Religion Through the Perspective of Human Development
The role of projection, thought and deed, and self/selflessness
Posted Jan 17, 2019
To start, let’s define projection:
The attribution of one’s own ideas, feelings, or attitudes to other people or to objects; especially the externalization of blame, guilt or responsibility as a defense against anxiety. Projection is one of the many externalization processes of which human beings are capable.
Here's an example of projection in a religious context. Some religions require women to be dressed and veiled. The penalties for not doing so are sometimes stunningly severe. The reasons for this dress code are probably multifaceted. In part, it may be an effort at an external solution to an internal problem. Often, the problem may be one of sexual feelings and impulses. Women are blamed, if in states of some exposure, for stirring up the sexual impulses of men. But the regulatory problem really lies with the men—it is their sexual impulses which seem to be conflicted and need regulation. Rather than deal with their own internal world and conflicts about their sexual feelings, the men turn the regulatory role over to women—women must not expose themselves in any way! Talk about passing the buck!
The inability of such men to understand how feelings work, especially sexual interest, dooms the women to various kinds of inhibition. The men are not able to see their own problems with internal tension regulation, so they force the external solution onto the women. Projection is at work to some extent here: The men, conflicted about forbidden sexual feelings, project the feelings onto women—”It is not me who has these forbidden sexual thoughts.” says the man, “it is those women who have such feelings,” or “It is those women who are to blame for stirring me up.” The sexual feelings of the men have been attributed to the women.
Projection alone does not account for such behavior, however. Such an authoritative stance seems also dictated by sadism and hostility to women as well as the effort at external regulation of internal feelings. In addition, such a stance denies women their humanity—it denies them their own feelings and actions.
Projection is an interesting psychological mechanism. It may actually be an evolutionary help in that it turns the focus onto the outside world. It may be that for pure survival, the need exists to attend to stimuli in the outside world first rather than to internal stimuli. The problem develops when there is significant distortion of perception of the external stimuli by virtue of projection of internal feelings (e.g. anger, fear) onto the outside world.
Thought and Deed
The issue of projection leads to another issue of emotional regulation in religion. This involves the equation of thought and deed. Equating thought and deed has been a major problem for those who would use religion to raise children and control behavior. It is a major problem because it is antithetical to how the brain and emotional development work. “If your eye offends you, pluck it out” goes the phrase.
The way to understand and regulate behavior is to understand and be aware of thoughts and feelings, not to suppress them and try to keep them out of conscious awareness. When children are not allowed to feel and express emotions, their feelings get bottled up and then cause mischief. Think of the acting out of the angry, depressed adolescent who has chronically been told not to express him- or herself, and has been increasingly shamed when doing so; the distress, humiliation, and rage build up inside, and out of this mix comes the destructive behavior or the suicidal adolescent.
What one does want psychologically is as much internal freedom to think and feel and fantasize as possible. Why? Because one cannot stop, or “help having,” feelings—and the thoughts and fantasies that result. Feelings are biological responses to stimuli. Feelings are built in, innate. When one tries to ignore them or deny their existence—whether interest (curiosity, sexual feelings, etc.), angry feelings, fear, shame, whatever—the feelings can cause internal conflict that can result in either psychological symptoms or behavioral problems.
Access to one’s feelings, fantasies, and internal world is what allows for more reasonable, rational choices and decisions. One is then aware of one’s feelings and fantasies—and thus has a better chance of making good behavioral decisions. But if one does not know oneself, one’s feelings, one’s fantasies—these elements will exert unknown influence on decision-making. As Silvan Tomkins noted, try to “minimize affect inhibition” in young children, and then help them label the feelings and utilize good interpersonal skills.
Such internal openness often bothers parents. Parents may get anxious about the words and thoughts and fantasies of their young children—and sometimes will misguidedly try to suppress a child’s thoughts and feelings. The point is that thought (feelings, fantasies) and deed are quite distinct, not to be equated. If thoughts and feelings are inhibited, deeds (behaviors) are more likely to be buffeted about by unconscious conflicts. If thoughts and feelings are more open and accessible, one’s rational, reasonable processes have a better chance of positive behaviors.
Another area in which the thought-deed equation is complicated occurs in examples such as flag burning or verbalizing “disrespectful” or hostile feelings towards “God” or “Allah” or the bible or Koran. Words and symbolic gestures are actions (deeds). In these instances, one sees a psychological problem of development, namely an inability to think symbolically and metaphorically. Flag burning is seen by some as a direct attack on the government (deed), rather than a symbolic gesture that expresses distress, anger, and disagreement. Writing or saying something disrespectful or hostile towards Islam or the Koran or Allah may result in death threats (remember Salman Rushdie?). Symbolic expression through words is felt as a direct attack—the expression of thoughts and feelings is felt as a deed.
An additional area of importance involves the concept of self. Many religions preach a “selfless” message—give yourself to others, give yourself to god, don’t be selfish, do as god wants you to do, do as others want you to do. The problem is that such directives result in people not knowing themselves, their interests and talents, their passions, their likes, and dislikes. Technically, their self-organization is disrupted, their self-cohesion is flawed, and—like many of those patients described earlier—they do not know who they are, what they want, and what they are capable of doing.
A better approach involves helping the young child understand her likes and dislikes, understand her interests. Such an approach leads to a solidity of self, which, in fact, allows for greater—not lesser—generosity and genuine focus on others. Such people are solid inside and do not need to work so hard to keep themselves together, and therefore they have more to give.
It is often those who are told that who they are is not important—to give themselves up—who manifest a narcissistic selfishness and a need for recognition in which a focus on oneself occurs. Such people are often very compliant—as Winnicott  puts it, have developed a “false self— and/or are very self-absorbed, as they strive to gain “psychological oxygen” from the environment to hold themselves together (Kohut, 1971). Alice Miller has written a wonderful book along these lines, The Drama of the Gifted Child.
Hoffman L, Rice T, & Prout T (2016). Manual of Regulation-Focused Psychotherapy for Children (RFP-C) with Externalizing Behaviors: A Psychodynamic Approach. New York: Routledge.
Kohut H (1971). The Analysis of the Self: A Systematic Approach to the Psychoanalytic Treatment of Narcissistic Personality Disorders. New York: International Universities Press.
Miller A (2008). The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self. Revised and Updated With a New Afterword. New York: Basic Books.
Das Drama des begabten Kindes (1979). Suhrkamp Verlag Frankfort am Main.
Tomkins SS (1991). Affect Imagery Consciousness (Volume III): The Negative Affects: Anger and Fear. New York: Springer.
Winnicott DW (1960). Ego distortion in terms of true and false self. The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development, 1965 (pp. 140-152). New York: International Universities Press.