Projecting and the Law of False Attribution

I’ve been meaning to write this post for more than a year now; from the beginning, I’ve had this particular title in mind although I’m not 100% sure that it’s the right one. If anyone has a better suggestion for how to name this particular mental process, feel free to submit a comment.

I call the phenomenon I want to describe a “law” because it seems to be a fundamental principle of human mental functioning, an in-built assumption that if I am feeling bad, then someone or something is causing me to feel that way. In other words, we attribute a cause-and-effect relationship between the way we are feeling and the actions of people around us. Sometimes this attribution may be accurate — Your continual criticisms are causing me to feel terrible — but on other occasions, it may be false: The way you chew your food is driving me crazy! In the latter case, I am probably feeling irritable, tired and grouchy; rather than recognizing that I feel the way I do because I didn’t get enough sleep last night or because work today was highly stressly, I falsely account for those feelings by attributing them to you and your irksome way of chewing.

I’ve used the example of grouchiness before, describing it as a type of projection: the bad feeling inside becomes a persecutor outside. The idea for this post re-surfaced one day last week when I was feeling extremely grouchy; the inconsiderate members of my family kept doing one incredibly annoying thing after another! It was their fault I was feeling the way I did (and not that I was exhausted); I naturally wanted to retaliate with sharp and angry words, to punish them for making me feel that way. At this point in my life, I know myself well enough not to believe this process of false attribution, although I can’t claim that I was entirely successful at keeping my bad mood to myself. At such moments, I sometimes remind myself of my mother, who could fill a room with her silent accusatory rage. When the mood passes, I am often filled with profound shame.

I believe this law of false attribution underlies the process of projection; as a principle of mental functioning, it’s built into our brains at birth, coloring our perceptions of the world and our earliest relationships with people around us. For those of you familiar with Melanie Klein and object relations theory, I’m talking about the origins of primitive objects — the good breast and the bad breast. With my students and supervisees, I often say that the notion of an actual mother who happens to be absent at the moment is a very sophisticated concept, beyond the mental abilities of an infant. The newborn does not understand that this feeling in its body is hunger, and the mother able to satisfy it hasn’t yet responded. Instead, the infant “thinks”: something bad is causing this bad feeling in my body. In other words, the baby attributes its bad feeling to the actions of something external, something bad. It responds with feelings of fear and hatred toward the bad object.

So rather than reognizing that the good breast is absent, the infant believes that a very bad breast is present, inflicting this pain upon it. As the infant’s brain matures within the context of a good-enough mothering experience, the baby eventually achieves what is called object constancy: it “realizes” that the painful feelings of hunger and longing are not caused by a bad object but instead result from the absence of a good one, its actual mother. Instead of hating the bad object because of the bad feelings it causes, the baby develops an ability to endure its own painful feelings and wait for Mommy to come back.

This may seem abstract and theoretical but at moments, many of us react just like infants even if we don’t always show it. I expect that most of you can relate to my description of grouchiness. You might have felt absolutely convinced that the incredibly annoying people around you were causing you to feel the way you did but restrained yourself with the same kind of self-awareness that kept me from snapping. By contrast, men and women who struggle with the symptoms of borderline personality disorder may be unable to understand the actual reasons for the painful ways they feel; instead, they falsely attribute blame to the people around them. For example, the friendly way you’re talking to the sales clerk might make me feel insecure or jealous … that is, it causes me pain. On an unconscious level, I then assume that you are deliberately causing me to feel that pain and I may hate you for it. You might abruptly transform from a person that I love into someone I attack and vilify.

Treating people as “bad” because of the painful ways they make you feel also sheds light on some features of the narcissistic personality. When the narcissist feels threatened by an experience of shame, for example, rather than becoming painfully aware of her own damage and limitations, she feels attacked. The unacknowledged bad feeling (shame) is being caused by something bad outside; she then wants to retaliate against the supposed cause of her bad feelings. As a result of this law of false attribution, his behavior toward the people close to him can become quite savage.

