The Psychology of Projection

Projection is a psychological fact that can be observed everywhere in the everyday life of human beings, whether you are having a conversation and someone tells you that you are projecting, or the first impressions you have of a particular person that turned out to be wrong.

In our ideas of other people and situations, we are often liable to make misjudgements that we later have to correct, having acquired better insight. In such cases, most people acknowledge their mistake and let the matter drop, without bothering to ask themselves where the false judgement or the incorrect idea came from.

However, to really know who we are, we must concern ourselves with correcting such misjudgements. Many people will cling to them with every fibre of their being, because if one accepts correction, one may fall into a depression.

Psychological projection was conceptualised by Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, as an unconscious mechanism where one ascribes one’s own motivations, thoughts, feelings, and desires that are unacceptable to oneself, while attributing them to others. It is a misalignment of the inner and outer world, because what one is inwardly, one will see outwardly.

When we experience betrayal, abuse, discomfort, etc., we might very well be distrustful of others. This is a defence mechanism, a projection from one’s psychological history.

When we find certain unacceptable feelings, thoughts or behaviours in ourselves that we refuse to acknowledge, and see someone with that specific trait, we will feel resentment, hatred and anger towards them. Projection occurs not because of what other people say to you, but rather because of what you yourself think about those people.

A person with a strong “self-concept” (the knowledge of who one is) makes one feel good about who they are. Negative projection is more likely to occur in people with a low self-image and low self-esteem. The real self that always tends towards an ideal self, turns into a despised self.

Example of Projection

For example, a man is afraid to voice his opinion in important matters related to his job, because he does not like conflicts, he is too shy, insecure and prefers to remain passive and just do his work quietly. His co-worker, however, is assertive and makes his opinions heard in every meeting, though the shy person believes he has much better opinions. This results overtime in his co-worker getting a promotion and a raise.

Once he returns home, he will feel hatred against himself, and project it onto his co-worker, who has the qualities that he wants to possess. By pointing our finger to other people, we help to reduce the discomfort, anxiety or bad feelings about ourselves, and avoid taking responsibility to implement these good qualities in ourselves, because it is too painful, difficult or uncomfortable. When you point one finger, there are three fingers pointing back at you.

In this way, we deny that the bad qualities are ours and attribute them to others. We judge, attack or blame them. This can be extended to whole groups of people with specific ideas. One who lives through projection is convinced that it is others who have all the bad qualities and who practise all the vices. Therefore, it is they who are wrong and they who must be fought against. When one thinks everything is someone else’s fault, one will suffer a lot.

Projection occurs on an unconscious level, it is unperceived and unintentional. Projections are like an icicle, they return to us, we do not remain unpunished when we project. However, we must bear in mind that we do not make projections, rather they happen to us. It is easier to see someone else projecting than seeing yourself as projecting. They are unconscious in nature, and in the moment that you are conscious of projecting, you are already out of its influence.

To make the unconscious contents conscious, which includes the withdrawal of projections, represents an important psychological task, that allows for an increase in consciousness, and an advance in self-realisation.

It is not unusual to justify one’s projection by inventing a rationale. For instance, the person caught buying on the “black market” says in self-justification, “everybody else is doing it.” Here, the attempt is to convert neurotic anxiety about doing something wrong into objective anxiety about not getting enough to eat.

Jungian analyst Marie-Louise von Franz writes:

“If a son, for example, experiences his father as tyrannical, in later life he will, in many cases, not only project the quality of tyranny onto authority figures and father figures, such as his doctor, his superiors, and the state, but he will also behave just as tyrannically himself – though unconsciously.”

M.L. von Franz, Projection and Re-collection in Jungian Psychology

If an anti-authoritarian person has to deal with someone who shows even relatively slight manifestations of self-assertiveness or power, the image of the tyrant lying dormant in him will immediately attach itself to the other person. The projection has taken place. The projector is utterly convinced that he has to deal with a tyrant, a mistake of judgment of this kind can only be corrected with the greatest difficulty.

It is not only a person’s negative conscious qualities that are projected outward in this way, but in equal measure, his positive ones. The projection of the latter then brings about an excessive delusory, inappropriate evaluation and admiration of the object. It is possible for a person to infect others with his paranoid idea and for a sizeable group to take up the erroneous judgment, until another group finally sets the matter straight. Witch hunts as examples of negative projections or the veneration of a dictator as a saviour-hero as an example of positive projections, are witnesses to the existence of the phenomenon of collective contagion. Whole groups can project collectively, so that their mistake in judgment passes officially for the acceptable description of reality.

