It’s Not Me, It’s You! – The Art of Psychological Projection

Deep in the recesses of our minds lurk many thoughts and feelings that we’d prefer to deny ever having. These desires and impulses are so dark and so offensive to the conscious part of the mind that it launches various psychological defence mechanisms to keep them out.

One of our most powerful self-protective defences is psychological projection. When we project, we “place” part of ourselves onto other people, usually to get rid of it. How many times have you judged someone for being too good, too bad, too controlling, too weak, too fat, too thin, too noisy, too nosey, too slow, too fast, too this, too that?

This is projection.

How many times have you blamed someone for hurting you, for causing you pain, for making you suffer, for making you cry?

This is projection.

How many times have you shamed someone into doing something they didn’t really want to do, for making them behave the way you wanted them to, for making them give you something you felt you deserved, to manipulate them into something they are not?

This is projection.

How many times have you criticised someone for the way they look, the way they dress, the way they speak, the way they eat, the choices they have made, the decisions they have taken, the relationships they are in?

This is projection.

How many times have you tried to manifest success in your life based on the expectations of others?

This is projection.

“You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting “Vanity,” thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.”

― John Berger

What Does Projection Look Like?

Projection is in the way we decide to see others. It’s there when deep down we find a work colleague annoying, and rather than admitting this to ourselves and feeling like a bad person, we instead decide they don’t like us. It’s often present in times of conflict. When you act calm in an argument with a partner, telling them they are the angry one, not acknowledging that beneath your controlled surface you are actually pretty vexed, too.

It is behind things like bullying, where the bully secretly feels vulnerable so then makes others vulnerable to their actions. Psychological projection is very common in parenting. It’s present when a parent who secretly feels like a failure demands their child be perfect. And it’s not just individuals who practise psychological projection. It can also be something we do as a group or as a society. For example, when a workplace starts to fall, the very managers who were not pulling their weight will blame the higher boss as lazy.

Example 1

You’re out to dinner with someone who keeps talking and talking, so you interrupt. They may accuse you of not being a good listener and wanting attention. This is projection.

Example 2

You strongly advocate for an idea of yours at work. A co-worker might accuse you of always wanting your way, even though you tend to just go along with their ideas most of the time. This is projection.

Example 3

Your boss insists you’re lying about the long hours you put into a project when they’re the one who is slipping out of the office early and not meeting deadlines. This is projection.

“One of the most distinctive features of psychosis is its dynamic of externalization. Madness is experienced as being enacted on the subject from without; a person perceives his own unintegrated psychological contents as outer-world creatures and demons who threaten to engulf and physically destroy him. The barriers between inner and outer, subject and object, dissolve so entirely that no boundary remains to protect the ego from the onslaught of this projected unconscious material.”

― Victoria Nelson

Projection and Avoidance

Psychological projection is a defence mechanism that occurs when a conflict arises between your unconscious feelings and your conscious beliefs. In order to subdue this conflict, you attribute these feelings to someone or something else. You effectively trick yourself into believing that these undesirable qualities actually belong elsewhere – anywhere else but as a part of you.

Defence mechanisms are subconscious techniques that are employed by the human mind in order to cope with the negative emotions and impulses that we face in everyday life. Freud suggested that, without these kinds of defences, we would have to face negative impulses in their full intensity which could severely affect our mental health.

When we project, we end up treating others in ways that reflect how we ‘really’ feel about ourselves. For example, we can attack and attempt to destroy, we can idealise and worship, we can over-empathise, and so on, across the spectrum of human emotions. It’s complicated.

“The power of a thing is not based on the power it actually possesses. Rather, it is much more about the power that we permit it to possess.”

― Craig D. Lounsbrough

Did You Know?

Empathy is where other people’s feelings are experienced as our own. This is considered a reverse form of projection. The human mind is a hugely complex thing. We say one thing when we mean something else. We cry when we’re laughing. We are angry at things for unknown reasons. We blame others for things we have  done… there are layers upon layers that make up our personality and much to study beneath the surface.

“Just as we tend to assume that the world is as we see it, we naively suppose that people are as we imagine them to be… All the contents of our unconscious are constantly being projected into our surroundings, and it is only by recognising certain properties of the objects as projections or images that we are able to distinguish them from the real properties of the objects”.