This dynamic underlies the character of the vindictive narcissist — the subject of my next post.

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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40 Responses to Projecting and the Law of False Attribution

  1. KT says:

    I recognize all of these experiences. The grouchiness and inexplicable reasons for it, the post grouchy shame. The energy trying not to be outwardly grouchy and attack. Maybe the compensation of then being overly nice and finally the horrifying feeling of being “this close” to behaving like my mom. Who was really just kind of an angry horrible person all of the time. (Thinking of my mom’s breasts is also a horrifying thought-thanks) I do not know if this is positive, but the poor person who I don’t restrain my cranky angry self with is my therapist. I have never been able to let my grouchiness out so much. It must be a level of trust I have with him but the shame afterwards can be unbearable. He seems to understand what’s going on (see your post above about breasts). Thank God. I am assuming I will work through this with him at some point. Looking forward to identifying with the Vindictive Narcissist!

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      That is exactly what your therapist is for and he sounds like a good one. I know what you mean about that horrifying feeling of being “this close” to behaving like your mom. Been there.

  2. Jenny says:

    I can definitely relate to attributing grouchiness to other people. Sometimes it really does feel as if everyone I encounter woke up that day with the solitary goal of annoying me. Of course, I realize the absurdity of that but thinking of it that way is often a good way for me to get a handle on the grouchiness.

    I’m curious, though, how we can understand what a pre-verbal infant is thinking. How do we know that they start out thinking about the presence of a bad object, rather than the absence of a good object?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      We can’t really know, of course; it’s more of a reconstruction, based on long-term psychotherapy, where you infer certain states of mind. Especially with very ill people who haven’t grown up emotionally, who are still “infants” in some sense, they relate to the therapist in just this way, where during absence (the time between sessions), the therapist goes “bad”.

  3. Gordon says:

    I’ve never really thought about the cause behind projection. Interesting.

    Here is my hypothesis:
    Babies need to feel they are in control of the object. When they feel they aren’t in control they respond with fear and fustration, but when the object becomes reliable enough they substitute control over the object for trust over the object because it’s less stressing.
    I think part of the pain a narcissist feels when they are shamed may have something to do with them not feeling when they where babies that the object was reliable enough and thus are still trying to control the object. When they feel a lack of control they respond with fear and fustration. I think this fustration gets turned into anger as they get older when their parents’ failures of empathy make them feel like they can’t communicate their needs and thus further reinforces their feelings of lack of control.
    I think projection is just a tool the subconcious then uses to try to control. For example: If I feel inadequate I project this onto other people in the hope to reduce their adecuacy to make me more adecuate, as adecuacy is relative.

    These are just the thoughts of an amateur. ( Maybe my inadequacy example was a freudian slip).

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Interesting ideas. Melanie Klein and others in the object relations school have written about the relationship between control and frustration, but they reverse the relationship: it’s the experience of fear and frustration that leads to fantasies of controlling the object. I agree with what you say about narcissists and the unreliable object.

  4. Lina says:

    Thank you for posting this! I can very much recognize myself in your words. They ring so true and you have such a clear way of writing. About six months ago I had an experience that exposed my own feeling towards myself and I realized that I would do almost anything to avoid shame. The fear of being exposed was enormous. I have since practiced letting myself feel shame when it arises and just observe where it comes from and why it is so bad. Even writing this is painful, but I really want to understand what is going on. I think I know why shame is so bad. It is because it hits me at my core. When I get unreasonably angry because I cannot find something I am looking for or because someone in my family has moved the cheese in the refrigerator from where I put it, I sometimes snap. Not often, but it happens. When I do, or rather afterwards I feel so ashamed I find it hard to apologize. Even when my anger has no person as target, I feel ashamed. I feel so defective. The fact that I cannot contain myself makes me feel that I am bad. How can I stop myself from displaying inappropriate anger? Can you give me some insight as to where it has its origin? People themselves tend not to awaken my anger so much. The main triggers seem to be when I am stressed and I can’t find what I am looking for. I would like to be able to stop behaving like this. I would be very grateful for your thoughts on this.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I can’t explain how to stop displaying inappropriate anger, but I think you are on the right track in exploring your shame. That’s very brave — most people don’t seem to be able to do that on their own. Your description of feeling “defective” is apt — that’s the core of shame.