Freud: Mother Complex and Transference

Freud believed that the true and false impressions received by a child in his earliest experiences of his parents and siblings, play a role in later projections. For example, a child who has experienced his father or mother in a specifically negative form, tends to project the same father or mother image onto older men or women he meets in later life.

A mother complex is an active component in everyone’s psyche, which includes one’s personal mother, contact with other women and by collective assumptions. A negative mother complex makes it impossible to have an unprejudiced experience of other people. Such a negative reaction lives on, stored up in the depths of the psyche, and is projected onto others at a suitable opportunity.

Another important phenomenon that Freud conceptualised is transference, where a person unconsciously projects the feelings for another person to an entirely different person. The difference from projection is that transference requires three people. For example, transferring feelings about one’s parents to one’s partner or mistrusting somebody who resembles an ex-spouse in manners, voice, or external appearance. This is a typical phenomenon in therapy, and one the analyst must be aware of, lest he engages in counter-transference, which may harm the relationship between analyst and analysand.

Carl Jung on Projection

Many suffer from the fact that they do not take into consideration the manifestations of the unconscious in human beings. Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, writes that:

“A man who is unconscious of himself acts in a blind, instinctive way and is in addition fooled by all the illusions that arise when he sees everything that he is not conscious of in himself coming to meet him from outside as projections upon his neighbour.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 13: Alchemical Studies

The same unconscious from which projections emanate, also strives, in certain phases of inner development, to correct them, through dreams or active imagination. Thus, in addition to the common sense judgment of the collectivity, there is an inner factor in the individual himself that tends to correct his image of reality from time to time.

“What Freud calls ‘the dream façade’ is the dream’s obscurity, and this is really only a projection of our own lack of understanding. We say that the dream has a false front only because we fail to see into it.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 16: Practice of Psychotherapy

Unless we are possessed of an unusual degree of self-awareness, we shall never see through our projections, but must always succumb to them. Because the mind, in its natural state, presupposes the existence of such projections.

Jung further elaborated the idea of projection in terms of the concept of the shadow and the anima and animus.

Jung: Shadow Projection

The shadow plays a crucial role in projection, both personally and collectively. I have talked about this concept more in-depth in another video.

As we repress the things we despise in ourselves and refuse to acknowledge them, they remain buried in the psyche and form the shadow, which is essentially what one has no wish to be. We then project like puppets pulled by the strings of the unconscious. Jung writes:

“The effect of projection is to isolate the subject from his environment, since instead of a real relation to it there is now only an illusory one. Projections change the world into the replica of one’s own unknown face. In the last analysis, therefore, they lead to an autoerotic or autistic condition in which one dreams a world whose reality remains forever unattainable… The more projections are thrust in between the subject and the environment, the harder it is for the ego to see through its illusions. A forty-five-year-old patient who had suffered from a compulsion neurosis since he was twenty and had become completely cut off from the world once said to me: “But I can never admit to myself that I’ve wasted the best twenty-five years of my life!” It is often tragic to see how blatantly a man bungles his own life and the lives of others yet remains totally incapable of seeing how much the whole tragedy originates in himself, and how he continually feeds it and keeps it going. Not consciously, of course—for consciously he is engaged in bewailing and cursing a faithless world that recedes further and further into the distance. Rather, it is an unconscious factor which spins the illusions that veil his world. And what is being spun is a cocoon, which in the end will completely envelop him.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol 9. Part II: Aion

With considerable effort, however, we can integrate the contents of the shadow in our personality, and become partly conscious of it. This is a lifelong process, and is indispensable for individuation (becoming who you are).

The reason it is so difficult to acquire insight into one’s own shadow is that inferior personality traits are mostly of an emotional nature. Emotions and affects are to a large extent relatively autonomous; they possess consciousness and can only with great difficulty be controlled. If it is not only one’s own shadow that stands behind the projections but also the contrasexual components of the personality, or perhaps still deeper archetypal contents, then insight into the projection in which these are involved is accompanied by almost insuperable difficulties.

