by Sue Kolod, Ph.D.
This post is in honor of Dr. Sigmund Freud on the occasion of the 165th anniversary of his birth.
In my psychotherapy practice, patients often complain that their spouse, close friend, or family member “projects” all the time. It usually sounds something like this:
“He was projecting on me!”
“I told her to stop projecting!”
Projection occurs when a person attributes a quality to another person that really comes from themselves.
Did you know that the concept of projection comes directly from Freud? Freud, who was trained as a neurologist, borrowed the term from neurology, where it referred to the capacity of neurons to transmit stimuli from one level of the nervous system to another.
People project all the time and it’s neither good nor bad, depending on which qualities are projected and whether or not they are denied in the self.
Projection can be the basis of wonderful qualities such as empathy, generosity, and romantic feelings—or negative qualities such as rage, greed, and contempt.
Projection both helps people to fall in love and also to hate and revile others.
But in common parlance, projection refers to negative qualities that are denied in the self and are seen as coming from the other person.
It’s easy to see when someone else is projecting. It’s a lot more difficult to notice when you’re the one projecting. Why? Because projection is unconscious.
Why Do People Project?
We often identify unpleasant, negative qualities in others that we hate in ourselves. This process occurs unconsciously.
Let’s take Freud’s classic example: a man who has been unfaithful to his wife but who accuses his wife of cheating on him. This man, who I’ll call Herr M, has high moral standards for himself. He thinks of himself as a good person, a good husband, a solid citizen. He is extremely critical of himself for engaging in infidelity but can’t seem to stop. Herr M unconsciously disowns and denies the fact of his own infidelity which he would find unacceptable in another person, and projects it onto his wife, thus making her into the “bad one."
In Herr M’s mind, the fact of his own infidelity has nothing to do with his suspicions of his wife. This is sometimes called “compartmentalization,” as he keeps his infidelity in a separate, sealed-off compartment. This allows him to feel like a good person when he is engaging in behavior that is unacceptable to him.
Another Type of Projection
Here is another example from my practice: Sarah has always been a “good girl,” which to her means that she never expresses anger or aggression. If she ever starts to feel angry toward someone, she quickly pushes away that feeling and tries hard to be nice. If her husband, Jim, makes a request of her, like asking her to put away her mail, she often responds by insisting that he is angry at her. Jim is baffled by this since he did not feel angry when he made the request. However, Sarah, who is unaware of her own anger, agrees to put away the mail but then “forgets” which does make Jim angry, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Homophobia, defined as a dislike or hatred of gay people, is an excellent example of projection.
Consider Sam. He comes from a very religious background. Although he considers himself to be heterosexual, he sometimes finds himself having romantic fantasies about two very attractive gay men at his workplace. He dismisses the thought he could be sexually attracted to another man and avoids the men. Eventually, he convinces himself that they're promiscuous and want to seduce him. He sees the sexual attraction as coming from them, not from himself. As a result, Sam views the gay co-workers as “bad people.”
In its most extreme form, projection is the basis of paranoia. Fears of persecution, irrational hatred of an individual or group, jealousy in the absence of evidence of betrayal, and the belief that a desired person who is taboo for whatever reason desires you, all result from the projection of unconscious negative states of mind onto another person. Paranoia, then, involves the denial of a personal tendency and the belief that this tendency is coming from the other person.
Are You Projecting?
It’s easy to notice when other people are projecting. It’s a lot more difficult to notice this tendency in ourselves.
Here are some signs that you might be projecting:
- Feeling overly hurt, defensive, or sensitive about something someone has said or done.
- Feeling highly reactive and quick to blame.
- Difficulty being objective, getting perspective, and standing in the other person's shoes.
- Noticing that this situation or your reactivity is a recurring pattern.
If you notice any of these, ask yourself:
- Is the behavior I dislike in this person something I find intolerable in myself?
- In what ways do I act like this person?
- What types of stories am I telling myself about this person or situation?
- Who or what does this person or situation remind me of?
If you can accept all of your thoughts and feelings and not try to get rid of them, you won’t need to project them onto others. In addition, you will become a more tolerant and flexible person.
Susan Kolod, Ph.D., is co-Chair of the Committee on Public Information and co-editor of the blog “Psychoanalysis Unplugged” at the American Psychoanalytic Association. She is a supervising and training analyst, faculty, and co-founder of the blog “Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Action” at the William Alanson White Institute. Dr. Kolod has a private practice in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
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