  5. You can’t be perfect all the time. My partner tells me when she’s feeling grouchy and so I keep a low profile until her mood changes. On my part I tend to attribute physical causes to my bad moods rather than other people. When I feel mad at other people it’s usually due to an interactional reason I recognise, but am sometimes too cowardly or tactful to own up to. People don’t fit together like pieces in a jigsaw; there are corners that irritate others. The healthy state of mind is when we know this and find some interactive way of smoothing the edges.
    I once shared a room at university with a fellow student who stuttered. At night when he slept he made a lip-smacking noise while he slept which drove me crazy. I didn’t want to look as though I was insensitive to his profound stutter by embarrassing him about his irritating lip-smacking. So I ended up throwing shoes at his sleeping, lip-smacking form. And of course I felt ashamed. These days I’d tell him that I coudln’t sleep and that he might like to think about how he could avoid the noise.

  6. Jayne says:

    As always, this is a clear and concise description of a complicated defense mechanism, and it is helpful to see how it can function even in psychologically sophisticated individuals. I might be tempted to call it a “rule” rather than a “law”, especially since the meaning of “rule” can be both “law” and “governance” and may speak more to the automatic and unconscious process of false attribution you describe in this piece.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Although rule as that other meaning, of something required to be done. Maybe it’s just a “principle”.

  7. Izzy says:

    Interesting and very relatable. I can certainly see this play out in my own life…and on the therapists’ couch. Although I don’t have BPD, I struggled (increasingly) with feelings of abandonment when my therapist left for vacation, went to a seminar, etc etc. Acute feelings of fear and anger arose and I tended to focus the cause of those solely on his “leaving.” My bad feelings were an effect of his departures or lack of consistency; as a result of that interpretation, I tended to blame him and push away. Dare say at times – bordering on hate. Over time though, I noticed that beyond the fear and the anger were hurt, sadness, and anxiety. Longing even. I missed him and that missing was painful. Very, very painful. I know now to just let myself feel that pain and longing and treat that pain compassionately. I’ve discovered that when I do that – not only can I live a good life even without our regular sessions, but he never feels very far away. (Cue tearing up now because he’s on vacation and I’m cycling through this a lot!)

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      What a perfect description of growth in therapy. This is how the relationship between client and therapist becomes the medium for growth, where you develop new emotional capacities via that relationship: In the beginning, when your therapist left he became “bad”; but over time, you developed the ability to hold onto the idea of the “good” therapist even when he was away, to miss and pine for him instead of hating him. It’s very hard for people who haven’t had this kind of therapy to understand that process. Thanks!

      • Izzy says:

        Sure. Over time is very accurate. Shame and self-disgust definitely accompanied the recognition of need and longing. As I grew more cognizant of the need, I also grew more critical of myself. That criticism eventually led me to the point of having no idea why he would choose to spend his professional life being anywhere close to someone like me. It was deeply troubling; I felt completely unworthy. Unlovable. Bad. It’s taken his very consistent ‘you-are-ok-I-like-who-you-are’ approach and a lot of my own conscious effort to challenge that untrue story of lack of worth and move slowly past the shame and into (moments of) both expression of difficult feelings and acceptance of need. Though I still have days that I struggle with it all and those moments of connectedness and acceptance feel very fragile, tenuous, so new, I think you’re right…this newfound emotional range is proof of growth. Pretty amazing stuff, this therapy business. When I think back to the reason I first stepped into that office and I look how far we’ve come…I just have to laugh. He absolutely deserves this long vacation. ;)

        • cilipadi says:

          Thanx for your sharing…struck me deep…not a therapist but am a doc.Having my own problem with my partner.He is still refusing to see that he is in the same situation as you were before…i realised some months before…i want us to change…i cannot stand life with him anymore if we continue in the same manner…him projecting , me the target and then myself projecting/displacing to the kids…threatening to leave…does it make his sufferings worst…he does not show it…how can he since he’s not admitting he is the dysfunctional one?Admittedly,i was also dysfunctional but i tried hard to change when i realised my weaknesses.Wish me luck.

