“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious”, wrote Carl Jung. However, detecting and accepting our shadows demands an arduous mental work that many people do not want – or cannot – do because they lack the necessary psychological tools.
Those people end up often projecting their shadows on others. The inability to deal with some aspects of their personality or of their own life generates great anguish and helplessness. As a result, when they feel overwhelmed by circumstances or their “self” feels threatened by inadmissible internal shadows, they put in place defense mechanisms such as projection to protect themselves from that anguish and avoid suffering.
Projection as a defense mechanism
Projection is a defensive behavior that protects our “self” by channeling towards others those feelings, motives or impulses that are unacceptable to us. When we believe that certain thoughts, feelings, impulses or behaviors are negative and do not fit the image we have of ourselves – because they make us an unkind, unworthy, inferior or bad person – denying their existence is a way to avoid cognitive dissonance and the discomfort they can generate.
The concept of projection in psychology comes from Freud, who first referred to this mechanism in a letter from 1895. In it, he described a patient who avoided dealing with her feelings of shame by imagining that her neighbors were gossiping about her. This way she safeguarded the image she had of herself and did not have to look for the true reason of her shame.
Later, Carl Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz overturned the theory of psychological projection as a mere mechanism to protect our ego. They argued that projection is also used to protect us from fear of the unknown. According to these psychoanalysts, when we do not understand some things – ours or of the world – we tend to project archetypal ideas as part of our natural response to the desire for the world to be a more predictable, controllable, and patterned place.
In any case, when we project our feelings onto another person, what we do is avoid our scariest emotions. Thus, the act of projecting becomes a distraction that allows us to ignore the true culprit, the internal problem that stems from the inability to maturely manage these incongruities and shadows.
Examples of psychological projection in everyday life
Projection is a fairly common mechanism in everyday life because when a person does not have the confidence and maturity to accept the parts of himself or herself that he or she doesn’t like, it is much easier to point the finger at someone and displace those unpleasant feelings .
Thus, psychological projection can occur in a wide variety of contexts, either as an isolated incident or a pattern that repeats regularly in a relationship. Usually this mechanism is activated to avoid exploring the underlying feelings. For example, a person may accuse us of behaving selfishly or being angry when in reality is he or she to be selfish or angry.
He or she could also accuse us that we are cheating or being disloyal to mask hiso r her own disloyalty or fear of abandonment based on the belief that he or she is not good enough or lovable. In fact, in relationships, psychological projection is a mechanism that is activated often. Jealousy with unfounded accusations of infidelity, for example, can hide that the person is actually attracted to someone else and, instead of admitting it, accuses the partner by projecting his or her own impulses and desires on him or her.
People with narcissistic or manipulative tendencies also often resort to projection. These people may complain that we are always demanding attention or claim that we continually put our needs first when in fact they are the ones who behave this way. It is also common for them to blame us for what has gone wrong so as not to assume responsibility, in a way that they project their shame or inability on us.
Projection is “bread for today and hunger for tomorrow”
Projection does not favor anyone, neither those who cast their shadows nor those who become their reservoir.
The person on whom the shadows are cast runs the risk of becoming a kind of “emotional caretaker” or, in the worst case, a scapegoat or punching bag. If they are emotionally oversensitive people, they are likely to act like “emotional sponges” that absorb all the anger, shame, sadness or anxiety that the others are unable to handle. As a result, they will carry the guilt of others on their back, a burden that in the long run will be too heavy and will end up weakening their psychological balance.
In fact, it is not unusual that as a consequence of a continuous projection, we end up assuming the guilt, insecurities and negative traits of others, incorporating them into our identity. For example, a parent who was unable to pursue a successful career might say to his or her child, “You won’t get anywhere” or “Don’t even bother trying.” By projecting your insecurities onto your child, your child may internalize that message, believe that he or she will never succeed, and therefore not even try.
The person who projects is not unscathed either. It is true that defense mechanisms are a strategy to change the way we interpret a situation or the way we feel about it, but they do not change reality. In fact, keeping unacceptable feelings and impulses out of our consciousness results in an extremely vulnerable “false self”.
As Jung said, “What you deny submits you. What you accept transforms you ”. We need to accept the shadows in order to grow. If we don’t, if we continually project our insecurities onto others, the price of that protection is the inability to build resilience and mature.
Although psychological projection preserves our self-esteem, making difficult emotions more tolerable, that protective shield is actually very weak and ends up broken when we least expect it.
How to detect psychological projection?
Spotting the projection is not always easy, but an important clue is usually an unusually strong and completely disproportionate emotional reaction. When we detect that we are overreacting – or that someone is overreacting – they may be projecting their insecurities.
In a relationship, projection is often spotted because conflicts are not resolved. You have the same fight over and over again, falling into an eternal loop, because one of the parties does not recognize his or her responsibility, but continually projects it on the other. By projecting guilt onto someone who can’t handle it, the loop feeds on itself.
Another sign that reveals projection is when we feel upset, irritated or angry with someone, but we are not able to pinpoint where that feeling comes from or what behavior originated it. Generally, it is that we have identified in that person – unconsciously – a characteristic of our own that we refuse to recognize.
Stop the projection mechanism
When we detect the projection, the best thing to do is to take a step back. If we are the ones who are projecting, we need to get away from the conflict in order to assume a psychological distance from the situation that is overwhelming and distressing us. So we can think more rationally.
In that case, we must analyze the conflict trying to focus only on the facts. Then we must explore the feelings it has generated and the reactions it has triggered in us, from the emotions experienced to the thoughts that came to our minds. Is there something that bothers us? Any feelings or ideas that we quickly dismissed? That is where we must focus our attention. We must ask ourselves what that really means to us and why we cannot accept it.
In the event that someone tries to cast their shadows on us, the best thing to do is to establish a barrier to prevent us from introjecting those fears, insecurities and guilt. We can answer clearly: “I don’t agree with you” or “I don’t see it that way.” This way we can deflect the projection and, with a bit of luck, even motivate that person to reflect on his or her perspective so to assume the responsibility that corresponds to him or her.
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McWilliams N (2011) Psychoanalytic Diagnosis: Understanding Personality Structure in the Clinical Process. Nueva York: Guilford.
Epstein S (1994). Integration of the cognitive and the psychodynamic unconscious. American Psychologist; 49: 709-724.