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.