The Pot Calling the Kettle Black

Projection is another one of those concepts that has entered the culture and is widely understood, even by people who’ve never had any kind of psychotherapy.  “Oh, stop projecting,” a friend might say.  What is usually meant is that you are criticizing another person for doing something when you, in fact, are the guilty party.  Our expression, The pot calling the kettle black, neatly captures this idea.

But projection is a much wider and more common phenomenon and everyone projects to some degree.  The basic process is simple:  when there is something too painful to bear or accept, we block it out or disavow it, we unconsciously disown awareness of that experience.   And because parts of our psyche don’t simply disappear when we disown them, they show up someplace else outside of us, and usually inside of somebody else.

Here’s a classic example.   Perhaps like me you’ve known a very calm, cerebral, almost detached sort of man.  He might be an engineer, a lawyer or some kind of scientist, someone with an analytical mind and his emotional life severely under control.  I’ve known a number of men like this and they often end up married to extremely emotional and needy women.  From my experience, it’s a familiar dynamic:  the one partner gets rid of a large slice of his emotional life and projects it into the other partner, who carries it for him.  I’m not needy, you are.  I don’t experience a lot of painful and scary feelings, you do. This happens outside of awareness, of course; that is, it’s unconscious.

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Psychological Defensiveness and Self-Deception

[NOTE:  OTHER ARTICLES ON THIS SITE THAT DEAL WITH THE ISSUE OF PSYCHOLOGICAL DEFENSES CAN BE FOUND UNDER THE SUBJECT MENU HEADING “DEFENSE MECHANISMS” IN THE SIDEBAR AT THE RIGHT.]

Almost everyone understands the basic concept of psychological defense mechanisms.  At one time or another, we’ve all said (or been told), “Stop being so defensive!” We understand that the defensive person is protesting a little too strongly against something he or she doesn’t want to admit is true. Take that dynamic inside the mind and you have an internal defense.

One of my favorite theorists, Roger Money-Kyrle, looked back over his long career as a therapist and the different ways he had conceived of defenses; in the end, he came to think of them as lies we tell ourselves to ward off truths too painful to accept or unbearable emotions and feelings.  What makes them so difficult for us to recognize ourselves is that we’ve spent a lifetime believing those lies and we want to go right on believing them because the alternative is to feel pain.  It’s much easier to identify someone else’s defenses than our own.

If you think about your friends and family, I’ll bet you can identify someone with a defense that you and others around him can easily see but he can’t.  For example, I have an acquaintance who regularly falls out with her other friends and becomes indignant about the insensitive ways they treat her.  The other person is always to blame for the disagreement.  She isn’t my client, and I’ve never talked to her about this pattern, but I’m fairly confident she suffers from deep-seated feelings of shame and unworthiness.  She can’t face those emotions and wards them off with an indignant sense that others have treated her badly.

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