Jung compares the personal shadow with the collective shadow:

“With a little self-criticism one can see through the shadow — so far as its nature is personal. But when it appears as an archetype, one encounters the same difficulties as with anima and animus. In other words, it is quite within the bounds of possibility for a man to recognise the relative evil of his nature, but it is a rare and shattering experience for him to gaze into the face of absolute evil.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol 9. Part II: Aion

Jung: Anima and Animus Projection

While the shadow is always of the same sex as the subject, when we talk of the opposite sex, the source of projections take the form of a contrasexual figure: the anima (the female psychological tendencies in man) and the animus (the male psychological tendencies in woman). I have done a video explaining these concepts as well.

Jung calls shadow integration the ‘apprentice-piece’, while anima or animus integration is the ‘master-piece’. This is in the context of individuation. Without a recognition of the shadow, it is impossible to integrate the anima or animus.

While the shadow represents first and foremost the personal unconscious, the anima and animus represent the collective unconscious. They symbolise the eternal images of man and woman, of Logos and Eros, which are projected onto real men and women.

A man can project his anima by overvaluing his masculine aspect in detriment to his feminine qualities, by partaking in pseudo-intellectual dialogues, and by treating woman simply as an object to fulfil his erotic fantasies, or to make stereotypical assumptions about patterns of behaviour such as “the way women are”.

There can also be an overattachment to one’s anima which is just as harmful, such as a man that is too effeminate and is preyed upon by women, or a man who lives regressively and seeks to return to his childhood under the protecting circle of the mother.

Perhaps the most common form of anima projection is being suddenly seized in a maddening and passionate love, like Eros, the Greek god of love shooting a love-igniting arrow. If those sensual pleasures fail the person who desires and wishes for them, he will suffer, pierced by the arrow of pain.

The projection of the animus of woman takes on a slightly different form. It takes on a hidden conviction about one’s beliefs, thoughts and assumptions. Such as wanting love but at the same time not believing anyone loves her. The father endows his daughter with unarguable true opinions, of “the right thing to do”, not including the daughter’s own opinion. This may lead a woman to flee into a dreamy fantasy land filled with all the desires and judgments of how things ought to be. Moreover, the animus personifies all the cold and destructive reflections that invade a woman which get her into a state where she even wishes death to others.

A mother who neglects her spiritual side may compensate by expecting an achievement from her son, such as having him pursue an ambitious academic career in order to satisfy her unconscious expectation.

Many people are brought back to themselves through the loving appreciation of another person. The teacher or the therapist who gives credit to his pupil or patient through the expectation of positive results can often nurture a blossoming of the other’s real personality and gifts. One day, though, this projection naturally falls away, and then it must be proven whether one can withdraw his projection and remain himself even without such help. This transition can be managed with the necessary wisdom, and awareness of one’s psychic reality.

Projection and Projectile

Whenever projection takes place, there is first of all a sender and a receiver. One of the oldest ways of symbolising projection is by means of projectiles, especially the magic arrow or shot that harms other people. It is generally believed that such a projectile is shot by a god, spirit, demon or some other mythological being, or by an evil person, and that it “hits” us, causing us to fall ill. The symbol of the arrow is a visual expression of being suddenly hit by a mood or an emotion that often strikes one like lightning out of a blue sky.

In late antiquity the suspicion had already arisen that certain gods might have something to do with the way in which emotions work in human beings, a view that was especially furthered by astrological speculations. Thus Saturn has something to do with a melancholy turn of mind, Mars with aggression and initiative, Venus and Cupid with love and sexuality – all states of mind or moods that strike people suddenly and overwhelmingly and for a time can overpower the conscious ego.

These phenomena are projections from the background of the psyche, autonomous inner images obeying no conscious intention, but coming and going at their own volition. Jung described these as archetypes, collectively-inherited forms that produce similar thoughts, mythological images, feelings, and emotions in human beings. These represent the spiritual contents of the unconscious, while the animal instinct, those impulses to action that are characteristic of the human species, represent the instinctual aspect of the unconscious.

Ultimately, however, it appears that projections always originate in the archetypes and in unconscious complexes.

An attack of aggressive hatred, for example, is felt by us as coming not from Mars but rather from an “evil adversary” who “deserves” to be hated (shadow projection), erotic passion not from Cupid but from a woman who arouses this passion in a man (anima projection).

The harmful words of human beings are like arrows. Deceitful people bend their tongue like a bow, and shoot a deadly arrow. Such activities as we learn from practical psychological experience are triggered by negative projections.

As soon as a person projects a bit of his shadow onto another human being, he is incited to this kind of rancorous speech. The words that hit the other person like projectiles symbolise the negativity directed against the other person by the one who is projecting.

When one becomes the target of another person’s negative projection, one often experiences that hatred almost physically as a projectile.

