What is psychological projection?
Psychological projection involves attributing the feelings and thoughts we don’t like in ourselves to those around us instead, without even realising we are doing so. And it’s a common habit we all tend to indulge in.
But psychological projection is also something that we can learn to stop doing, and by so doing we can improve our relationships both with others and ourselves.
What does psychological projection look like?
Psychological projection is in the way we decide to see others. It’s there when deep down we find a work colleague annoying, but rather than admitting this to ourselves and feeling 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? You are projecting.
It is behind things like bullying, where the bully secretly feels vulnerable so then makes others vulnerable to his or her actions.
And psychological projection is very common in parenting. It’s present when a parent who secretly feels a failure demands their child be perfect, or a mother with many hidden psychological challenges ends up with an anxious child she drags from therapist to therapist.
Forms of psychological projection you might overlook
Most often psychological projection is something we put onto another person, but it is possible to project onto an inanimate object or even situation. For example, ‘this car is so embarrassing it’s why no woman wants to date me’ or ‘I wasn’t stressed at all, it was just that we had to go to that funeral’ could both be forms of projection.
Psychological projection can be about positive attributes too, not just ones you perceive as negative. If you constantly think other people are very powerful and focussed, it could be that you are too insecure to see that you are these things yourself.
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.
It could even be said there is projection in the way we now make terrorists the source of all evil in society without ever looking at the ways we are cruel and unkind to others ourselves, or don’t pull our own weight within communities and globally.
Why do we project our feelings onto others?
Projection can be learned behaviour. If as children our parents or guardians projected their feelings onto others we can assume this is just 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.
But how does one 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 (for more on this read about attachment theory).
Or it might be a childhood trauma you experienced that left you sure that that certain feelings like sadness, anger, or sexual feelings are unacceptable.
Schools of thought about psychological projection
Freud labelled the way we unconsciously react in certain ways to protect ourselves from what we feel a threat as ‘ego defenses’, now commonly referred to as ‘defense mechanisms’. Psychological projection was seen by Freud as a defense mechanisms designed to help us feel safe from feeling judged for having apparently ‘unacceptable’ thoughts or feelings.
Jung connected psychological projection to his concept of ‘the shadow’. The shadow is the part of ourselves we refuse to identify with because we deem it as unacceptable and not ‘positive’. This includes things like anger, sadness, and vulnerability. Of course all these aspects are necessary parts that also give us useful things. For example, anger helps us set boundaries, and sadness helps us understand what happiness is.
For Jung, projection happens when we are not able to accept our shadow and its gifts but would rather thing we are only comprised of ‘positive’ things, imposing a judgement system on ourselves we must maintain by forcing others to be the scapegoat for parts of ourselves.
Melanie Klein, one of the founding figures of psychoanalytic theory who furthered Freud’s theories, pointed out that projection can also be not just about denying parts of ourselves but also about connecting ourselves to others in a way that allows us to feel we can acquire parts of what they have.
This makes most sense when looking at positive projection. For example, if you project your ability to be powerful onto another who happens to be very successful then it might be that you are unconsciously trying to attach yourself to their success.
Worried you are projecting but don’t know how to stop?
A lifetime spent making others responsible for any feeling you have that you aren’t comfortable with is not something that stops overnight. It is a process that involves becoming more honest about who you are, and more at home with yourself and your emotions.
If you worry you are projecting but find it overwhelming to figure out how it all began or how to stop, it might be helpful to talk to a counsellor or psychotherapist who is trained at helping you recognise your patterns and find new ways of approaching your relationships and life.
Do you have an example of projection you’d like to share? Do so below, we’d love to hear from you.