AB: Many people have heard of the psychological defense mechanism of “projection”, the unconscious process where we attribute (both positive and negative) characteristics about ourselves on to others. In the public realm, we see “projection” on full display by the U.S. Gangster-President, who often attributes “crookedness” to other, rather normal people.
Related to the concept of projection is the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung’s concept of the “shadow” side of human beings, parts of ourselves that we may unconsciously fear, or that feel unacceptable. This leads to repressing our awareness of that aspect of ourselves, which can cause us all kinds of trouble. Most good psychotherapy involves, in one way or another, becoming aware of parts of ourselves that we avoid, usually because it feels painful.
In family life, a parent’s projection of fears and desires is a natural part of raising kids. It’s not damaging in itself, expect when it’s a dominant pattern in the life of a family, or when parental fears are powerful, ongoing, and outside awareness. We see this a lot with families with a history of trauma, even several generations back. This trauma, if not adequately dealt with, can lodge in the nervous system of the family and show up in kids twenty, thirty, fifty or more years later.
Even without trauma, psychological projection can distort a parent’s judgement about their kids, or can create a wedge between a couple, since it can interfere with the ability of one partner to see the other as she truly is. The (unconscious) grip from the past gets in the way.
Sometimes I have a family referred to me for therapy where the Projection Monster has been continually rearing it’s Head, making life miserable for everyone. I remember one family in particular…
Here’s the scoop: I got a call from Sarah, who said their family doctor suggested that she and her husband bring their child in to see me. She said her husband was worried that their 3-year old son showed signs of “bi-polar disorder” and wanted a professional opinion. This was a puzzling request, given the young age of the child. My curiosity was piqued.
The Consultation Snapshot: Sarah and Jared, a hip-looking mid-thirties couple entered my office with a spiffy-looking three year old, Michael. The father, Jared, a very buttoned-up British guy, met his California-born wife at a wine-tasting event five years earlier. Jared worked in the high-powered finance sector, and Sarah worked as a part-time consultant for an event-planning group. Little Michael was their only child.
The father was worried about his son’s temper tantrums, and thought this might be a sign of “early bi-polar disorder”. Sarah didn’t share her husband’s concern, but she didn’t openly challenge his viewpoint. Very soon into the interview the family dynamics revealed themselves in full-blown color. Early in the interview, Jared asked his son to “shake hands” with me, and was very insistent that his son clearly express “please” and “thank you” in the process. This formal requirement for a toddler made me feel like I had been transported back to Victorian times. Of course, I treated this child as if he were three, not thirty-three. I’m not sure the father approved.
The poor kid! It soon became clear that his development had been inadvertently hijacked by the father, who wanted his son as a little adult version of his perfectly controlled self. And this was a really sweet kid, who looked a bit sad at not being allowed to be three. He was trying his best, though. As Dad talked, it became clear that he felt “mortified” when his son had a temper tantrum in public. I think it felt to him like his own (inner, unacknowledged) craziness was on display for the world to see. The father felt exposed by his toddler’s irrationality.
For her part, Sarah offered a more relaxed, healthy perspective on her son’s “childish” behavior. Sarah seemed less afraid of her son’s outbursts and worried that he had too many “demands” on his little shoulders. But part of the problem for this family, as I saw it, was that Sarah’s voice didn’t carry the same authority in the family as Jared’s. She expressed herself rather tentatively, and seemed to lack confidence with her husband.
The session lasted about an hour; I openly supported Sarah, telling Jared that he “deserved credit for marrying such an intuitive woman”. It looked to me like Sarah was not used to feeling tall in her husband’s eyes. Jared accepted the “compliment” without irony. And I enjoyed teasing Jared, gently and respectfully. I made comments like, “It looks like part of you would love to be a wild three-year old,” or, “There’s a lot of freedom in being able to go crazy”. To his credit, he allowed me to say these things and appeared to be taking it in.
Toward the end of the session, when the husband briefly revisited the “bi-polar” question, I responded casually, “All three year olds are bipolar”. Jared smiled. I think they got what they came for, or at least the father’s anxiety appeared visibly reduced. But some underlying tensions between the couple remained that may show up at a later date. I did not seen the family again.
Since this was a single consultation, I didn’t get a chance to explore the parents’ family backgrounds in any detail. I’m pretty sure if I did, the concern over “self-control” would have shown up as a theme in Jared’s family. My guess is that if I investigated further, there may have been someone, or several important people who went crazy, or drank, or were unpredictable/untrustworthy in ways that created pain for the family. Jared’s worry over “losing control” reflects what psychiatrist Murray Bowen called the Family Projection Process. This important concept in family life has to do with the way parents–all of us–project our own unconscious anxieties/wounds/hopes onto our kids. We all do this to a certain extent. It only becomes problematic when these projections become pervasive and are outside our awareness.
But, hopefully, with the help of our partner, friends, family or a skillful therapist–people who care about us, and who can see things we don’t see–we’re able to interrupt these unconscious projections. I think that happened to a certain extent in this family consultation.