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Contact Forms: Projection & Deflection

The specific contact forms of Projection and Deflection seem to get more air time in pop-culture and movies ("You're projecting!", "Stop deflecting"). I'm not sure why. Perhaps it's because they tend to be more obvious, dynamically, such as disproportional energy toward someone (projection) or no energy at all even when confronted (deflection). I say "perhaps" because without knowing the specific context, it's not clear what contact form is happening. And that form may be a skill or a disturbance, depending on it being utilized with awareness and choice, or not. In this blog I'll be continuing the discussion on contact forms, focusing on Projection and Deflection with insights from Hanne Hostrup's book - "Gestalt Therapy: An Introduction to the Basic Concepts of Gestalt Therapy."

In my last blog I discussed Introjection, and how in this contact form something that belongs to the environment is "swallowed whole" by the organism causing a concept to be taken into the self and believed without discernment. Projection is the opposite of this. It is a something (thought, feeling, belief, etc) that belongs to the organism but it is placed on the environment (another person/thing). Road rage is often an example of this, where one displaces anger on to the environment ("that stupid car/driver/weather is making me late!!!") rather than taking responsibility equally or primarily.

Projection has gotten a bum-rep, however. It's not all irresponsible rage. In childhood, it is part of our development toward a healthy We-I-You differentiation. This differentiation occurs if a consistent caregiver can act as a "projection screen" and allow the child to express their oppositions, accusations, and rejections without being offended. Of course, limits and boundaries always exist, and being offended by a toddler's name calling or hitting might occasionally happen. I'm not talking about the caregiver's occasional hurt feelings. I'm talking about shame or rejection as a routine controlling mechanism by an influential caregiver toward a child. Shame and rejection should not be parenting strategies. They are not skills, they are reactions and if they occur they should be repaired (ex: "I'm sorry honey, daddy/mommy was frustrated but it's not okay for me to yell, let me try that again"). Awareness is a skill that needs to be valued and modeled. Hanne says "It is crucial to develop the capacity for projection as well as having it limited and modified [p167]" so the child learns healthy projection, which is being able to take what is projected out, back in (as shown in the parenting example above). Compassion is a good example of healthy projection - recognizing an emotion in another helps us recognize that emotion in ourselves. Or as that saying goes, do on to others as you would want done to you. This process of projecting out and taking back in helps us learn and grow over our lives.

This makes me think about the concept of "accepting influence", what John and Julie Gottman note as a key factor in couples partnering well. We have to be open to our impact on others especially when we believe or feel differently, if our goal is to connect. Hanne says "If we mainly encounter the world and respond to it as if it were a part of us, we are not interested in the other people's perceptions... the other becomes an instrument for confirming our own experiences." This is unhealthy projection, an inability to see other perspectives or accept other influences. The world often becomes lonely and hostile from such a vantage point.

While Projection places certain thoughts and feelings on others, Deflection blocks them all together, not allowing them to affect one's perceptions or responses. Both Projection and Deflection are defense mechanisms shielding against full contact, but Hanne states that Deflection is more effective by letting "the Self remain unharmed". Deflection can also be healthy or skillful when used with awareness, like changing the subject away from thorny debates if (in the present context) it's a roadblock to the goal of togetherness. Deflection is unhealthy if used habitually, without awareness or recognition of changing contexts. This is because deflection blocks the influence of others/environment, keeping the Self from expanding. Hanne says "A child who fails to acquire deflection is incapable of protecting him/herself emotionally as all outside input is allowed to enter and have an effect. This exposes the child to risk. On the other hand, a child who acquires rigid deflection becomes isolated [p178]". Becoming aware of the things we deflect and the things we take in or accept influence from is a process. It is a mindful practice to see and understand the choices we make.

Once again, with Projection and Deflection we see how important it is to have awareness of the present context so one can skillfully choose how to take care of one's self. Without awareness we run the risk of letting our reactions become thoughtless habits that can negatively shape the meaning we make of ourselves and the relationships we have.

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