  8. anna tomy xx says:

    thank you yet again for such an illuminating post ~ it explains beautifully the pain & shame of most of my personal history…

  9. JLynne says:

    Being Borderline, having such intense feelings makes it difficult to not try to find the reason so you can ‘fix’ it. Sometimes I don’t know who is who, when, where, or why. It’s infuriatingly maddening and makes one questions one’s sanity (or lack thereof).
    Just out of curiousity, do people do the same thing if they are really feeling good/euphoric? Do they attribute it to something someone else is doing?
    Thanks for the informative article:)

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I think we tend to attribute the bad far more often than the good, don’t you? We blame as a defense but when we feel good, we don’t need to defend against it.

  10. Rocky says:

    Again, very good. Question: does this apply to a circumstance, for example, if a daughter experienced abandonment from her father time after time (set visitation dates and times and then subsequently cancelled them about a dozen times a year over a period of years), but then gets angry at the mother for leaving her with a friend of the family when she had to go on a three-day trip for work? This client expresses great anger at the mother, who has been consistent and present with the child except with that circumstance3, yet the father is the one who emotionally abandoned the child regularly.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      That sounds to me like displacement. The anger is meant for someone who seems to be too emotionally immature to “take it,” so instead she expresses it as the one who can take it — the reliably consistent mother.

      • Sfh says:

        Rocky’s example is one I relate to — and I have teenagers. For years their father has been little more than s buddy. Even they bring up how inconsistent and self absorb he is and his inability to provide any tangible support. But when it comes to confronting him or making clear they need more, they avoid it. But when it comes to me it’s different. Not only does these feel unfair, but I am more concerned that they will unconsciously set themselves up in a similar pattern where they are overburdened with a slacker, self absorbed and limited partner. Since that is what happened in my case. The only difference was my father worked hard at his spiritual calling and learned over time to be more giving and open — accepting he had a lifelong battle with insecurity and passive aggressiveness and avoidance. Seeing someone change (albeit slowly and incrementally) has also made me a sucker for “human potential” and the belief people can be transformed. I don’t know if this is wishful thinking or innate optimism misapplied.

        • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

          Kids have a way of taking their needs and anger to the parent able to tolerate it, while making excuses for the less competent one. Not fair, but that’s how it often happens. As for optimism vs. wishful thinking: professionally, I have a profound faith in the capacity for human beings to change with a lot of hard work; in my personal life, I try to take people exactly as they are and remember that most people don’t really change. They truly don’t.

          • cilipadi says:

            Wellsaid SFH.I feel the same way…about my partner…regarding the kids.Regarding your father,i feel have been in his situation…through my own spiritual experiences i learn to overcome my dysfunctions…Dr Burgo,i think people can change if they want to…especially with the help of the divine.Concept of ‘human potential’…SFH…i am also passionate about this concept.Best of luck for all of us.

  11. RC says:

    Good post. Like others, this is me all over.

    I struggle with a kind of “global” anger that has little focus or definition and can be triggered by relatively minor things. It’s like a foundational “layer” just below the surface at all times.

    So, when I got a flat tire on my bike the other day and was having trouble fixing it, frustration immediately flared up into an extremely child-like fit of “this f-ing thing sucks. I suck. The whole world sucks! It’s all hopeless!” And while I’m aware that my bike tire isn’t out to ruin my life, I still threw a tantrum…almost even before I knew it was happening.