– Carl Jung

How Psychological Projection Works

Projection can be learned behaviour. If our parents or guardians projected their feelings onto others, we learn that this is simply what one does. Most often we project onto others because we have such a backlog of repressed emotions we are ashamed of. We are unconsciously driven to unload them elsewhere in an attempt to feel better.

So, how do you end up with so many repressed emotions? You might have had a parent who was not fully available to you in your important early years, so you learned that it was best to hide certain emotions that made your parent or guardian even less likely to give you the attention you needed. Or perhaps you experienced childhood trauma that left you sure that that certain feelings like sadness, anger, or sexual feelings are unacceptable.

Essentially, it goes like this: starting in early childhood, we begin to compartmentalise our mind by psychologically cutting off parts of ourselves. We separate from the best parts of ourselves like courage, generosity, and compassion and we disidentify with our worst parts like envy, greed, and rage. We disconnect from anything that we can’t find a way to integrate. This means we detach from anything that doesn’t receive acceptance or approval from our environment. We strive to become, in a sense “normal,” as we desperately try to fit in during childhood and adolescence. Sadly, our school systems support this surgery of the soul. These systems are highly effective at stripping away our innate genius, those qualities that push us far away from any “average.”

So we bury the stuff we don’t accept about ourselves deep in our psyche. This buried darkness is what Carl Jung coined as our Shadow. Because we can’t easily identify these qualities within ourselves, our minds project them out onto others.

Example

When you get irritated at your colleague’s selfishness at work, you are observing his selfishness. However, your irritation is a result of being ashamed of your own selfishness, otherwise, you wouldn’t get irritated. Are you irritated because your colleague’s actions are unacceptable, or do they reflect something in your psyche that you do not accept. When you come from a place of self-awareness, there is no emotional trigger to cause irritation.

“I have learnt that it is not fear that governs us, but the feedback of its projection.”
― Goitsemang Mvula

Characteristics of Projection

Projection is a basic psychological mechanism that human beings deploy all the time, albeit unconsciously.  Projection is universal.  For example, we project our values onto suitable authority figures and organisations and then ascribe these values to them.  We then cite the fact that because these important people hold these values, it must mean they are true.  The essential point is that we have ‘forgotten’ about the original projection.

Our use of projection, consciously or otherwise, is a powerful and transformational concept combining elements of accountability, responsibility and judgment. With projection, we externalise our feelings and beliefs about ourselves onto the world around us. These qualities can be both positive and negative.

“The person with an itch can’t understand why everyone’s not scratching.”

― Marty Rubin

Charles Rycroft points out that the source of what we project, ie the source of the negative self-concepts, is a past experience where we have ‘learnt’ from another person that these self-concepts are ‘true’.  We are not born with negative self-concepts. An important component of projection used for judgment is denial.  We cannot see that the thing we judge the other person for is not only within us, it is also something we are judging ourselves for.

Understanding projection is fundamental in learning about ourselves, and in creating success for ourselves and others.  Projection is the technique we use to judge others. Where we judge others, we remain separate and cannot move forward. It is important to understand that learning from our projections on others is crucial to our own success and that of any organisation we are a part of. There are certain factors involved when picking our target for the projection. The target is not chosen randomly. The quality we are projecting will usually exist on a small scale in that person, however we will hugely exaggerate it.

“Love is the perception of perfection beyond the protection of our projection.”

― Eric Micha’el Leventhal

The Problem with Projection

On the surface projection may appear to be effective in defending our minds against pain, however, there are two fundamental problems that run counter to this argument. First. projection makes us feel superior  because it allows us to overlook our own faults and inadequacies. By honing in on what we perceive to be imperfect in others, we raise our own self-worth artificially. This can be the source of much conflict as well as reflecting a false impression and false expectations of other people. We fail to see all the good in people, because we are too busy examining their flaws.

