It's Not Me, It's You: Psychological Projection
Psychological projection: a term developed from Freudian theory, that describes a behavior that we encounter very often. We ourselves may have even done it without realizing.
For example: think about a time when you felt deeply in love with someone. In some way, almost unconsciously, you attributed certain features and virtues to this person that didn’t necessarily correspond with how they actually were. You praised their kindness and concern for others, their successes, and their great qualities through the halo of perfection that you projected onto them.
Love can be a very suitable context for psychological projection to develop. But the real, more complex problem occurs when extremely negative psychological projection happens. When a person attributes their own emotional shortcomings to others, like thoughts full of anger or anxiety.
We’ll talk specifically about feelings of guilt and how sometimes, instead of accepting and dealing with these feelings, they are targeted at other people, at the people who are closest to us and supposedly the most appreciated.
Projection: distorting reality for one’s own benefit
Here’s an example. Your partner is insecure and afraid of commitment. Instead of accepting this reality, they start to punish you, insisting that you make things difficult, that you’re always showing signs of distrust and a clear desire to cause them harm.
The problem is not you, it’s them. But instead of facing the fact that they have a self-esteem problem, they punish you, providing evidence for things that aren’t real. They throw their anger at you like darts and project their negative emotions onto you so that they can achieve the following:
- Ignore the problem and attribute it to others.
- Free themselves of their internal load and leave it somewhere outside of them, on the people around them
- Gain a clear position of power. “I don’t have a problem, other people do. The world should revolve around me.”
- The belief that other people are the problem allows them to distort reality any way they want. They can believe in their fantasies and deny their true flaws.
How to break the habit
Psychological projection is a complex topic. And sadly, it occurs frequently. Many people who are subjected to psychical and psychological abuse continue projecting positive images onto their partner. Why? Because this way they can protect themselves from reality.
“If my partner feels jealous, it’s only because they love me.” “My partner loves me deep down, sometimes they make mistakes, but they’re the one who cares about me the most.” Projecting these ideas is distorting reality, creating a new world that is less harmful, where they don’t have to accept the harshness of reality, where everyone is brave, where they’re able to react and defend themselves.
How can we stop projecting?
- Realize that projecting onto others is a defense mechanism. A life jacket that keeps us afloat so that we don’t have to admit something.
- One must understand that projecting guilt and anger onto the people around us will achieve nothing more than creating more negative emotions. We’ll fall into a vicious circle where we have a false sense of power that we will inevitably fall from in the long run.
- If it’s you who is experiencing projection from someone else, make it clear how you feel. Warn them that this behavior can’t continue. Tell them that you feel humiliated and manipulated.
- Understand that the moment you realize that your projection is hiding some sort of emotional deficiency, you’re going to lose that sense of control. You’ll fall apart, and you’ll need help and support to put yourself back together, to face your problems and deficiencies.
It’s not easy to accept that we all project from time to time. Sometimes, we do it without even realizing; we think the problem is outside ourselves. Like thinking that the person we love is basically a perfect creature, for example…
We all have faults, we all have shortcomings. Ideally, we’d always act with humility and objectivity, but in the end, we’re all beautifully imperfect beings trying to survive and be happy in a complicated world. Do you agree?
Images courtesy of: Nicoletta Ceccoli