Projection and Whole Person/Whole System Identity and Relationship

Adapted from Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future

Identity and relationship in times past have been of a specifically two-halves-makes-a whole sort. By giving parts of ourselves away for safekeeping, we’ve protected ourselves from the full complexity of natures and the bigness of life more generally. Psychology provides good language for this “giving parts of ourselves away” dynamic, at least for how it manifests personally. When we “project,” we act as if elements in our inner workings were in fact characteristics of people or groups outside of ourselves.

Projection is something we see with immature behavior of a personal sort all the time. When we say a person is being adolescent, reactive, or blowing something out of proportion, projection almost always plays a role. The person attributes to the world threats and possibilities that have more to do with him or herself.  The re-owning of projection plays a key role in the more limited changes the produce maturity in our personal psychological development. Given how inextricably tied cultural projections often are to consensus realities, we are not used to recognizing that projection manifests in our collective behavior, much less catching it when it occurs. But projection very much plays out at a cultural level and hugely affects our beliefs and behaviors.

The most pointed example, at least as far as consequences, concerns “chosen people/evil other” dynamics in relationships between nations, religions, and ethnicities: We retain the light and project our darkness onto others. Always before in human history, such dynamics have been necessary to a felt sense of social identity and safety. Today we are recognizing that we must leave the tendencies that create such projections behind us—and in relatively short order—or Pogo’s quip that “We have met the enemy and he is us” will become not just the truth, but quite possibly the end of us.

A related handing of parts of ourselves to others for safekeeping has, in times past, ordered every part of our collective lives. We find a good additional example in how we have always before symbolically elevated our leaders. This is obvious with pharaohs and kings, who were seen if not as gods, certainly as god-like. But Kennedy in Camelot, or Reagan as the kindly father figure, both enjoyed glorified parental status.

In a way similar to what we see with the more demonic imagery of “evil other” nationalistic projections, the more idealized projections of traditional leadership once served a useful purpose. They provided a needed sense of order. But they are also similarly ceasing to benefit us. Needed changes almost certainly play may a major role in today crisis of confidence in leadership. Not only have old forms of leadership in most all fields stopped working, they feel less and less like leadership to us at all. We find less trust in leadership today than at the height of 1960s anti-government rhetoric.

Good future decision-making will require a  “growing up” in our relationship to leadership. Absent past projections, the leadership role becomes more humble—that of a good and smart person doing a difficult job. But it also becomes ultimately more powerful. A big part of the reason is that mature leadership is better able to tolerate and manage complexity. As a result, it produces more nuanced decisions and is thus capable of ultimately more potent effect.

We can also look for examples of where projective dynamics some into play to societal dynamics that manifest more personally. The topic of love might strike some people as out of place in this discussion, but it presents a particularly useful illustration. It helps us appreciate how broadly Cultural Maturity’s changes manifest—no part of our lives is left untouched. And, in contrast to war and leadership (at least of the formal sort), love represents a concern with which we all have personal experience.

We are not used to thinking of love as something that changes—love is love. But in my therapeutic work with couples, few things strike me more deeply than how fundamentally love, today, too is changing. Greater ability to recognize projection when it is happening and greater interest in finding ways to love without projection’s past defining influence lies as the heart of these changes.

Love’s changes help illustration how projection relates to culture’s larger developmental picture. The Modern Age gave us the romantic ideal. If we at all acknowledge that love’s definition can change, we tend to think of romantic love, like we do democratic government or the Reformation’s more personal relationship with one’s God, as a culminating expression. Romantic love is love based on individual choice.

But while romantic love represents an important step toward individual choice beyond the more traditional practice of having mates chosen by families or matchmakers, it isn’t the final destination we imagine.

The romantic ideal stops yet short of love between two whole people. As with national allegiances and traditional leadership, its glue has derived from projection. I ascribe feminine aspects of myself to you; you ascribe masculine aspects of yourself to me. Love remains symbol as much as substance—my white knight to your fair maiden—Romeo and Juliet.

While romantic love has produced profound new possibility in its time, today we witness something ultimately even more profound in it implications. We recognize the beginnings of an important “growing up” in our relationship to love. The most ready place to see this is our modern questioning of traditional gender roles. What we encounter is more significant than just new behavioral options. We glimpse the possibility of loving another person more fully for simply who they are. As with mature relations between nations or between leaders and citizens, this is a pursuit that is at once more humble and more rich (and profound) in its possibilities. Love increasingly requires that we better recognize, as Lily Tomlin put it, that we are “all in this alone.” And, simultaneously mature love requires that we recognize the possibility of deeper and more complete ways of being together.

With each of these examples equally, with war and peace, with  leadership, and with love, we see the ready projections of times past fading in their influence. It could seem surprising that we might see related changes in such disparate corners of our experience. But that is what Cultural Maturity predicts—its changes should manifest in every part of our lives. And that is what we see. Ways of thinking about identity—collective or personal—based on projection are not only ceasing to satisfy, they are ceasing to work. Similarly, safe and effective relationships of all sorts—between nations, between leaders and follows, and between ourselves and those whom we care most about—today each require that we reclaim the ready projections of times past and think and act in more complete—and with this more complex and nuanced—ways.

Notions of identity and relationship that work must increasingly be Whole Person/Whole System notions. What results is neither mysterious or in fact terribly complicated.  Whole Person/Whole System identity and relationship is just about better seeing ourselves for who we really are — separate from the protective dynamics of times past.