Overcoming the Amygdala Part 64
The idea that human beings project things onto the outer world is not a new one. Rumi, the Sufi mystic, wrote ‘We are the mirror as well as the face in it. We are the pain and what cures the pain, both. We are the sweet cold water and the jar that pours.’ (Barks, The Essential Rumi, p. 106.) Jesus of Nazareth said ‘Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the log in your own eye?’ (Matthew 7:3 NIV). The Dalai Lama said ‘We are weaving our dream every moment. All of life is a projection. The director is the sum of our karma – all we fear, all we desire, all we have cleared and the debris still left to clean up.’
What is suggested here is an inseparable relationship between the subject and the object; what is outside cannot be separated from what is inside. What we are afraid of, what we want, what has been healed within us and what is still left unhealed, is being projected onto the world around us every day, all day. Our amygdalas, in response, send back ‘pings’ whenever they detect a departure from our most wanted projections, and they are what trigger our nervous systems.
Ignorant of this, we tend to assume that the world is as we see it, including other people. Much of what goes wrong in human relations is to do with this: we naively project our own psychological landscape and needs onto our fellow human beings. Individuals therefore create a series of more or less imaginary relationships based on the projection of their desires.
We are usually not aware that certain aspects of others stem from our own projections. This can be seen clearly in the world around us, especially in the realms of politics or conflict, but we can also see it in personal quarrels. We see it as well in so-called ‘primitive’ societies in which objects, plants or animals are said to possess qualities akin to individuals.
How does projection arise? How is it sustained? And, importantly, why does all this happen?
When the boundary between the outward-looking view and the inward-looking view becomes blurred, either intentionally or unintentionally, the individual has difficulty differentiating between what belongs to inside and what belongs outside. The two blend with each other. Whether it is a person, a plant like a tree, an animal or an object, it becomes an emblem or projected form of something inside the individual.
This is a natural process of the human psyche, not an illness. But as a prime source of amygdalic anxiety, and a basic mode of operation in Life, it needs to be examined.
It’s the inward world which projects onto the outward: experiences, feelings, temperaments, attitudes, memories, thoughts, talents, ambitions, weaknesses, failures, hopes, yearnings, and so forth — everything we have repressed, forgotten, or not yet discovered, all the scanned content of our lives that has fallen inside us, all the things of which we are not immediately aware, is available for being projected upon our outward world.
Automatic and Conscious Projection
Most projection is entirely automatic and unintentional — it just happens, below our awareness. We fall in love when we first meet someone, or overreact to someone incomprehensibly. Human beings more or less passively receive the effects of whatever material is being projected. We call this ‘Life’.
On the other hand, we can actively and consciously project ourselves into someone else’s situation, imagining what it’s like to be them, picturing what they must be going through. If you know someone who has recently lost a loved one, you might feel grief, and imagine that they, too, are feeling the same thing, projecting that feeling of grief onto them. Active projection like this allows one person to enter the world of another to some degree. This is different from passive projection, in which we are unaware that the content being projected originates and resides within us: in active projection, we can see what we are doing and know we are doing it.
Projection establishes relationships.
This includes relationships between human beings as well as between human beings and objects.
Perhaps the best images to hold onto in trying to imagine this are the pictures of a lighthouse or a cinema projector: you, as a person, are beaming out your own images onto the world around you.
We are constantly beaming onto the world our projections; likewise, others are beaming their own projections onto us.
It is the world within a person that is projected outward. Everything that resides in the inner world seems to want to come out and be seen; it tries, it seems, to draw conscious attention towards itself.
It’s as though your mind or brain wants to see everything at once: with your eyes, you’re looking forward, outward, placing your attention on the objective world around you; but your innermost world, unhappy with being overlooked or ignored, uses the completely natural mechanism of projection to plaster what you’re looking at with its contents.
To understand this more and take it a stage further, imagine that you have two selves: one is the audience member in the cinema of your life; the other is the projectionist, playing the film. The projectionist in a cinema is usually behind you, hidden from your awareness; as an audience member, you willingly suspend the reality of sitting in a cinema and immerse yourself in the film.
But you are the projectionist as well as the audience.
In fact, stretching that analogy a little further, you could argue that the projectionist is more You than the audience member, because it is the projectionist You who is creating the sensations, feelings and perceptions of the audience member You in response to the images played on the screen — the audience member You is quite passive by comparison. But the projectionist’s movie is made up of everything that the audience member is currently not looking at consciously.
Why is all this happening?
Let’s presuppose that our projectionist/audience member is more or less an accurate reflection of what is actually going on. Why would the projectionist be playing movies of the audience member’s own inner content to the audience member?
Might it be to establish some kind of relationship with the audience member?
Might there be a Self looking to build or create a more whole being through this projection mechanism?
Might the message from the projectionist be something like ‘Look, this is what you’re missing by trying to focus on the outer world too much’?
Projection, in other words, may be a kind of invitation to a relationship between inner and outer worlds.
How We Know When We Are Projecting
We are projecting all the time, but sometimes it becomes more obvious.
A strong emotional reaction to someone is usually a pretty good indicator that we are projecting something from within ourselves onto them. We might feel attraction, respect, or love, or hate, disdain, or anger. These feelings may trigger the amygdala’s alarms. If our response is exaggerated in some way, it’s usually a sign that projection of some sort is occurring. You might feel vastly inferior to someone for no apparent reason; you might feel hugely superior to someone else ‘naturally’. Extreme responses, especially unexplained ones, indicate that some kind of projection is occurring.
The less we actually know about a person, the blanker the screen they provide for our own projections. As soon as we get to know some detail about a person, they become a less perfect screen — just as if someone painted a picture on a cinema screen it would be harder to see the movie beamed onto it.
Sometimes, a person’s entire understanding of others is based on the blank screen effect — they don’t bother to really get to know anyone, they just project their own ideas onto them. You may know someone like that.
You may have had the experience of assuming you knew what a person was like and then actually meeting them and discovering that they were quite different to how you imagined. Your illusory relationship is replaced by a more accurate one, and then you’re left wondering, ‘Where did I get the idea she was grumpy?’ or ‘Why did I used to find him so irritating?’ or ‘Where did my negative feelings come from?’
There might actually be something about the other person which encourages your projection. Perhaps they have red hair or particular mannerisms or certain political beliefs which then entice you to ‘fill in the blanks’ with the rest of your projection, just as you might think you know the rest of the story as soon as you know a few words.
But the thing to focus on is not what that means about the other person as much as what it tells you about You: your projections, remember, are your own inner material being projected outward in their quest to get you to look at them.
And that can yield some fascinating insights.