24 July 2013

Projection Limitation


I found this anonymous quote while I was browsing through some blogs yesterday and it read,

I’m always struck by the irony that the behavior I dislike most in others, is the same behavior I dislike in myself— perhaps the reason I react so strongly when I see it in others is because I am reproaching myself.’

Upon reading, it brought about some things which had been sitting at the back of my mind for quite sometime, things which had been achingly hoping to be expressed. This experience or insight came to my attention when I first encountered it when I was on college, and eventually since then, I often use it as a basis for analyzing my actions and thoughts— something which cause me to be alert or conscious whenever I think or am doing something. I also use it on gaining insights from observing people which became a habit I had been doing since I became interested in studying human behavior. Although from this point of view, this is not a matter of a judgmental attitude, because I use it to gain insight and educate myself and others on the nature of interpreting behavior and adapting to situations. By this habit of forming insights, I learned ways on adapting with people and situations while keeping my character and principles intact. Adapting and then keeping oneself intact is something which requires balance and ability of discernment. Nurturing both is something very much needed, at least from my point of view. 

Psychoanalysis and Change

The matter of disliking oneself, criticizing others, judging others negatively, etc. has been studied in-depth on a theory in psychology which is called Psychoanalysis. This theory was founded by Sigmund Freud, a Viennese psychiatrist around 1887, and which later on, was expounded by his students and subsequent psychologists. It was considered a science, a cornerstone of modern-day psychiatry and psychology, although research conducted on this theory were mostly not validated within the scientific method of trial and error experimentation. Until this day, its basic principles, if not rejected, remained open to debate by scientific circles in the study of human behavior. It is being used on assessment and treatment, but it remains largely, as a field of thought bordering between philosophy, science, and literature.

Under Psychoanalysis, there is this subject matter called the ‘Defense Mechanisms’. To understand the nature of these Defense Mechanisms, let us take a brief look at the background or basis of why these Defense Mechanisms are being studied under this theory. Psychoanalysis states that human behavior is being motivated by two forces: the life force (eros) and the death force (thanatos). The self is divided into three components: the id (instinct), the ego (the conscious self, mediator), and the superego (conscience). Between the life and death forces, the three components of the self struggle to balance and compensate one with the other, and usually, it is the ego component which mediates. This so-called ‘struggling’ and ‘compensation’ inevitably results in ‘anxiety’ because there is a continual need of the self to balance the two conflicting forces.

Due to this resulting anxiety, a person consciously or unconsciously uses the Defense Mechanisms to ‘defend’ himself or ‘ward-off’ the unpleasant feelings of anxiety. Thus, the Defense Mechanisms are being put to action. The psychological make-up or character of a person has an influence on what kind of defenses he will use. One of these Defense Mechanisms is one which is called ‘Projection.’

Projection – Attributing ones own unacknowledged feelings to others. It includes severe prejudice, rejection of intimacy through suspiciousness, hypervigilance to external danger, and injustice collecting. Projection operates correlatively to introjection, such that the material of the projection is derived from the internalized configuration of the introjects. At higher levels of function, projection may take the form of misattributing or misinterpreting motives, attitudes, feelings, or intentions of others. 

- Synopsis of Psychiatry, 6th Ed. 1991

Going back on the anonymous quote, it can be said that the person who wrote it is aware of his own thoughts and their occurrence (which is called ‘metacognition’), and perhaps, the kind of ‘defense’ he is using to protect himself. It may be that seeing from the outside, the person who wrote it will not acknowledge that the behavior he dislikes in others is a projection of his own disliked behavior. But he is aware of his own thoughts, and based from his own insight, he is not misattributing to others what he dislikes; rather, he acknowledges it within himself. It is then sufficient to infer that the anonymous quote is in direct opposition with the meaning of projection which is ‘attributing ones own unacknowledged feelings to others,’ because he is acknowledging his own feelings.

Based from this example of insight making, I became more aware of how important it is to be conscious of our own thought processes and actions. It is not something to be taken negatively like ‘judging others’ or ‘criticizing others’. If a person is aware of his own thoughts and actions, he will be careful on doing or thinking something which will be taken against him or put him on a defensive stance. As there is a particular saying that goes, ‘be your own worst critic.’ This goes against some mainstream ideas which promote deluding oneself with false hopes or ideals which are against reality.

Although I had mentioned this theory of Psychoanalysis and the nature of Defense Mechanisms, it does not exactly mean that I am advocating in favor of this theory. When I was still a student, I would spend hours at the library reading various books which explain and expound about it and I had found that it has a lot of critics as well, most of whom were its former adherents. They eventually slipped out of it and formed their own schools of thought and theories such as Carl Jung and Alfred Adler, while at the same time, citing criticisms and its controversial aspects. I don’t exactly know if it is still widely used today in actual practice in psychology, although there probably would still be practitioners who use it.

Psychoanalysis, as a whole, is a school of thought— like branches of philosophy which can be debated at, studied, disproved etc. At some point, there are some aspects or ideas which can be derived from it which can be used in understanding of human behavior, but as a word of caution - it should never be treated or taken as an absolute truth. The same is true with the rest of the branches of psychology like Cognitive, Experimental, Behaviorism, Gestalt, etc.

Science is always changing— researches are continuously conducted, new discoveries are being made, old theories are discarded and then replaced by new ones, new inventions are being designed, and new opinions or insights are being formed. All is in a constant state of change.