Active and passive projection

Jung distinguishes between two kinds of projection: active and passive.

Active projection occurs when we thoughtlessly take for granted that the other person is like us and that what is valid for us is also valid for him, so that we feel justified in “improving” him, that is, in violating him psychologically. Jung writes:

“Just as we tend to assume that the world is as we see it, we naively suppose that people are as we imagine them to be… We still go on naively projecting our own psychology into our fellow human beings. In this way, everyone creates in himself a series of more or less imaginary relationships based essentially on projection.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 8: The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche

Passive projection includes an act of empathetic feeling, which serves to bring the object into an intimate relationship with the subject. In order to establish this relationship, the subject detaches a content – a feeling, for instance, lodges it in the object, thereby animating it, and in this way draws the object into the sphere of the subject. All compassion is grounded in this kind of unconscious identity with the others.

Passive projection—that is, unconscious empathy—is part of the psychological principle of Eros and forms the basis of all social relations; active projection, on the other hand, belongs to the realm of Logos, since it is concerned with an act of recognition or judgment, by means of which we make a distinction between ourselves and the—itself unknown—object. Both principles can in practice flow into and out of each other.

Introjection

Passive projection is similar to what is known as introjection, the assimilation of object to subject. The difference is that introjection is not necessarily empathetic, it may also arise from a need of respect, power or superiority.

Introjection can be defined as unconsciously adopting the thoughts and behaviours of other people (instead of projecting them onto others). This is a natural process of a child’s development and relationship with his parents. One naturally introjects the qualities of those whom one looks up to, admires or worships. This may, however, include the bad aspects of a person, or lead to a superiority complex to the point of introjecting the qualities of God onto oneself.

Mystical participation

The French ethnologist Lévy-Bruhl used the term participation mystique or “mystical participation”, the archaic identity of subject and object lives at the very bottom of our psyche.

We are instinctively tied to symbols that precedes all intellectualism. Our ancestors were much more governed by their unconscious instincts and participation in nature and the objects surrounding them. The inner world was merged with the external world. It is only a recent phenomenon that our world seems to be cleansed of all superstitious and irrational elements. However, this is not so for the inner world, which does not discriminate between subject and object. Jung writes:

“[O]nly certain functions and areas have outgrown the primary mystic identity with the object. Primitive man has a minimum of self-awareness combined with a maximum of attachment to the object; hence the object can exercise a direct magical compulsion upon him… Self-awareness gradually developed out of this initial state of identity and went hand in hand with the differentiation of subject and object… But as everyone knows, our self-awareness is still a long way behind our actual knowledge.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 8: The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche

Mystical participation is closely related to projection, because the projected mythological images are present in objects, people and situations.

Thought forms, universally understandable gestures, and many attitudes follow a pattern that was established long before man developed a reflective consciousness. It is conceivable that the early origins of man’s capacity to reflect come from the painful consequences of violent emotional clashes. For example, a bushman who in a moment of anger and disappointment at his failure to catch any fish, strangles his much beloved only son, and is then seized with immense regret as he holds the little dead body in his arms.

Modern man knows more about mythological symbolism than did any generation before our own, they have become the object of conscious reflection. Primitive man did not reflect upon their symbols, they lived them and were unconsciously animated by their meaning.

Unconscious contents, however, cannot be integrated into the subject into their entirety. The process is like that of peeling an onion – one or more layers of an unconscious complex can, indeed, be integrated by the conscious personality but not the core itself.

In the core we find the archetypes of the collective unconscious, which create projections against our will, because such contents cannot be integrated by ego-consciousness. If one wants to understand these projections and prevent their renewal, the content must be recognised as psychically real, though not as a part of the subject but rather as an autonomous power. If we could see through all our projections down to the last traces, our personality would be extended to cosmic dimensions.

Jung once compared the ego to a man who sails out in his boat (the philosophical or religious ideas behind his conscious view of the world) onto the sea of the unconscious to go fishing. He must take care not to haul more fish (that is, more unconscious contents) from the sea into his boat than the boat can carry, or it will sink. This explains why people with weak egos often defend themselves so desperately against any and every insight into their negative projections – they cannot bear the weight, the moral pressure, that results from such insight.

Psychological Projection as Inner Gold

“I learn so much from watching, and one of the things I observe most carefully is the exchange of inner, alchemical gold. Inner gold is the highest value in the human psyche. It is our soul, the Self, the innermost part of our being.”

