The term projection is often used in social contexts during moments of perceived hypocrisy, slight, or insult. We often wonder if we are the inhabitants of someone’s projection when/if we our pride is questioned, or our happiness goes critiqued. Such claims of projection are expressed by statements like “she’s just unhappy with her life so she’s making you dissatisfied with yours” or “he bullies because he is bullied at home.” While it is true projection contains an element of “casting outward” that which originates inwardly, it is much more complex than our perceptions of social discourse, which are guised in our own projections, suggest.
Projection in it’s most benign form is mere misunderstanding. Similarly, it is the basis for empathy since we cannot know exactly what goes on inside the mind(s) of those we interact with. Projection is a useful tool when we infer what is going on in the mind of our children after a sporting defeat, or the mind of a lover when we can tell they have a bad day at work upon mere entrance of our homes. On the more maladaptive end, projection can become a perilous process “whereby what is inside is misunderstood as coming from outside” (McWilliams, 2011, p. 111). This can be true of person’s who self-loathe and thus mercilessly critique and ridicule the lives of others. The projecting person is obviously hurting others, but what is less obvious is the internal plague they wrestle with consistently and attempt to escape, if for a moment, by casting it outwards. The harmful side of projection can be detected when the recipient is cast in a light unrelated to their usual character, or at the very least, is something the person has never done before. During these moments it is crucial to secure one’s own safety in their setting (e.g., home, workplace) prior to engaging with the person. If safety and security of person is affirmed, it could be useful to respond in a calm and empathic manner. Responding in this way is vital, for the person projecting forth an image of someone who is cruel or sadistic subconsciously expects the recipient to defend themselves, thus proving that the person is “out for themselves” and is, in fact, cruel and self-serving when engaging with others. A calm and empathic response might sound reassuring to the person who is projecting. If rapport is strong, a person might respond effectively to a situation of harmful projection if the recipient states,
“you believe I am <cruel> and/or <do not care for your feelings>. It seems I wasn’t attentive enough to anticipate how you’d respond to my words earlier. Can we try to understand why you are responding to me this way, because I don’t imagine I am as uncaring as you believe me to be right now.”
The above response is not meant to be repeated in a rehearsed manner. Instead, it is meant to illustrate how to effectively respond to a person who is projecting, and thus, may be hurting psychologically. The above statement reflects what the projecting person states, acknowledges a shortcoming of the recipient, and collaboratively extends a hand to the wounded person in an empathic and curious fashion. Regardless, it is a useful practice to consistently reflect on how one feels around a person to determine if they are the inhabitant of a projection. A great amount of our unpleasant feeling states before/during/after social exchanges can be attributed to this phenomenon, and equally, a great amount of dissatisfying engagement can be mended if we learn how to effectively respond.
If you or a loved one struggle with the harmful spectrum of projection please consider consulting with the clinicians at Town Center Psychology. You are not alone!
McWilliams, N. (2011). Psychoanalytic diagnosis: Understanding personality structure in the
clinical process (2nd ed.): Chapter 5: Primary defensive processes. The Guilford Press.