Who is Behind the Curtain?
Do you remember the Wizard of Oz? Especially the scene where the adventurers find the Wizard at the palace and he is a giant projected talking head? The characters are all so afraid of his power and his awesomeness. Then they see behind a curtain there is this little, old man, not really anyone to fear or revere. It turns out the Wizard is just a projection. He projects of an image of fierceness, power, and wisdom so that his people will more readily accept his guidance and decisions. He fears that they would not so readily accept him if they saw him as he really was.
Are you like that? I know I am. I think many people that I know, especially many of my clients, are like that. I think that most of us have one or two major projections that we use to emanate a masked perspective of ourselves that we hope others accept at face value. I find that these projections generally fall into two categories. One category is power, the other is need or dependency.
The first category is a projection of power. We want people to feel our power and accept us, not argue with us. The people in our lives need to give us what we want because we are strong and capable and wise. Sometimes this projection of power is so intense that we call it anger or rage. Our chests swell up with anger, our blood flows, our veins stand out, and our faces become red and suffused with intensity. We look angry and dangerous, like the lizard that unfolds his ruffled collar to look fierce enough to ward off enemies. Sometimes, our faces look resolute, intense, and determined. We are confident. We expect that others will accommodate us because it is just so obvious that we know what we are doing. The projection of confidence, assurance, and certainty can be quite convincing. Because we are strong and capable and wise (so much more than others) people, of course, should follow our image and do what we want. This is just like the Wizard of Oz. I think we all have a Wizard projection that we use in times of need. However, some are able to project it more skillfully than others.
The other projection that I think most of us have is a projection of need or dependency. We project that we are vulnerable and that we need people to approve and take care of us. We project that we are lovable and needy, and those who love us will automatically move to meet our demands to make us feel safe and loved. We become the cute baby, or the hurt child. We are cuddly puppies, or lost and frightened toddlers. This happens because we want people to love us and care for us. We learn to put our best foot forward, in a projective sense, in order to make people like or love us and to accommodate our needs and accept us.
I read a scientific monograph on non-verbal behaviors many years ago for which I can not remember the author or the title. It talked about how all of us have a facial, or body angle that we unconsciously think is our most attractive view. Whenever we are stressed or anxious, whenever we are vulnerable and need to invite the most positive outcome, we unconsciously present our audience with this particular angle. We feel that if we present ourselves in this way, they will be most pleased and most likely to grant what we want so that we can feel safe and happy.
Two old Saturday Night Live characters you may know, epitomize these characterizations. One was the Jack Handy character, who was always thinking Deep Thoughts. He was certain that he understood the Universe and could explain it to others. He could not be bothered with the mundane and nitty-gritty aspects of life and relationships, he was busy with “Deep Thoughts.” He was powerful, capable, and certain. Others should stand back and watch in awe as he explained the mysteries of life. His specialty was the short succinct one-liner which expressed the kernel of universal truth. Jack Handy’s projection was one of power. The other was a character named Stuart Smalley. He was “cute” round and inoffensive. Stuart Smally projected need and dependency. He had no sharp edges (although to some viewers he was offensive because of his lack of edges.) He was ill defined but deftly drawn as a character. He could radiate warmth and cheer and happiness, but was constantly diverting into a self-absorbed mantra about his hurts and woes. He constantly utilized twelve-step jargon as a way to define and explain his life. What he really needed was to be taken care of because he was just so innocent, cute, and vulnerable and obviously incapable of caring for himself. And, by golly, people liked him!
One thing that I hope is noticeable about both of these characterizations, or as I call them- projections, is that neither of them represents a full -bodied presentation of a whole, healthy person. They are one dimensional characterizations or projections of the Wizard or of the vulnerable child. Underneath both of these projections there should be someone of strength and definition. It is hard sometimes to find these people under their presentation. Where are you under your projections? Part of being a good therapist is the ability to see between the lines and to notice the elements in the projection that are solid lines based on reality and are not part of the camouflage . The therapist must remember that these projections serve a purpose and communicate much about the client. The therapist should ask: “What is the payoff?” and “What is the client getting out of this projection?” After the client is able to determine the payoff, and learn to see behind the mask, then the role of the therapist is to mirror what they see to the client. Through the mirroring process, the client can both experience the process and reality of being seen in a non-critical and accepting way, and that the client can learn to project, or present for the public this underlying stronger and more capable person who no longer needs to hide behind the projection.
It is difficult for us to give up our projections. They are successful defense mechanisms that we use to handle our anxiety and to accomplish our goals. We learned to rely on them because they worked for us at some point in life. The problem is that they do not continue to work when our lives become more complex. One reason people come to therapy is their defense mechanisms are no longer working and they are in pain.
We may need our projections and continue to use them in our public persona. Where the projections are problematic and cause us damage is in the area of our intimate relationships. We have to learn what they are and why we use them, then we can learn how to stop them. Unless we can learn to be our real selves and offer that to someone we trust in return for the offering of their real self, we will always feel the anxiety of being exposed and not accepted. Because the substance of the projection is one dimensional, it will never be enough to make us either safe or happy. Being a Wizard is the act of using a tool. Tools have usefulness, but they are only tools. The tool operator is the one who matters. The goal is to have good tools and to use them skillfully to accomplish our objectives. Then there will be “no place like home.”