Projection: how you create your world
Projection is one of the classic psychological defence mechanisms described by Sigmund Freud in psychoanalysis. According to Freud, a defence mechanism, such as projection, is used for two primary reasons. Firstly, to defend anxiety. The subject at risk of experiencing overwhelming anxiety uses a psychological defence mechanism to establish an internal (intrapsychic) firewall that prevents her conscious ego being flooded by the anxiety inducing content. The second is to maintain the subject’s self-schema or sense of identity. Anything that contradicts this established sense of identity is barred access to the conscious ego through the defence mechanism. This prevents the established narrative and sense of identity unravelling.
In the case of projection this is done by unconsciously displacing the problematic value in question and attributing it to something or someone else, thereby (seemingly) divesting oneself of the issue. The subject herself is not dishonest/dysfunctional/ destructive – for example, any quality, negative or positive can be projected – but “sees”, i.e. seemingly perceives, this value in another, others or the world at large. She displaces her own unconscious value onto the other and thereby relates to it as something that is not her. By doing this she externalises the conflict so that the conflict is between her and the other (person, institution, the world et al.) rather than an internal conflict between conflicting values or desires within herself.
The concept of projection was borrowed from neuroscience by Freud, who was himself a neurologist. It describes the neurological process whereby the subject renders an externalised multidimensional world based of the neurological process of interpreting and making sense of incoming sensory input. What the subject sees, hears, smells, feels, tastes are out there (in the world), rather than in here (the brain). The act of perception then is one where the externalised perception is rendered or constituted (projected) by the mind, utilising the incoming sensory input.
The world we so perceive however is not only physical but symbolic. The symbolic dimension is the dimension of meaning and the way we arrive of this meaning through language, abstract ideas, value, ethics, affect etc. This is important because our interest in projection is how it influences and to a degree creates the subject’s symbolic universe, rather then the physical sensory world.
In the case of projection, as we use the term in psychoanalysis, the symbolic world that is rendered is distorted by a certain cognitive bias. At the level of meaning, affect and value the world is a tapestry of the subject’s symbolic content both conscious and unconscious.
More specifically our focus then in psychoanalysis is:
- the way that the subject’s unconscious content distorts the subject’s symbolic universe, and
- how such distortion may be addressed when it leads to maladaptation and diminished or problematic relatedness.
Carl Gustav Jung makes the point that the technical use of the term projection for psychoanalysis is specific to cases where the projected content has become the source of distress or the source of criticism of the subject. In other words, he is at pains to pick out only instances of subject distortion that are psychologically or socially problematic, as opposed to dubbing all subjective colouring of experience as projection. This problematic instance would typically be the case precisely when the projection is used as a defence mechanism. The problem with such defence mechanisms is whilst they temporarily absolve the subject of her own guilt, they do so at high long-term price. They do so by casting a veil of illusion over the subject’s eyes, so she sees the world she wishes to see, or at least the version of herself in the world she wishes to see, at a proportionate cost to veridical perception, i.e. perception that accurately sees things as they actually are.
The other point that Jung makes about projection is one also emphasised by the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein is that the subject is as probable to project idealisations as denigrations, virtues as vices. The object or person being projected onto can therefor as easily be seen as exceptionally virtuous, noble, courageous, innocent, pure, beautiful and so on, as villainous, malicious, spiteful, ugly, malevolent etc.
This polarising of the other as all/essentially/innately either good or bad is a hallmark of projection, and an indication that the subject may be in a state of projection. This kind of idealisation or denigration is susceptible to rapid inversion, love to hate, ideal to deficient, sufficient to insufficient and so on. This type of inversion of frequently seen in the single most researched area of projection, transference – the projection of the parental imago (unconscious image) onto the analyst.
This type of binary polarised relating is also constitutive of another classic idea from psychoanalysis – this one primarily Jungian – and that is the idea of complexes. A complex is a feeling toned clustering of psychic content and for Jung his primary way of describing and mapping unconscious content. Complexes contain within their ambit and are invariably related to their opposite.
Julie protested most vociferously at the idea of projection. As many do when they first encounter it. The idea that that which she perceived as out there and a heinous quality or characteristic of the other, was actually something she herself possessed was an unutterable insult to her. The topic had come up in a social context over a luncheon and led (predictably in hindsight) to an abrupt and rather unfortunate end to what had been a rather congenial social occasion heretofore! When pressed on the specific nature of her outrage she cited “dishonesty”. She had very strong negative sentiments about dishonesty and this had led to some challenges in her job where she had been obliged to deal with “dishonest colleagues”. She herself was scrupulously honest!
Except, of course, she wasn’t! As I came to learn about Julie over the ensuing years, she was anything but honest. Her level of dishonesty was pathological. Both in its scope and in her utter inability to recognise it in herself. Julie displayed an ongoing level of dishonesty both in frequently substituting fictions for truth and regularly expressing basic untruths (lies). Even more insidiously though, she was dishonest with herself, not only in failing to recognise the truth of her own capacity and practice of dishonesty, but more widely in her inability to own up to her own role in the various melodramas of her life. She had a singularly poor ability tor recognise any fault in herself, always locating it in the other.
Her story ended tragically as it often does for one unable to reconcile themselves with the reality principle. In this sense it is no exaggeration to say that depth psychology deals with issues of life and death. The caricatured image of the wealthy hysteric being indulged of the psychoanalyst’s chaise lounge is misleading. Psychological wellbeing is the cornerstone of health and quality of life. Not only psychosis, but even neurosis, given time, can prove fatal.
“The determination to protect self at all costs, leads to the denial of reality, that denial is basically what hell means.” – Rowan Williams.
