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Why we project: Understanding our alternative reality

Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves - Carl Jung

Understanding the concept of projection has often been the single most enlightening tool at a client’s disposal to build and maintain healthy loving relationships with partners, family and colleagues. Relief from anxiety, depression (including manic depression), anger, addictions and relationship issues result from self-acceptance. 

We are all living our own reality, blind to the truth, often putting up a smokescreen, a huge public front, in order to hide our true selves, a self which we unconsciously and sometimes consciously fear as being unlovable. We mistakenly see the “others”, especially those closest to us, as the issue.

Unwanted traits are mistakenly experienced as those belonging to another, although there usually lies within ourselves a small degree of that trait, most noticeable when it feels like we are having “our buttons pushed” by another. “What we don’t like in ourselves, we see in others.” It is a matter of perception that makes projection confuse our inner reality with the outer world, therefore it is the "others" that are "critical, rude, self-absorbed, intense, crude, mean, selfish, aggressive, insensitive, groveling, cheating and/or untrustworthy" etc. If due to childhood or relationship abuse and mistrust from those supposed to love and care for us, any form of abuse such as mental cruelty, physical or sexual abuse, our self-esteem is plunged into a depth lower than our self-awareness. We can become enraged if shown any evidence that it might be ourselves which is less than perfect.   

The ultimate threat is to the public image, which appears to be holding us together. Without such image, it will feel like we are annihilated – destroyed - dust. The pain of shame is intolerable. To avoid such feelings we try and destroy others, blaming others for our destruction. Projection is a relation to aspects of our own psyche from which we attempt to disassociate from ourselves by projecting such aspects onto others. This pathologically makes us act out, misread, misremember or misconstrue words that we have ourselves, or others have said. By such cognitive process, we “selectively attend” to information “validating” our projections.

The defense mechanism of projection, in which the unacceptable impulses and traits are attributed to other people, leads to denial of the “shadow part of the self” and is especially likely to occur when the person lacks insight/self-awareness into his own impulses and traits.

Attributing one’s own undesirable traits to other people, e.g., an aggressive man accuses other people of being hostile, or an opinionated woman of other women being bossy, a boastful man says others “show off”. Men often project the tyrannical characteristics of an abusive father onto any authority figure. Women who have been smothered by and enmeshed with their mothers can find relationships stifling and other women untrustworthy. 

The individual perceives in others the motive he denies having himself. Thus the cheat is sure that everyone else is dishonest. The would-be or actual adulterer suspects and accuses husband/wife of infidelity.

An individual who unconsciously recognises his or her aggressive tendencies may then see other people acting in an excessively aggressive way. Individuals who are rude complain of others’ rudeness. Self-criticising individuals and those critical of others, seeing others as the ones who are critical. Any form of empathy for the self in others is seen as being weak and pitiful. 

We explode with anger when we are unable to face our own unwanted negative feelings of self-pity, jealousy, shame and embarrassment. Our childhood abusers have taught us that we are weak. Unable to accept their own human shortcomings, exposed, they projected them onto us as children, losing their temper with us when our very presence hit their buttons. 

The reality is that we are not weak, instead we have a yield and surrender; we have strengths and limits, and as such, are only human. However, being shouted at, hit, emotionally or sexually abused in any way leaves our boundaries broken, our sense of public and private self confused, as if we have an infant stuck inside our core self. Emotionally unavailable to ourselves we feel flattened, knocked for six, brainwashed, dead, and demonised into an internalised damaged soul with an externalised tendency to rage blindly. Any feelings of powerlessness or helplessness, inferiority or shame will trigger off such rage.  

It will often seem as if we are all living in our own personal hell surrounded by demons. Escaping by psychological withdrawal into drugs, alcohol, gambling, Facebooking, gaming or excessive tv watching, masturbation, engaging in risky [including sexual] behaviour or other forms of self-harm seems to bring the only relief we can find from pervasive, prolific, enduring psychological pain.   

Projection can also work the other way, whereas an honest and trusting person, sees everyone as honest and trustworthy, therefore subject to being conned. A loving person sees love in everyone and believes people when they say they love, even if their love is not true. An innocent person can see innocence in everyone and is taken advantage of.

Therapy, building a true relationship and accurately having our thoughts and feelings reflected back to us so that we understand ourselves, is one way to fight projection. To learn to reflect upon each situation when we find ourselves stuck in anger so that we can recognise when another’s actions “disturb” us, it is simply a part of ourselves that we are rejecting. This is not about condoning another’s abuse, instead to see clearly when it is that which belongs to another, and that which belongs to the self. Clarity from insight is at the end of the rainbow. 

“Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people” - Carl Jung

To learn to stop judging others, live a freer, authentic life, returning to lightness ask yourself this question: “Is it simply myself I am seeing reflected?”

In sum, “We do not see things the way they are, we see things the way we are”.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Amanda Perl MSc Psychotherapist Counsellor BACP (Accred) CBT Practitioner

I am a BACP registered counsellor and psychotherapist, a CBT Practitioner and Member of the British Psychological Society. I tutor on a Stage 4 BACP Accredited Counselling Diploma and am in private practice. My practice reflects my belief that each of us is unique with the potential for growth and development and can move forward in our own way.… Read more

Written by Amanda Perl MSc Psychotherapist Counsellor BACP (Accred) CBT Practitioner

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