    The more I explore this feeling, belief (and response) about the world and myself, the more it seems to come from a place in my life around the age of 5…a time when I began to understand – finally – that my parents had little interest in me and I was being bullied at school.

    I guess this would fall into the “displacement” kind of anger that you mention above?

    Thanks.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      That does sounds like a kind of displacement. My own therapist used to call what you’re describing as “rage looking for a reason.” A kind of underlying rage that’s latent and always looking for a reason to explode.

  12. Sfh says:

    I’d like your opinion of EFT. Do you think it is helpful and that someone who learns the routine for themselves can help things like anger or sadness?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I don’t know much about EFT so I can’t really give an opinion as to its value. It is very different from the kind of work I do.

  13. Cecylia Escarcega says:

    Thank you for writing about shame with such insight as to where it comes from and why it stays. Thank you everyone who also writes about his/her own struggle with shame. I’ve learned so much about my shame and am realizing that I am not alone in my struggle. This doesn’t necessarily make it less painful, but I think that I am able to face it without wanting to run underneath the bus.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      When we struggle with shame, it’s so easy to idealize other people and to believe we’re alone in our suffering. But in my experience, a great many people feel exactly the way you do.

  14. Steve Weintz says:

    I wonder if there’s a fundamental struggle in the human psyche between “Chance” and “Agency.” An infant probably has no grasp of the random forces that shape Earthly existence, and knows only beings like ‘Mommy,’ with will and intention. If a young mind were reinforced by experiences of joy and pain coming from the same agencies (“Mommy puts me down to work on the computer — what’s wrong with me that she wants to pay attention to that thing rather than me?”), then a pathway towards dysfunction is laid.

    There a number of human societies whose members *do not believe in natural death.* This inevitable part of human experience is believed to be caused by the willful actions of real people, and in these societies accusations of witchcraft and sorcery are used to settle all manner of social scores. In these societies Agency trumps Chance with serious consequences.

    The visceral reaction some people have to those parts of the Western scientific paradigm, especially evolution, relativity and quantum mechanics, that depend most on Chance and least upon Agency, perhaps may be influences discussed in your post.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      It’s very hard to tolerate the true nature of our existence, how much chance plays a role in our lives, and how utterly vulnerable we are in a random universe. I’m not the first to point out that many primitive religions have their roots in the wish to believe we can influence our unpredictable environment (i.e., if I make this particular sacrifice, rain will come). I think this is part of the reason why people so object to the Western scientific paradigm.

  15. Karen Authelet says:

    What if I am constantly reacting grouchy and complaintive towards my boyfriend who I believe has severe narcissistic tendencies, because of the way he treats me? I guess that would not be the same as false attribution would it? I mean the way he treats me fits a narcisscistic profile to a scary degree and I constantly feel deeply hurt by his actions and thus I react to him with anger and complaints. And he responds to me as if I am wrong for my actions and like I have no right to cconstantly complain. All I know is I am hurting and I feel like I have to point out what he does and how it hurts me, although it doesn’t make a difference either way. Although I do know that my reactions are not proper either, it is hard not to respond to him that way when I feel I am being mistreated.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      You’re right, it doesn’t sound like a case of false attribution. If what you say is true, you might need to get yourself out of this relationship. If he truly does fit the “narcissistic profile to a scary degree,” why are you still with him?

      • Karen Authelet says:

        Like I told my therapist, I keep running back to him for the last five years. You see…I feel that I too have underlying issues due to be adopted as a newborn and my adopted father leaving us when I was three. As an adult, although I’m aware of what I’m doing…it has taken me until now for me to see that I need help and that I can’t fix this one on my own. It’s just that I got so attached to him, but the verbal abuse and his constant painful actions…I guess have me reliving the abandonment, has almost completely worn away my self esteem, and now I’m feeling like nobody else will ever love me. My head knows better…but my heart…or that part of me feels broken.

  16. Denise Hisey says:

    Ouch.
    I’ve projected more times than I’ll ever be able to count.
    And like KT commented, my therapist has often been the recipient of my projections! Thankfully, she can separate that out and help me understand what’s going on with me. It’s becoming rare for me to project with my husband and kids now -what a relief!