I mentioned earlier on that the realm of projection we are referring to in psychoanalysis and we are concerned with here relates to the symbolic register. What things mean to us and how they come to mean that which they do. Projection operates through the method of interpretation and inference. To put it bluntly, and to quote an old friend, something happened, and you made it mean something. The act of interpreting facts so that they mean something to you entails projection. Your interpretive frame causes you to assign meaning and make sense of the bald facts in a particular subjective and idiosyncratic way. To the degree in which this frame is unconscious, which depth psychology would suggest is the greater portion, this interpretation and meaning making involves projection. To put it yet another way, something did indeed occur which you are reporting, but the perspective and ideology of your reporting involves projection.
All value assignment involves projection. No thing is innately or essentially valuable in and of itself. We assign value based on our needs and prejudices. In doing this we idealise certain objects and denigrate others. This is broadly speaking an act of projection, and more specifically, projections entail these value assignments.
The most fertile soil for projections in adulthood is probably the arena of intimacy. Romance is quite simply a hotbed of projections, (if you’re lucky that is). It is projections that provide the libidinal fuel to your passion and pathos. Without projection romance, at least as it is depicted in the literature and the arts, would not exist. Juliet on discovering her dead Romeo may not have uttered “Oh, happy dagger, this is thy sheath. There rust, and let me die,” but shaken off her extended slumber with an ironic smile and moved onto her next adventure!
Projections are an integral part of intrapsychic and interpersonal melodrama. This is most obviously seen in the enactment of archetypal relationship patterns. The subject carries in herself both the conscious desire and its unconscious Telos (end) or object. The unconscious opposite in relationships is of necessity acted out by the other. With this, the relationship becomes the enactment of this unconscious melodrama.
This is an actual case albeit almost a caricature of many heteronormative couples.
He is older, accomplished, intellectual, highly rational, practical and a man of the world (so to speak). She is younger, whimsical, governed by her feelings, impulsive, and anti-rational.
He is serious, she is playful.
He is consciously directing his own fate, she is unconsciously directed by fate.
He is highly competent; she is “in need of saving” by someone better able to navigate the practicalities of daily life.
He is rationalistic and scientific – but as the label so often implies, also a little dry, she is artistic, social and vivacious.
I could go on, but I trust you have read or watched enough trashy romance stories to get the idea. Each sees in the other precisely what they are lacking and need to complete themselves. The attraction is instant and passionate. Together they feel whole, each partner completing the other.
Viewed through the lens of psychoanalysis, what is going on here? Both are projecting their unconscious imago (image) of themselves onto the other. Through this projection they are relating not only to their partner- to the degree they are, the projection distorts this relatedness to the other – but to their own unconscious.
In many cases this setup will function for a period of time. It seems like a match made in heaven (assuming you’re still sucker for old fashion romance). Over time though cracks start to appear and the case in question is no exception, albeit still a relatively young relationship.
Cracks appear because in trying to reconcile oneself to the projected content now constellated in the subject’s partner, the subject is obliged to grapple with his or her own unconscious. It has been projected precisely because the subject has been unable to establish a conscious relationship with this aspect of themselves.
James Hollis frames this problem very well.
The truth about our intimate relationships is that they can never be any better than our relationship with ourselves. How we are related to ourselves determines not only the choice of the Other but the quality of the relationship. In fact, every intimate relationship tacitly reveals who we were when we commenced it. All relationships, therefore, are symptomatic of the state of our inner life, and no relationship can be any better than our relationship to our own unconscious.
Working with and managing your own projections
The first thing to grasp in this regard is that projecting is a natural psychic function. It is entirely normal that you are frequently in a state of projection, in the broader non-technical sense of the term. Where it becomes a problem of course is where more reflection and internal work is needed. Not only should you not think of projection as necessarily problematic, but it can be a valuable tool in understanding yourself better. It is one of the quickest and most accurate way of coming to know your own unconscious. To the degree you are able to identify your projections you are significantly closer to knowing your own psyche (soul/inner world/unconscious).
The following non-exhaustive might help you in this investigation.
Consider the following:
- What are your major triggers, i.e. what issues, interactions, situations et al. are most likely to provoke you? This provocation could lead to any heightened emotional response: anger, frustration or ecstasy.
- What type of person typically triggers you?
- What types of situation typically trigger you?
- Repetitive relationship patterns. Here you want to unpack the pattern as objectively as possible; it is useful to get input from a third party – our own blind spots are exceedingly difficult to see. Once you have done this, consider the entire relationship as an externalised enactment of an inner relationship pattern/imago/complex.
Doing the above as an exercise in psychic hygiene will reveal many of your projections and by extension your unconscious content. NB. Knowing this will not change it, complexes don’t evaporate or incinerate on being exposed to the light of consciousness. But it will make your more consciously aware and the projections less compulsive and less consuming, opening the possibility of alternate choices and better ways of navigating your psychic and relational landscape.
Until we speak again,
 Freud’s list of ten defence mechanisms, as identified by his daughter Anna Freud in 1936, are: repression, regression, reaction formation, isolation, undoing, projection, introjection, turning against one’s own person, reversal into the opposite, and sublimation or displacement. Anna Freud went onto to focus on and distil these into five main types: repression, regression, projection, reaction formation, and sublimation. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defence_mechanisms)
 German: ‘Projektion’.
 Thanks to George Hogenson for alerting me to this neurological history of projection for psychoanalysis. (letter to the IAJS listserve, 14 June 2019)
 Collected Works of C. G. Jung, vol. 6
 Melanie Klein née Reizes (30 March 1882 – 22 September 1960) was an Austrian-British author and psychoanalyst who is known for her work in child analysis. She was the primary figure in the development of object relations theory.
 Not her actual name.
 Michael van Rensburg.
 The couple in question have been together about seven years at the time of writing.
 The Middle Passage: for Misery to Meaning in Midlife