Robert A. Johnson, Inner Gold: Understanding Psychological Projection

In his book Inner Gold: Understanding Psychological Projection, Jungian analyst Robert A. Johnson presents psychological projection as giving up our “inner gold” to those whom we idealise or are attracted to. He writes:

“When we awaken to a new possibility in our lives, we often see it first in another person. A part of us that has been hidden is about to emerge, but it doesn’t go in a straight line from our unconscious to becoming conscious. It travels by way of an intermediary, a host. We project our gold onto someone, and suddenly we’re consumed with that person. The first inkling of this is when the other person appears to be so luminous that he (or she) glows in the dark. That’s a sure sign that something is changing in us and we are projecting our gold onto the other person.”

Robert A. Johnson, Inner Gold: Understanding Psychological Projection

By observing the things we attribute to the other person, we see our own depth and meaning. Our gold goes first from us to them, and eventually it will come back to us. Projecting our inner gold offers us the best chance for an advance in consciousness. And we must learn the arduous task of “taking back” this gold as we move through life’s journey.

The work of the alchemists was to transmute base metals into gold. There were charlatans only concerned with material possession. However, for the true alchemists, gold is the metaphor for the spiritual and psychological task of inner transformation.

When we see that we have given our spiritual gold to someone to hold for us, there are several ways we might respond. We could go to him or her and say, “The meaning of my life has suddenly appeared in the glow in your eyes. May I tell you about it?” This is another way of saying, “I have given you my inner gold. Will you carry it for me for a while?”

We cling to people who are the repositories of our gold and won’t let them loose. If this person were to you leave you, and you can’t function properly alone – it probably means that he or she has taken your gold.

The exchange of gold is a mysterious process. It is our gold, but it’s too heavy for us, so we need someone else to carry it for a time. That person becomes synonymous with meaning. A smile can raise us to heavenly heights, a frown will hurl us to hellish depths, so great is the power of meaning.

One reason we hesitate to carry our own gold is that it is dangerously close to God. Our gold has Godlike characteristics, and it is difficult to bear the weight of it. This is the original meaning of the terms godfather and godmother. That person is the carrier of Godlike qualities for you, someone who carries the subtle part of your life—a parent in an interior, Godlike way.

Robert tells the story of one of his patients who would compliment him every time they saw each other. Robert would tell him, all these qualities are your values. You need to drape it around my neck for a while, but you’re going to take it back eventually. He’d tell Robert how valuable he was to him, how lucky he was to have him as a therapist. He was talking about his inner gold and was desperate for someone to take it off his shoulders, for it was too heavy for him. This went on for almost five years. Robert writes:

“Then, one day, he said, “I want my gold back.” I had noticed that he was getting restless, so I agreed. “Things are changing”, I said. “Let’s do a ceremony to put the gold back in your pocket.” I conjured up a small piece of gold, the size of a pea, and a few days later we had the ceremony. He held the kernel of gold, shaking, suddenly more aware of what he had been doing. Then he put it in my hands and said, anxiously, “Suppose you don’t give it back?” … I said, “This is your gold, and it belongs only in your pocket. I am honoured that you would allow me to hold it for you all these years. But it’s yours, and it needs to go back to you.” … The next day, he had his gold all over me again. He couldn’t hold it and wanted me to take it back. The exchange of gold is not entirely a voluntary matter. Sometimes it takes a few round trips. We traded the gold back and forth several more times until one day he could withstand it. Since then, I haven’t heard any more about him wanting it back.”

Robert A. Johnson, Inner Gold: Understanding Psychological Projection

When the exchange of gold proceeds well, we mature and eventually become strong enough to ask for our gold back. Carrying someone’s gold is a fine art and a high responsibility. If you are the recipient of someone’s gold, hold it carefully and be prepared to give it back within a microsecond’s notice. Unfortunately, there are people who collect inner gold and refuse to give it back. It’s a kind of murder.

It is only after you get your gold back that you can see the gold of the other person. When the time is right, when you are ready to bear the weight, you must get your gold back.

“If it has an impact, it means there is a war inside me. You set it off, but what you set off is my business. Anything that can burn in a person should burn. Only the things that are fireproof are worth keeping. If you can hurt my feelings, they are better off hurt, because it’s an error in me.”

Robert A. Johnson, Inner Gold: Understanding Psychological Projection


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The Psychology of Projection

Projection is a psychological fact that can be observed everywhere in the everyday life of human beings.

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