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.
Projection, while one of the basic defense mechanisms, also has its normal functions. You must have noticed how uncomfortable it feels to be around a screaming baby. Infants are completely helpless and have almost no understanding of their own experience; all they can do is make other people around them feel so uncomfortable that we’ll do something — feed them, comfort them, change their diaper, etc. So in an entirely appropriate way, babies project their unbearable experience into us as a kind of communication.
In the normal course of things, when they’re tended well enough or they’re not too difficult for their parents to bear, babies learn to understand and tolerate their experience. Over the years as they grow up, children don’t need constantly to project their experiences outside but can keep them inside and deal with those feelings themselves. It’s very much like other more practical parts of child-rearing: after a while, kids learn to use a knife and fork, dress themselves, tie their own shoes so we don’t have to do it for them. They learn how to bear their own emotional experience, too, so we don’t constantly have to help them bear what they feel.
That’s an ideal, of course. None of us is completely self-contained and stops projecting. And it’s also more complicated than my account so far makes it seem. Here’s a more complex example, one that I’m sure will resonate with many of you. When I’m very tired and not quite aware of how grouchy I am, other people start to do these extremely irritating things. They may behave in inconsiderate ways, not blatantly obvious but which are but clear to me because I’m such a sensitive and observant person and they are so clueless. I’ll start to criticize them, mentally and then overtly if I’m not onto myself.
So here’s what’s happening: I’ve got an unpleasant feeling that’s hard for me to bear alone. It takes a very mature and self-aware person to recognize fatigue and grouchiness and simply say I got a bad night’s sleep, or I overdid it this week and I’m feeling pretty thin. It has nothing to do with anyone else. Most of us will feel as if something outside (another person) is causing us to feel that way; we’ll blame them for it. If only he would stop being so annoying, I wouldn’t feel this way!
I think it’s the (sometimes unwanted) role of our loved ones to bear our experience for us when we can’t do it alone ourselves. Taking on that burden (our projections) is part of loving and caring for other people.
Finding Your Own Way
Review your communication patterns and try to understand how you share your difficulties: are you communicating and asking for the kind of limited help possible from a third party? Are you simply dumping or secretly asking him or her to fix it? Take a look at your friends: which of them brings you an experience and actually lets you help them with it? There is something so meaningful about having a loved one who can live through your most difficult experiences with you, and it’s important to let those people help, to give back your projections, along with their guidance, sympathy and understanding, and not to make them responsible for carrying your own emotions.
Projection is a part of normal adult life, but an inability to re-absorb those projections is a major obstacle to your personal growth.