I remember a patient I had previously seen for a couple of sessions coming into my office and telling me she had just had a strange experience. As she came up the stairs towards my office she had felt as if she was coming to see her father, yet I was nothing whatever like him. (In age I was about thirty years younger than her.) This admission led us to discuss her childhood relationship with her father. He had been abusive towards her (as had her mother). Fortunately, when she experienced those feelings on the way to my office, she recognised that they were about her father and not me. Consequently, she was able to avoid becoming overwhelmed by them, and instead we had a productive discussion about her past.
What she described is a particular type of psychological projection, in which upsetting emotions, and accompanying ideas, about a significant person in one’s past are triggered by a person in the present. Very importantly, and in contrast to my patient, this is often not recognised by the person who is projecting. Instead, the emotions and ideas are typically experienced as if they accurately apply to the person in the present – who is thus falsely experienced as being an appropriate receiver of those projected emotions and ideas.
As my example shows, projection can occur within, or associated with, therapy. Occasionally it happens at the start of therapy, preventing any therapeutic progress. It can be triggered by the therapist being the same sex as an abusive parent, or having some physical or other similarity to them. Sometimes the projection arises after a period of time when the patient has been idealising the therapist, because they are so different to their abusive parent. When something arises which challenges that idealisation, it is replaced by the projection.
If it does not sabotage the therapy, but is recognised and contained, projection can be explored by the therapist and patient, to help them understand it. This can lead to overcoming the projection itself, as well as the various psychological harms that have resulted from the childhood abuse.
Sadly, such projection can occur in important relationships of other kinds, including close friendships and sexual relationships. It can destroy those relationships. The person projecting is typically unaware that they are doing so, and believes that they are experiencing emotions and thoughts that are appropriate to the other person.
This dynamic of projection occurs within spiritual and religious communities. As people form closer friendships with each other, projection can occur, sabotaging those friendships. Sometimes this happens earlier in a friendship, sometimes later. It may follow a period of idealisation of the friend, who, when they show their imperfections, can trigger the process of projection. The spiritual friend is seen negatively and experienced inappropriately as being like the abusive parent. The person who is projecting does not realise that that is what they are doing. They believe that what they are experiencing is true of their current relationship, when it is actually emotions and associations from the past which are contaminating their current experience.
At times, too, this process of projection does not just involve one other person, but the whole community, who are then all seen negatively. Therefore, an important aspect of developing spiritual friendships and a healthy spiritual community is the recognition and overcoming of such projections. So, at crucial moments, when one’s relationship with another has become difficult, one needs to ask oneself the questions ‘am I projecting?’ and ‘is this really about something from my past?’.
Unfortunately, projection can be accompanied by another process, whereby the person projecting also acts abusively towards the person or persons onto whom they are projecting. Quite often this is a re-enactment of the abuse they received as a child, but they are now the abuser. They can feel justified in this because they are falsely experiencing the other person as abusive.
Such processes are apparent, not only in people’s face to face interactions, but also in social media. A disagreement about a particular issue under discussion can trigger projection, and behaviour stemming from the experience of abuse can be reactivated.
We can call such processes ‘patterns from childhood relationships’. There are other such patterns, for example the person who unwittingly seeks sexual relationships with people who are abusive – like a man who has the habit of finding girlfriends who are abusive as his mother was, or a woman who persistently finds male partners who abuse her as did her father. The irrational guilt I discussed in my previous ‘reflection from the past’ (The Burden of Guilt) is another example. People can also be caught in harmful patterns which do not stem from being childhood victims of abusive adults, but from bullying by other children.
I have encountered cases in which patterns from childhood relationships are passed down through four generations of a family. Such generational re-enactment of patterns of abuse and projection can persist until someone actively recognises and successfully works with them.
It is vital to understand that our current experience can be coloured by such patterns from the past. For our psychological and spiritual health, we need to recognise and overcome them. If we do not do this, then it is as if, when two people meet, there is not just an interaction between those two people. It is as if each of them is accompanied by an invisible aura of ‘virtual people’ from their past relationships, who can join the conversation and sabotage healthy communication.