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  • Writer's pictureAnnelisa MacBean

What is Projection?

Projection is a psychological defense mechanism in which people attribute characteristics they find unacceptable in themselves to others. For example, a husband who has a hostile or aggressive nature but is unconscious of his anger issues might attribute hostility to his wife, telling her that she has an anger escalation problem. Projection can result in false accusations, such as someone with adulterous feelings possibly accusing their partner of infidelity.

The source of projections are unresolved experiences, emotions and trauma that a child's young, undeveloped nervous system could not process or complete. These could be big, abusive events; the loss of a parent; a divorce; or smaller, steady, subtle drippings of shame, diminishment or intimidation, as well as physical abandonment or psychological/emotional isolation. These can all lead to conditioning a child's self-perception and the need to repress or deny certain painful or difficult feelings.

"Unexperienced experiences" are remembered somatically, even though conscious access to those experiences and the associated feelings is cut off. While repressing our feelings serves a survival function when we're little, this repression or denial can distort our adult perceptions when the need for such defense mechanisms is no longer required. In the case of projection, we are insisting that the world around us is still the world we grew up in. We are running the child's beliefs and perceptions in adult scenarios, and that projection of the past onto the present warps our capacity to see what is currently, really truly there in front of us.

Projection is rooted in unconsciousness and so it is a distortion of reality. When a person says “She hates me” instead of expressing what is actually felt, which is “I hate her,” the truth of one's feelings are repressed or denied, seeking reflection through projection.

There are three generally accepted types of projection:

  1. Neurotic projections are the most common form of projection and are clearly intended to defend the person doing the projecting. Something is too painful to be consciously acknowledged internally. It is expressed outwardly instead, literally projected onto others in the same way a projector beams a film image onto a screen. The projector can't see the image being passed through the camera lens, but it appears on the screen across the room. People imagine, perceive and attribute feelings, motives, or attitudes they find unacceptable or threatening in themselves to someone else.

  2. Complementary projection occurs when people assume others feel the same way they do. For example, a person with a specific political orientation might take it for granted that friends and family members share their beliefs. There isn't an open-minded curiosity about how others may think differently. The key to this form of projection is rooted in unconscious assumptions about others based on a self-centric orientation to what is.

  3. Complimentary projection is the assumption other people can do the same things as well as oneself. For example, an accomplished coder might take it for granted that other engineers can code equally well. This can result in inconsistent, even seriously disruptive dynamics on workplace teams when the self-referenced expectations or assumptions of team leaders or managers don't prove out. Similarly in a parent/child dynamic, for example, an adult who is in denial about their own failed aspirations or accomplishments may have difficulty calibrating the differential between adult capacities and those of a child. There may be inordinate expectations placed on a child's academic or athletic performance followed by abusive shaming or humiliation when the child can't measure up.

Engaging in either complimentary or complementary projection can allow people to feel more like others or relate to them easily.

It is fairly common for most people to engage in some degree of projection from time to time. Many people who project their feelings on occasion do not do so as a result of any underlying pathology. Its important to note that we can project positive attributes onto others that we can't own or claim, or which we feel we lack, as well as those negative attributes that are too painful, shameful or threatening to admit. Either way, and even in cases of casual or infrequent projection, it most often occurs when individuals cannot accept their own impulses or feelings.

Projection is a fundamental a symptom of narcissistic and borderline personalities. A person with narcissistic traits who does not respect their partner may say to the partner, “You don’t respect me or see my true worth.” Some individuals with borderline personality may be afraid of feeling the pain and anger of abandonment and the loss of the people they loved in childhood. They might project this pain and anger by frequently accusing friends or partners of planning to leave. Importantly, individuals who project their feelings in this way are not necessarily narcissists or borderlines! These examples are intended only to amplify the point.

Projections are never an accurate read or description of what is happening in the present. Projections are colored by the unconscious parts of ourselves. It's only when we become aware and conscious that we can withdraw our projections and see who we are and where we stand in relationship to the others in our lives. Self inquiry and the willingness to look within, to meet those unmet, unresolved feelings becomes a journey of self-discovery. Owning our projections leads to sense of wholeness; a sweet combination of authority over the truth of our experiences and a tender humility in the recognition and acceptance of the truth of who we are.

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