What is Projection?
We all have a tendency to see “bad sides” of other people, but sometimes what we see is an exaggerated version of something we fear or dislike about ourselves. Familiar sayings point to this. Have you ever heard someone say, “When you point your finger at someone else, you have three fingers pointing back at you.” This tendency is a common one, but what is actually going on here, psychologically?
Projection of the “Shadow Self”
According to Carl Jung, we all have a “shadow self” -- a dark side hidden deep within. The shadow self contains all the traits we don’t like about ourselves, and we don’t want to admit that they are part of us. It is a shadow because we keep it tucked away in the dark.
However, those traits are still there, and they can leak out into your conscious self in odd ways. One of the biggest ways is projection. Projection is a psychological defense mechanism where we attribute the things we don’t like about ourselves to other people around us.
The Mental Movie Theater
One way to understand projection is to think of a movie theater. Your conscious mind is the viewer sitting in the theater, and your unconscious mind is in the projection booth behind you in the dark. On the screen in front of you is someone you know -- a partner, friend, family member, co-worker, or even a well known public figure -- and they are doing something that really makes you angry. They are being rude, or angry, or sneaky, or hypocritical, or whatever it is that really pushes your buttons and makes you see red.
This person’s actions seem huge to you, because the screen takes up the whole front of the room. Now imagine this person standing in front of the screen, arms at sides, simply standing there, while the angering images flicker across their face and body.
They are not doing the actions; they are part of the screen on which the actions are playing out. As an observer, the activity takes up all your attention, and it’s hard to see the real person standing there, especially when you are distracted by your negative reactions to what is going on on the screen. But what you are seeing is not what the person is doing. It’s what is being projected from behind you, where your unconscious mind dwells.
Sometimes other people really are doing what you think they are doing -- they are cheating, or judging you negatively, or going behind your back and talking about you to others. But you don’t see what they are doing at life-size, you see it ten feet tall, in 3-D IMAX and high definition, and you react to that exaggerated version.
Therapy Can Help You Find the Truth Behind the Projections
In working with a therapist, you can create a safe place to examine the people in your life who anger and frighten you. You can identify the specific things about them, what they do, or what you think they are doing, that connect to your strongest negative reactions. The therapist invites you to walk out of the theater and find the door to the projection booth, and together go inside and meet the projectionist, and find out why they are showing you that particular movie.
We can learn to see clearly what slights are real, and respond appropriately. We can learn to see our hidden shadow, heal old injuries, work to correct our shortcomings, disarm the powerful emotions brought forth by projection, and find peace with ourselves and others.