Everything that changes can never be taken as ‘absolute’, what is relative can never be absolute. And therefore, what is dependent on change can never be relied upon or accepted as the absolute truth. Even our own formed insights can haphazardly change through the passing of time, since we do not know that there might be a situation in the future which will alter the way we perceive and understand things. In other words, there can be insights, a way of understanding— but if what we base our thoughts and actions from is something which is relative like psychology or science, how can we have certainty? Could we be content or simply depend on this constant change which is always happening? How do we strike the balance? How can we remain intact if we rely on something which is not certain?      


This brings me on thinking about an incident that happened, again, at college. We were attending a talk which was being delivered by a human resources practitioner. He asked us to get a piece of paper and then write a list of things which we hate about other people. It is quite surprising to notice that this activity has something in common with the situation stated on the anonymous quote which was pointed out earlier. So I wrote, and looking back, I can’t remember exactly what I put on that paper. Then, after we had finished, he said that what we wrote on those papers are exactly who we are. In other words, the things that you say you hate are exactly you— yours. What you wrote reflects who you are. What you hate about others ‘is’ you. And then, I heard my seatmate saying in a surprised manner, ‘that’s true.’ But how could it be? Can we say that the speaker told the truth, or was it that he was able to play a trick on his audience? I was left wondering and thinking about it. Yes, what I wrote are exactly the things that I hate on other people, but it does not necessarily mean that I am what I hate. I know myself, what I like and what I hate. When I hate something, I stay away from it. It does not mean that what I hate is who I am— I stay away from what is hateful to me.

For example, a person who upholds the values of honesty and honor will not tolerate or accept any false accusation that he is a thief or a criminal. It is either that he will stay away from his accusers or simply ignore them. A person who likes to be clean stays away from dirty things which are hateful to him. These are two practical examples. And so, through the back of my mind, what the speaker said was not in accordance with what I uphold as a person. There is no place for me in twisting the straightforward truth to make it appear crooked.

I realized then, that the activity was a form of trick, of playing with people’s minds to convince them what they are truly not. This is called ‘Psychological Manipulation’ a form of deception. It involves suggesting and injecting ideas into people’s minds and then convincing them that it is theirs or them. This is a widespread phenomenon of deceiving people and twisting the truth. It is widely being used in the media, entertainment, advertising, and even on law enforcement agencies. It alters and damages people’s perceptions and modes of thinking and seeks to control them, through various means of deception, speech and visual trickery.

If we are to look back at the definition of ‘Projection’ which is, attributing ones own unacknowledged feelings to others… At higher levels of function, projection may take the form of misattributing or misinterpreting motives, attitudes, feelings, or intentions of others, we might infer that severely criticizing the activity or statement of the speaker as a form of Psychological Manipulation can be taken as a form of projection for my part. But if we are to look into the facts and into history, we will see the proofs and drastic results of Psychological Manipulation which were done in the form of activities similar to what the speaker told us to do. To generalize it under the exclusivity of ‘Projection’ will be to reduce all forms of constructive criticism and observation under its umbrella and then use it against the well-intentioned observer.

Psychological Manipulation

There are many lives which were affected due to the adverse consequences of entertainment and advertising. Innocents were made to believe and confess crimes that they never committed, through psychological trickery and injecting false information on their minds. The media contributed all throughout history the spreading of lies, misinformation, prejudice, suspicion, racism, and hatred. It dictated unrealistic and false standards for people to follow, and these standards had destroyed many lives and minds. This is outright unfair and unreasonable. This definition of Projection is too general and not everything falls under its criteria. Which is why, we need to be aware of our own thought processes and examine what we perceive around us and the degree to which our environment influences our attitudes, behavior, and actions. Once we are caught on our unawares, we might not realize that we might be unknowing victims of manipulation and control.

Psychologists, whether they are students or practitioners, are taught and trained to study the nature of human behavior and to understand and help people in coping with their daily lives. I believe that what we were taught should be used to understand oneself and others, and this understanding is guided according to a very specific goal and purpose— why do we exist and why God created us—that is Ibadah (worship). Psychology or any other science, any field of endeavor or inquiry, should be sought for purposes with what God created us for. It is mentioned in the Noble Qur’an:

“And I (Allah) created not the jinn and mankind except that they should worship Me (Alone).” (Qur’an 51:56)

It is so sad that we are confronted on all sides with all forms of delusions and false information which lead us farther and farther away from the truth. Even though through my quiet observations, my mind is raging in opposition with what I see. I look forward that at some point, these observations will be made known to someone who might understand and views situations with a clear and broad perspective. I am not saying that I am right all the time, but there is flicker of hope that there will be those who are in open opposition with all of these rampant deceptions and adhere to the truth will all certainty and firmness. Human opinion and insight are not safe from mistakes, for consciously or unconsciously, we are influenced by external factors or internal motives which lack the certainty and purity of truth.

Without the guidance and principles of this absolute truth, what then is the sense of pursuing the endeavor of human inquiry, science?

As what was mentioned earlier, how can we rely on something which is not certain? We need to have a firm foundation from which to base our perceptions and principles. Otherwise, if there is too much reliance on things which are subject to change, the inevitable result will be confusion and chaos. It would be argued that change and conflict are crucial for development and progress.

But then, without the firm foundation, all forms of endeavor will be rendered useless and nonsense if they are based only on shifting and shaking foundations subjected to change and conflict.