The Project of Identifying Yourself

My CPE unit is wrapping up with the residents and final evaluations always bring up some discussion around our relational or interpersonal dynamics. We talk about each other. They talk about me and what I do with them. I talk about them and what they do with me.

We broach subjects like the one I was talking about with Eddie, a friend and therapist. Me and Eddie have our own rhythm for discussing the world’s issues, so the conversation is one we’ve had in pieces before, even though that conversation wasn’t part of final evaluations in the fall unit of CPE.

Essentially, the conversation was about projective identification, a psychodynamic concept that has to do with another concept called projection. I’m not a specialist in psychodynamic theory so my views are imprecise. Nonetheless, projection is an unconscious process where a person extends, casts, or projects an unwanted image away from the self and upon another. The casted “image” can be a trait, quality, or part of the self and not only an image per se. I use image in my work because it connects with my pulls from Relational-Cultural Theory and relational images. Think of the projected thing as thrown, casted, and rejected.

The projected image, feelings, and traits are operative in the relational dynamics with the one projected upon. Projections are sent things. They indicate aspects of ourselves that we don’t accept for whatever reason. They may not be good parts. They may be socially unacceptable, contradictory to some ethic or value we hold. They are aspects of the self that are, on their faces, not acceptable. They must be sent away.

Projections are normal, frequent, and probably always happening in humans. Again, they are unconscious, which means they’re generally out of awareness. We know projections occur but we don’t know when ours are operating. They are, in a word, unavailable. They are unseen by us. They usually emerge in, through, or as part of conflict. Strong reactions are almost always indicators of projections.

I never read that verse of scripture because it feels offensive! Or, every time I meet with him, I feel exhausted. Or, we keep going over the same issue in my workgroup. Or, those two argue every time they talk. Or, he always finds a way back to such and such. Strong reactions.

The related concept of projective identification is where the other person receives and cooperates with the projection. The projections are evoked or created in the other. Think of the projection as a judgment, trait, belief, or image that’s sent and think of the identification as an acceptance of what’s sent. It’s identified with, accepted, enacted, and taken to be true. This, too, is an unconscious process.

A person doesn’t consciously agree to accept the meanings, opinions, and views sent over, but it happens as part of relating. And many of these dynamics make relationships between people shine. You think your clinical pastoral supervisor cares, and that thought impacts your willingness to open to him in a unit of clinical pastoral education. Projecting upon him, qualities of compassion and aptitude may enable you to trust that supervisor as you consider the difficulties of patient care in a hospital. That supervisor may take up that projection, embody care and concern for you as a chaplain. The relationship grows from the projection and the identification.

In the negative, how do you know these are working? One key is conflict. When an expectation is unmet. Every unmet expectation doesn’t eventuate into a conflict but those that do indicate these dynamics. When you’re experiencing the same interior, relational, or professional conflicts; when those conflicts emerge repetitively, these two dynamics are at work. They may not be the sole dynamics or even the primary ones, but they lurk and matter. Again, they are normal, common, even natural. Humans being humans means humans projecting upon and identifying with other humans.

It may be worth it to get consultation. In chaplaincy education, we consult with other educators in communities of practice. Those communities are professional circles of trust where we discuss our work with students and how those relationships are going. We get feedback. Sometimes the feedback leads to additional steps for reflection. Sometimes we finalize issues in a few pointed minutes of paying attention together.

All of this leads me to say that the project of identifying yourself is long. The work and service you bring to the world, when you’re at your best, is in locating who you are and committing to that person. Who you bring to the world has to be who you are and not who I’ve made you to be, thought you to be, crafted you to be.

As a pastoral theologian, I’d call that projective stuff a potential idolatry. It is potentially re-making a person who is already made. It is potentially requiring a person made by God to be re-made by me. So becoming aware of the dynamics is important. I don’t want to re-make people.

I’d rather help liberate people when they’ve been remade by people in their backgrounds. I’d rather cooperate with God and with God’s long work of making you and me back into who we were. Isn’t it God’s work to make us who we were, to return us to who we were when others have revised us?

I’m a certified educator and I work, in a biased way, toward the liberation of my students. I want them to come increasingly closer to themselves as they practice ministry so that what they offer in ministry is a beautiful expression of integrity. They offer themselves. They offer who they are rather than the person they are told – through projections or what not – to offer.

I want students in CPE to get along in the project of understanding who they are. I want them to get along in the work of giving and receiving sustaining grace while they’re in the process of understanding themselves. I want students to give who they are as part of their deep commitment to personal, social, cultural, and communal liberation.

I’m tossing images like anybody. Hopefully most of my projections are biased toward liberation and wholeness. That’s my hope. But when I do what we all do, one of y’all can bring me to better awareness or send me to my community of practice, point me to my pastor, direct me to my therapist or to my prayer room.

Or all of em.

2 Comments

  1. Thanks Michael. Appreciate the insights, challenges, and reminders. I have quoted, and credited you from your devotional books in my last two sermons. Thanks for that as well. Perhaps we project ourselves onto God as much, or more, than on to anyone else. Do you think so?

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    1. Greetings, Ron. I think you’re onto something. This comes up in psychology of religion, though it’s not a specific question I examine closely. At this point, I assume that we project onto God as much (and unconsciously) as we do anyone. Not a bad thought for a post. I’d be interested in your thinking.

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