Second, projection fails to address the underlying feelings themselves. As long as we continue to deny the existence of our underlying feelings, there is no mechanism that can help us to tackle and overcome them. It is only when we accept they are a part of us that we can begin to work through them and integrate them. The first step is the hardest one to take because it effectively invites pain upon yourself. Yet, until dealt with, this pain is always present, and while you may not feel its full effect when it is being suppressed, it blocks your success and contributes to an unease that never quite leaves you.

“People outwardly project their innermost insecurities.”

― Kilroy J. Oldster

Types of Projection

There’s no end to the types of feelings we can project onto other people, places and things. Whenever any internal conflict arises, there is always the temptation (though unconscious) to shift the troubling feeling elsewhere. The more upsetting we find our current feeling, the greater the impulse to project it onto someone or something else.

However, not all projection is negative. When we fall in love with someone, we are recognising in them those good things about ourselves which we have failed to recognise. How much easier is it to say “I love you”, than it is to say “I love me”. 

Neurotic Projection

This is the type of projection we have been discussing so far – where our negative impulses are projected onto others.

Complementary Projection

This is a form of projection where we assume that other people share the same opinions, impulses, and thoughts as we do. We expected others to be just as excited about a particular issue or angered by an issue as we are.

Complimentary Projection

This form of projection involves projecting our positive skills and practices onto others. For example, because we know how to swim, we assume that everyone else knows how to swim as well. The thought that others may have not learned never crosses our mind.

“We tend to take whatever’s worked in our particular set of circumstances (big family, small family, AP, Ezzo, home school, public school) and project that upon everyone else in the world as the ideal.”

― Rachel Held Evans

7 Most Common Projections

  1. Attraction to Someone Other than Your Partner

The classic example often used to explain projection psychology is that of the spouse who feels a strong sense of attraction to a third person. Their inner values tell them that this is unacceptable, so they project these feelings onto their spouse and accuse them of being unfaithful. This blame is actually a mechanism of denial so that they do not have to deal with, or feel guilty about, their own wandering desires. This sort of projection in relationships can put a great deal of stress and strain on things. After all, the innocent party is being accused of something they haven’t done. They will quite rightly defend themselves, often quite adamantly. Before long, you have a breeding ground of mistrust, poor communication, and doubt.

  1. Body Image Issues

When you look in the mirror and regard your reflection as imperfect in some way, you might choose to overlook these so-called flaws by taking every opportunity to spot them in others. Proclaiming someone else to be overweight, ugly, or to have some other unappealing physical attribute is most likely to occur when you have deep-seated image issues yourself. Projection allows you to take the loathing you have for your looks and distance yourself from them by focusing on other people.

  1. Disliking Someone

When we are young, we tend to get along with everyone, and this desire remains a part of us as we grow older. This means that when we find ourselves disliking someone, we usually project this feeling back onto them so that we can justify our own less-than-friendly behaviour. To put it another way, if you dislike Joe, and you are not willing to consciously admit to this, you might convince yourself that it is Joe who doesn’t like you. This protects you against feeling bad for disliking someone, no matter what your reasons are. If you had to really say why you disliked Joe (perhaps he is charming and you are not, or maybe he has a successful career and you’re unfulfilled in yours), you’d come face-to-face with qualities that you either don’t want to admit exist in you, or wish you had more of.

  1. Insecurity & Vulnerability

When we feel insecure about some aspect of ourselves, we seek out ways to identify some insecurity in other people. This is often the case with bullying behaviour where the bully will target the insecurities of others in order to avoid dealing with their own concerns. This is why they will look for the most vulnerable individuals who can be easily attacked without risk of emotionally painful retribution. It doesn’t have to be exactly the same insecurity that is targeted; often any will do. The person who worries that they are not smart enough will pick on the lack of romantic confidence in another who might target the financial anxieties of a third person.

  1. Anger

In an attempt to mask the anger that may be raging on the inside, some people project it onto those they are angry with. For instance, during an argument you may try to maintain a cool and measured exterior and even tell the other person to ‘calm down’ in order to deny the anger you are harbouring. Or you may use the actions of others to justify your anger towards them, even when an alternate approach could have been taken. Projecting anger onto someone else shifts the blame in your mind. You are no longer the reason for the conflict; you see yourself as the attacked, not the attacker.