  17. Alastair says:

    Projection and false attribution of feelings. This is such an interesting topic, and I appreciate this website’s tone of compassion and careful introspection and thought.

    After psychotherapy I know how a rigid and powerful personality relied on (and still relies on, in old age) un-consciously projecting exaggerated feelings of helplessness and fear into others while adopting a role of carer (having the power to care). The way a person loves can be like this, and a state of mutual dependency is set up: “You can’t cope, and I will care for you so you never develop the ability to cope apart from me, and meanwhile I will continue to cope by not having to cope with what I can’t cope with becauyse you need me so much and I love you”.
    It is done in the thousand tiny ways that make up a person’s being – my father’s, for example. The net of exaggerated fears closes all the more tightly around the loving pair because there are not the emotional resources to manage the real causes of fear and helplessness, i.e. the actual chaos that surrounds BOTH carer and cared-for.

    Being a carer, and (its necessary corollary) maintaining a position of needlessness and power to do the caring, can be all a person is. Their being IS that.

    After psychotherapy there may be the knowledge that loving this way is all that one is composed of. So many internet resources on disorders of self and other conditions treated in psychotherapy fail to acknoweldge or really understand that there is no other person(ality) operating things from behind-the-scenes. I think this web resource is not of that kind. Here the understanding prevails that “defences” are absolutley necessary, and the means to psychic survival in certain conditions. Everybody has them, everybody needs them. There is a spectrum, and it is usually simply the vague understanding that one is not “functioning” as one hoped or expecdted to be, that demarcates a patient needing help from someone who never seeks therapy.

    Psychotherapy enables a person to witness themselves doing the projecting, and – if they can stick to it, and bear it – recover the feelings that the “defence” holds at bay. But what then for the patient? Knowledge of fragmentation, emptiness? Knowledge, perhaps, of having been psychotic (when the world crashes through the last layer of who one thinks one is)!?

    I wish there was a bigger space for “after psychotherapy”. Alice Miller was right when she said that nothing can ever make up for what happened in the past. In that sense psychotherapy promises too much. I struggle after psychotherapy, with devaluation and self-destructive patterns. I have only the memory of doing the hardest work of my life in therapy, building trust, being (able to be) seen, being (able to be) held. Writing things once in a while, as now, I recapture a little bit of the significance of self disorder and what it actually means for a person and one’s forebears; its frightening dimensions and its being an indictment of some of the social forces in our lives today.

    Being able to be with another and to access and hold on to the feeling of sadness over loss is the route back to love and self-respect. Perhaps you understand what I mean about needing another person to witness one’s plight? Yet there is no forcing another to be the one to do that witnessing, even while the deepest need is for that other.

    This is my condition now, after psychotherapy, and surely others’ too? There is a seam of anger and wanting-to-punish because I cannot show my grief and have it acknowledged. Yet I DO have that grief and sadness. I contain it. That is all I am and I feel half a person while I cannot be IN that feeling.
    How can I fill this emptiness? The daily business of looking after oneself weakly papers over the trauma. Showing others that one is looking after oneself, finding and holding down a job, trying to get to work on time, trying – and sometimes failing – to avoid self-destructive acts and withdrawal is all one can do merely to qualify for opportunities for meeting others and perhaps finding that one is oneself needed. Carry on.
    Carry on.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      “Alice Miller was right when she said that nothing can ever make up for what happened in the past. In that sense psychotherapy promises too much. I struggle after psychotherapy, with devaluation and self-destructive patterns.”

      One of the things I always tell my clients is that psychotherapy can’t make them into the person they might have been if only … We never fully recover from the damage that is done to us during childhood, but that doesn’t mean we can’t grow and develop in ways that make our lives feel much better and more meaningful. I do think that a certain amount of grief and lasting (bearable) shame remains even after good psychotherapy.

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