release from its prison in the unconscious. So, it projects it through the lenses of the eye—a convex psychological eye that can only look at the external world rather than the internal one—and the issue is suddenly seen in someone else.

The problem is that when people project their “stuff” onto us, they tend to act as if their projection has something to do with who we really are. They treat us, in other words, as if their projection was valid. And, particularly if we are vulnerable, we tend to believe that perhaps they are describing something real about us—something that we may not even be able to see.

This is when I hear clients say, “They say I'm [fill in the blank] and I guess I am.” Particularly when these projections come from significant family members, we tend to be so vulnerable to their influence, and they tend to repeat their projective words so frequently that it becomes very difficult for us to believe that what they are saying is not true.

A father, who grew up feeling as if he could never really establish himself in comparison to his peers who got ahead rapidly while he stayed home and got soused might quite easily tell his son that “you are going to amount to a big, fat nothing.” This is clearly projection, for it is the father who feels like nothing, but he cannot allow himself to really sit with, receive, and do something about that feeling, so he just hands it over to his son. The son, having heard this several times from a father he loves and desperately wants to please, takes this projection on as identity and begins to act on it as if it fully describes him.

This is just one example of many regarding the business of projection, but it clearly demonstrates how we formulate a sense of ourselves from other people’s stuff. The father could just as easily need to see the son as the golden boy he never got to be. But if the son could somehow see that this really has nothing whatsoever to do with him, but is rather all about how the father feels about himself, he would not incorporate it into his identity and would not begin to act as if it were so. But typically children cannot make those assessments.

Every now and then, however, clinicians run into children who somehow just know that Dad is wrong—that he’s telling them stuff that isn’t true. They may be really mad at him or even hate him. And this anger or hatred, while most would say a child should not be so angry or hate a parent, might just save the child’s life—or at least her sense of self.

But the truth is that it is not uncommon at all for parents to project their own unresolved issues onto their children without even knowing it, because projections are largely unconscious impulses. But as we become adults, it is possible to look back over our childhoods and begin to see how we took on these projections—simply because by now we can see our parents clearer.

So, here’s a challenge: Look back at your identity as a child and the identity you have now, and make a list of all of the projections you incorporated into your identity.

More from Andrea Mathews LPC, NCC
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