  1. Reckless Behaviour

We may not like to admit it, but we all take part in behaviour that could be considered irresponsible from time to time. Whether it’s having a few too many drinks, taking unnecessary risks with our safety, or even being reckless with our money, we are all guilty of doing things that we probably shouldn’t. To avoid feelings of remorse, we project our irresponsibility onto others and criticise them for their actions. Sometimes we hone in on things that bear no relation to our own misdemeanours, and other times we scold people for doing precisely the things that we, ourselves, have done.

  1. Blaming the Victim

Blaming the victim is one of the most common examples of projection, where people will criticise the victim instead of the perpetrator of the crime saying that the victim somehow attracted their hostility. This is commonly seen in instances of rape (she was out drinking late at night, she wore so and so outfit).

“Lies rob us of our trust and we project our untrustworthiness onto everyone around us. Have you ever noticed that the innocent are very trusting? They neither lie nor hold other people’s lies against them. Liars, on the other hand, see sabotage everywhere.”

― Donna Goddard

Moving Away from Projection

Projection can be a conscious thing, but much of the time, it takes place below the surface as a function of the unconscious. Before you can begin to tackle the underlying issues, you must first recognise when and how you might be projecting onto others. While bringing self- awareness to the situation might help to uncover some instances, it is not always easy to identify those feelings you have buried deepest.

You might find great value in talking to a therapist who is trained to spot and gently tease out things that we might not immediately be aware of. Projection is often damaging to our relationships with others, so any attempt to eradicate it as a habit – either by yourself or with professional help – is worth it. When you are capable of facing unwelcome feelings head on, you’ll find they are far less draining or damaging in the long term.

“The Wounded Inner Child is the primary gateway to healing and integration. When you invite your woundedness out of subversiveness and into your awareness you finally begin to honor the past pain. You also minimise its contractive influence on your life. And you begin to offer yourself the potential of something more.”
― Markus William Kasunich

Self-Healing Technique

How many times a day do you find yourself expecting, judging and blaming, shaming and criticising? Pay attention now and make a list. Acknowledging projection requires your honesty, your attention and your awareness. It requires you to stop and take stock.

As within, so without. The stuff we see in others is a reflection of what is going on inside us. If you keep avoiding self-love, the universe will keep sending you people who also avoid loving you, hoping you get a little clue. This means that, all around you right now are golden clues to the treasure that is hidden in our unconscious mind, along with the keys to self-awareness to integrate and heal. 

What we see in others helps us find the way home.

The way home, to truth and openness and honesty.

The way home to those parts of Self we have buried.

The way home to face the wounds left unhealed.

The way home to own those aspects of all that we are.

The next time you open your mouth to bitch about someone. Stop. Listen to the words you are about to speak and be brave enough to hold them up as the mirror they are. Ask yourself:

What did I see in them that is a reflection of me?

What aspect of self do I not own?

What is the reason I do not own it?

What are the feelings and emotions in draws up from within?

What is the wounding, trauma or conditioning it triggers in me?

What is coming forth to be healed?

When those questions have been explored, the emotions felt and embraced, the wounds faced, the shadow integrated, you will sense an inner knowing that somehow you have started to master the art of Psychological Projection. You will know it and smile. Step by step, your projections become your teacher. As others trigger the gateways within, you will gradually shadow walk your way to self-healing, and your most magnificent life.

“By loving all the parts of you that I dislike in myself, I am learning to love me too.”

― Kate McGahan

How to Break the Habit

Projections are wildly different than someone offering constructive information about you. Projections are often angrily hurled as an attack, while valuable information about you is generally offered with kindness. Projections tend to create a sense of confusion; they are not about you, but the person projecting is saying something as if it is about you.

When your partner is insecure and afraid of commitment, instead of accepting this reality, they begin to punish you. They may insist that you make things difficult, that you’re always showing signs of distrust and a clear desire to cause them harm.

Psychological projection is a complex topic, and sadly, it occurs frequently. Many people who are subjected to psychological abuse continue projecting positive images onto their partner. Why? Because this way they can protect themselves from reality.

“If my partner feels jealous, it’s only because they love me.”

“My partner loves me deep down, sometimes they make mistakes, but they’re the one who cares about me the most.”

