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.

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 thinIt 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.

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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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8 Responses to The Pot Calling the Kettle Black

  1. Cathy Sander says:

    So…how do we best take back these personal projections? It sounds like an impossible job, since these projections are mostly unconscious and by definition, aren’t accessible to consciousness.

  2. Art says:

    Curious….What about the insecure manager that is nerdy, unsocialized, and ultra neurotic? He/She micromanages people and projects his/her own insecurities or character weakness upon subordinates. I consider that a form of projection. The culpret “projecting” their insecurities on the group and making them uncomfortable. Any thoughts would be welcome and appreciated. Thanks!

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I’d agree that this example is an instance of projection. The different guises of projection are so vast you could write a whole book about them.

  3. Amy says:

    I have a younger brother who us two years younger than me. I am always telling him to do his work and stop being lazy. We often fight about this. My other family members make me feel guilty about this and say that I treat him badly. However, in the past he has neglected to do his schoolwork. Am I projecting my insecurities concerning my schoolwork and ability to complete assignments on him or am I just trying to make sure he does his work? In my eyes I am just trying to look out for him, but I am not sure if this could be a way of rationalizing a projection.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I don’t know … it seems to me there are several possible explanations, and one of them might be that you’re concerned that he get his work done. You’re not necessarily projecting.

  4. Cameron says:

    I like to distinguish between two forms of projecting. Cerebral and Emotional (or shame-based).

    Cerebral Projecting is more logical and occurs when someone assumes (via a rational thought process) that someone else has character X when they have that character. For example someone assumes someone is obsessed with sex because they are. Their theory of mind is based on themselves to an unnatural degree. But, there isn’t the same level of shame, anger or simply emotion attached to this kind of projecting (which technically means it’s not projecting , but bear with me as the word “projecting” is used as you stated in a wide variety of contexts and is useful generally to take responsibility for oneself and gain self-knowledge)

    The other kind is emotional projection (or the classic projection) and is accompanied by anger, jealousy and generally intense negative feeling. I think this projection is WAAY more damaging than the other stuff because it’s a selfish and destructive offload of one’s negative emotions which causes suffering, It also keeps the projector stuck because they aren’t aware of the true cause of their suffering (their shame).

    Narcissist’s are the worst for projection in my opinion, they do both the former (sometimes unforgivably in a deliberately destructive way) and the latter (of course having disowned selves they carry more shame then most). It’s not an exaggeration to say the world would be a much better place with no projecting.

    • Joseph Burgo says:

      I would definitely agree that narcissists are the worst for projection, for exactly the reason you give. It’s the lethal way they offload their disowned shame, forcing other people to carry it for them.

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