May 18, 2018

Dear drama observers,

I have a good friend who has said to me for years, “I don’t know how you do what you do,” to which I’ve replied, “Well, I don’t know how you do what you do.” He’s always referred to my profession as “all that psycho-freako stuff” and I usually retort with some disparaging comeback. It’s all good-natured jabbing and we actually do respect each other. Frazier Crane, who played a psychiatrist on the TV show “Frazier,” was once asked, “Frazier, how do you listen to people all day long?” “Oh, good God man,” Frazier replied, “I don’t listen.” So, that’s how I do it.

Sometimes, psycho-freako terms and concepts get picked up by the culture at large and become part of our everyday vernacular. Terms like “issues” as in, “Man, you need to deal with your issues.” Or “codependent” as in, “You’re being all codependent on me.” Oftentimes, the original meaning of the term has morphed into some inaccurate variant.

“Projection” is another such concept. I’ve heard people in arguments say, “Hey, you need to quit projecting all your stuff onto me.” They may have a thumbless grasp of the term’s meaning but if you’re needing a sophisticated-sounding cudgel to swing at your opponent, it works swimmingly.

Years ago, I wrote something about projection in my book.

All of us participate in an odd practice developed in the 1920’s. We go to large rooms, sit in comfortable chairs, buy incredibly expensive snacks, and stare at a wall for 2-3 hours.  At the end of the time, we leave and discuss the experience with our friends. Often, staring at the wall elicits powerful emotions.

Why? Because onto the wall—a plain, flat object—is projected a series of images that look and sound like real life. We can get so caught up in the experience that we forget where we are, think of the images as being real, and have all kinds of feelings about them. Imagine wearing a white shirt in front of a movie projector, looking at what’s being projected onto your shirt, believing that the projection is you, and having feelings about what you see.

That’s what the unreasonable person’s projections are designed to accomplish. Unable or unwilling to tolerate personal wrongness, he projects his negatives onto us so that we become the possessor of them. He accuses us of the very things that are true of him. When we look at what’s being projected, believe that the negatives are true of us and have emotions about them, we’ll think, “Is it me or is it him?  It must be me.” At that point, the lies have accomplished their confusing purpose.

Projection is a psychological slight-of-hand whereby the drama person gets you to believe that his faults are actually your faults. If a husband flies into a rage and then lectures his wife about her “anger issues,” that’s projection. And that’s confusing.

Two things are necessary for projections to succeed—a projector and a blank screen. First, the drama person projects his or her negatives away from self and onto the other. Second, the recipient’s “screen” must be blank enough—undefined enough—for the projection to show up. If so, the recipient looks down at the projection and becomes confused as to the source of the image. “Is that me or him? I don’t know, maybe it’s me.”

Most of us engage in projection inadvertently in everyday dust ups. Like when your statement, “Well, you don’t have to be so snippy about it,” is delivered in a manner that drips with snippiness. Or when you say, “I’d appreciate it if you’d stop being so sarcastic, your royal highness.” It happens in little ways here and there and we generally clear things up as we go.

But a sexual violation is particularly pernicious because of its sudden screen-clearing impact. The sexual boundary-crossing stuns the prey in such a way that the screen goes blank—a screen onto which the predator opportunistically projects responsibility. The prey then observes the screen and may conclude things like,

  • I must’ve caused this.
  • This was my fault.
  • What does it say about me that this happened?
  • There’s something really awful about me that an otherwise good person would do such a bad thing.
  • Nobody will ever believe me so this goes with me to the grave.

I’ve heard many of these stories in my psycho-freako line of work. I’ve written before about a man I saw once who was gang-raped in the secluded area of a public park. So stunned was he by the experience that his screen went blank and then spent years ensconced in shame, assuming responsibility that wasn’t his.

But the prey I see are almost always women. Women who were molested as children by fathers, uncles, brothers, or neighbors. Women raped by employers. Women raped by dates. Women raped by the boyfriends of roommates. Women offered advancement in the company in exchange for sexual favors. Women whose sexual boundaries were violated by trusted clergymen. Examples abound.

As I’ve said before, one of the most demoralizing things a woman can hear is, “Well, it seems awfully fishy to me that she’s just now saying something about it. Why didn’t she tell somebody a long time ago?” The clear implication is, she’s lying. And the fear of being disbelieved has been one of the main reasons for her disclosure reluctance. To be sure, false accusations can be made for some nefarious purpose. But that’s very rare in my experience.

How do we explain the extended silence of sexual abuse victims? At least part of the answer is . . . projection.

6 replies
  1. Adele
    Adele says:

    The victim fears disbelief because she has seen that reaction to other victims of abuse. The victim fears disbelief perhaps because she herself on some level wants or needs to deny or disbelieve what happened. Other people want to keep their illusions about the perpetrator. They have difficulty believing anyone could do what the perpetrator did.

  2. Maggie
    Maggie says:

    Easy to follow explanation of projection. I appreciated your presentation about victims of sexual abuse. The same goes for victims of domestic violence. Many DV victims really internalized these projections to the point of being unable to advocate for themselves or their children

  3. Kathy
    Kathy says:

    While Adele and you (Alan) are exactly right about most sexual abusive and/or violent victims, there are still others that don’t fall in to this category. I’m speaking of the growing number of people who will do anything or say anything for a perceived 15 minutes of fame or at least attention. Whether it’s the pressures of staying relevant on social media with followers or with their peers that is encouraging people to seek the limelight at any costs or whether its other forces, more and more I’m seeing people make claims of victimhood or associations with famous incidents or people that are not valid. I’m not sure I’ve adequately described what I mean but would like to hear your thoughts….

    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      The lure of fame can certainly be a powerful motivation for making false claims. And there can be other motivations that have nothing at all to do with fame. So, I so agree that such things occur. Each case has its own variables that have to be considered. I would say, though, that it’s been rare in my experience. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

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