Projecting these ideas is distorting reality to create a new world that is less harmful, where we don’t have to accept the harshness of reality, where everyone is brave, where we’re able to react and defend ourselves.

Example

Frank is upset. Alice is trying her best to be there for him. Suddenly Frank attacks Alice with, “You have no compassion!”

If Alice takes the bait, she will defend herself, vehemently explaining that she is doing her very best to support Frank. However, no matter what she says, it does no good. In fact, it gets worse, as more insults are hurled her way.

Alice needs to understand that Frank is projecting. The real message behind “You have no compassion,” is “I have no compassion for myself or for you. I feel ashamed of myself for something I feel, want or have done. I don’t have the courage to face myself, so I’m defending against it by attacking you.”

What is the best thing to do in this situation?

Often, the best thing is to say something like, “This is not about me,” and then lovingly disengage – keeping your heart open, in case the other person decides to open to themselves up to you. It’s important to be compassionate with yourself because it’s confusing to be attacked about something that has nothing to do with you. We all want to be seen and understood by the important people in our lives, and it’s painful when they project their own issues onto us.

“If you were easier on yourself, you wouldn’t be so tough on everyone else.”
― Kate McGahan

Projection: Distorting Reality for One’s Own Benefit

So, what if you’re on the receiving end? The problem is not you, it’s them. Instead of facing the fact that they have a self-esteem problem, they punish you, providing evidence for things that aren’t real. They throw their anger at you like darts and project their negative emotions onto you so that they can achieve the following:

Ignore the problem and attribute it to others.

 

Free themselves of their internal load and leave it somewhere outside of them, on the people around them

 

Gain a clear position of power. “I don’t have a problem, other people do. The world should revolve around me.”

 

The belief that other people are the problem allows them to distort reality any way they want. They can believe in their fantasies and deny their true flaws.

“If you feel, looking at the pain of others, more pain than they actually feel, it is no longer empathy or compassion, it is projection.”

― Luigina Sgarro

Deciphering the Projection

Firstly, ensure that you are not projecting onto them. Is this constructive criticism or is it a projection? Is assuming this is projection, getting in the way of you looking at yourself? No? Then this how you decipher the projection: 

“You’re selfish.”

Translation: I’m being selfish and I don’t want to admit it or deal with it.

 

“You’re judgmental.”

Translation: I’m judging myself and I feel ashamed of this, so it’s easier to blame you instead.

 

“You’re angry.”

Translation: I’m angry, but I judge myself for being angry so I won’t admit it.

 

“Everything is about you.”

Translation: I’m being selfish and I don’t want to admit this.

 

“You’re crazy.”

Translation: I’m feeling or acting out of control and I can’t let myself know this.

 

“You’re abusive.”

Translation: I’m being abusive and I refuse to deal with myself.

The important thing to do in these situations is NOT to take the bait. If the person projecting can manipulate you into taking the bait, then they are off the hook and you are on it. Anytime you react, explain, defend, argue, teach, cry, attack back, give yourself up, project back, or any number of other ways of defending against the projection, the person projecting can now do exactly what they want to do – which is to focus on what you are doing rather than on themselves.

The worse they feel about what they have done, want or feel, the more attacking they may be. It’s a crazy-making situation, so generally the only thing you can do is remove yourself from the arena.

It’s human nature to want to protect yourself from painful or negative feelings and experiences. When this protection turns to projection, it may be time to take a look at why you’re doing it. Being brave and doing the work will improve your self-esteem and your relationships with others, whether they be co-workers, a spouse, or close friends. The trick to seeing through the guise of projection is to become aware of the sneaky habitual cycles we get into on a daily basis.

“Since the beginning of time, people have been trying to change the world so that they can be happy. This hasn’t ever worked, because it approaches the problem backward. What The Work gives us is a way to change the projector—mind—rather than the projected. It’s like when there’s a piece of lint on a projector’s lens. We think there’s a flaw on the screen, and we try to change this person and that person, whomever the flaw appears on next. But it’s futile to try to change the projected images. Once we realise where the lint is, we can clear the lens itself. This is the end of suffering, and the beginning of a little joy in paradise.”

― Byron Katie

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