Understanding Psychological Projection

Psychological projection is close to the top of my list of things I consider to be essential knowledge for everyone to know and understand.  While you will typically find no shortage of psychologists ready to point out to you that you are projecting, the clinical application of CBT tends be that this comes off as condescending if not mocking.  However, my definition and understanding of what psychological projection is has been shaped by my own experiences and as such is at significant variance with mainstream psychology.  In this essay I will explain the official definition, then explain my own definition and expand on this to point out the deficiencies that I see in the official definition.  I will conclude by pointing out the benefits of psychological projection.  So this article is something of a critique of the existing definition and an expansive piece for those wanting to learn and discuss the topic in more depth.

According to Wikipedia “Psychological projection is the act or technique of defending oneself against unpleasant impulses by denying their existence in oneself, while attributing them to others.” Which is true, however, it is in my view too narrow and overly specific.  First let us look at this definition more closely.  In the conventional sense, projection is about shame.  An example of this might one of those annoying people who talks over other people, however, this person does not accept this trait about himself and pretends not to notice that he has it, as he is ashamed of it.  Yet, when he encounters someone else who talks over other people he chastises them harshly for doing so even though he is quite prone to doing it himself.  This is because he lacks self-acceptance of his own behaviour.   Theoretically though he already has self-knowledge of his own tendency to talk over people, because he is in denial that he does this to others.  Thus this definition of projection reduces down to simple and common hypocrisy which we have all experienced.

I am not happy with this definition of projection as it does not actually inform us of anything new.  We could simply use the word ‘hypocrisy’ in its place and the conversation would continue as usual and no new insight has been gained.  My definition of projection, however, will expand it into the realm of empathy and promote it to the central tool we use to empathise with other people.  However, it is a tool that comes with pitfalls which we will explore.

My understanding of projection is that it is produced from inexperienced attempts at empathy. When we first attempt to guess at another person’s perspective, i.e. empathise with them, the most obvious approach is to assume they are exactly like you are yourself. A relative of mine was a confident premeditated liar, a quality he saw in everyone else, he could use this trait of his to justify lying to others because ‘everyone lies’ which to him made sense because he was projecting his self-knowledge onto everyone else. If my relative had discovered a completely honest person he would have assumed this person was a simpleton first rather than call into question his projection that normal people are pernicious liars. If he had been convinced the honest person was no simpleton it would have shamed him greatly because the commonplace existence of honest people would have proved his immorality. So he had little motivation from his perspective to entertain ideas about normal people being honest most of the time.

This example highlights how projection can narrow our perception and understanding of other people, while also tricking us into seeing a false reality that looks convincing.  Falsely believing the world to be full of opportunistic liars, gave my relative better threat perception, at the cost of greater reluctance to talk about his problems and needs with other people.  I am not saying the world is not full of liars, most people will lie when threatened, however, few people will lie in a calculated sense to achieve purely egotistical short-term goals.  My relative, however, believed incorrectly that most people are cold calculating liars which justified his own moral degeneracy.

However, my definition does not just include vices like lying. My definition also includes the projection of positive traits like honesty, good will, integrity etc… I myself struggled in my early adult life with the realisation that other people are not as honest or caring as I was. I frequently projected qualities of compassion and consideration onto other people who simply did not have those qualities in retrospect. When these people would let me down I did not face reality that they were inconsiderate people, I actively made excuses for why they were so thoughtless. Excuses like they are tired or overworked, yet when I was tired or overworked; I was still not cruel and heartless. It took me a long time to accept that some people have a startling lack of awareness as to how they affect people around themselves.

In this example projection is a poorly developed attempt at empathy that fails to allow for perception of personality traits not present in oneself. I could not see dishonesty in people because I did not see it in myself, thus I assumed it was human nature to be as honest as I was. Actually, to be more specific, as I am not meaning to imply that I was completely honest either, my nature is that I tend to lie only whenever I feel threatened, like most people, so I assumed calm people never lied. Calm people lying to me was a hard thing for me to grasp as it was not “Jason nature” while it does fit into the broader range for “human nature”.

Thus the simplest definition of psychological project is attacking another person for faults that you have yourself.  Add to this definition that is it also about praising people for qualities you have but they may actually lack.

Another criticism of the conventional definition is that it is a defensive mechanism.  I do not think it is strictly speaking defensive to attempt to understand other people.  Which is how I see projection: a naive attempt to understand another person’s perspective.  The fact that they failed to correctly understand the other person’s perspective creates the conflict, this does not need to be a deliberate act to create conflict, it could be completely accidental.  If someone continually breaks promises, I might condemn them for doing so.  If I am also a promise breaker, this would fit the definition of projection because I am criticising someone for a trait that I have myself.  However, even if I did not have this trait, I would still be criticising this person as breaking a promise is a wrongful act regardless.  Why is it defensive to criticise in one case, but not the other?  It could be simply ignorance of one’s own hypocrisy, or completely unrelated to oneself.  Therefore, I do not see a justification to call it a defense mechanism.  If in the case of a positive trait being projected, it is even more clear that this ‘defense’ mechanism is actually exposing one to serious danger: trusting someone who should not be trusted.  How can a defense mechanism put you in greater danger of harmed?

The idea of denial is also problematic for me too.  Denial implies that a person already knows they have a vice, but that they are deliberately covering it up.  I actually believe the situation is more complex.  A person can either lack self-acceptance, which is denial, or they could genuinely lack self-knowledge, which implies if they did know about their behaviour they might change it voluntarily.  For example, a person might always insert words into other people’s sentences when they are talking, believing this to be helpful because they find it helpful, but once it has been pointed out to them that this habit is not welcome they might modify their behaviour immediately and stop doing this.  I believe both a lack of self-knowledge and a lack of self-acceptance are involved so I would drop the denial part from the definition as it is not necessarily the case and accepting denial as part of the definition could lead to a false understanding of what is actually happening.

So where does this leave us and our definition of projection?  Projection is considered a pathological trait by mainstream psychology, I however, challenge this notion and assert that instead projection is a natural and primitive attempt to understanding the thinking and motivations for other people.  As one grows in self-knowledge and knowledge of other people, projection matters less and less, instead we begin to see people for who they really are and not as simple mental clones of ourselves.  This experience of getting to know people is rewarding personally, but it is a reward that comes through the exercise of projection many times and carefully analysing the mistakes one makes to become a stronger empath.

Having a firm understanding of what projection is can help everyone.  Awareness of projection gives us the power to stop and think about any conflict we might be having with a person.  Conflicts generally occur because of a misunderstanding, so it is always advantageous to have a better and deeper understanding of other people as this can allow us to avoid many conflicts before they become battle lines.  The understanding of other people is called empathy and like all knowledge, it is a necessary good as knowledge ensures we are never ever completely helpless.  Thus an understanding of projection can help you to recognise faster when people are less honest, kind, thoughtful or compassionate than you are, but can also help you to recognise if you have some faulty perceptions of other people which are harming your relationships with them.  So instead of feeling ashamed of projection, project away confidently with the understanding although you may not be correct in all your projections, so long as you learn from your mistakes, you will eventually reach a much better understanding and closeness with other people.

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