Projection Psychology: How Your Thoughts Project Onto the Canvas of the World
You can transform your world.
Novelist Anaïs Nin once wrote: “we don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are.” Nin understood that the world is filtered not only through the senses, but through psychological lenses, too. Our beliefs, expectations, thoughts, and unconscious mind all influence the way we perceive our environment. And nowhere is this more common than our perceptions of other people.
Have you ever felt a strong attraction to someone, without knowing why? Have you ever been infuriated by someone’s behavior, and surprised by how strong your emotional reaction is? Have you ever judged someone else, only to later find yourself behaving in a similar way? All of these experiences are linked to psychological projection, the theory of how the mind shapes reality.
The term empowerment is used a lot in self-development circles. Its opposite, disempowerment, implies giving power to something else. Often in life, when psychological projections are unconscious, we’re completely unaware we are giving away our power. Our power includes our skills, and our ability to integrate and heal the fullness of the self.
The longer you project onto the external, the longer parts of you remain unclaimed. Understanding psychological projection is a way to relinquish those unclaimed parts of yourself, along with their energy and transformative potential. Here’s how.
The Meaning of Psychological Projection
One way to understand psychological projection is to use the metaphor of a movie. When you go to the cinema, you sit down in a darkened room and watch a film unfold on the big screen. The spectacle of light and sound creates the illusion of movement — a motion picture. What you see on screen isn’t real, but visual art. Still, you lose yourself in the story, you become immersed in another world, and forget that you’re sitting in a darkened room, looking at a screen.
The projector is the source, and the canvas is a blank space. Before the digital era, an old-school movie projector would shine light through a series of stills printed on film. The individual slides would transition too quickly to be noticeable to the naked eye, creating the illusion of movement. In a similar way, psychological projections occur when an unconscious source “projects” thoughts, feelings, or negative emotions onto the canvas of your environment.
In its simplest terms, psychological projection is when someone confuses an internal process for an external one. The theory was introduced by Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and was later developed by Anna Freud and Karl Abraham. For Freud, projection was one of our many defense mechanisms, and a defensive projection would be a way of “othering” unwanted or unacceptable states. These can include our own feelings such as lust, anger, or jealousy, as well as mental images, such as sexual or violent fantasies.
Is Psychological Projection Pathology?
In Freudian terms, psychological projection occurs when the superego (the moral, ethical and social part of the psyche) rejects something and has to externalize it. For example, if hatred is undesirable, feelings of contempt for someone else may be interpreted as being hated by that person. In this context, projected feelings are almost always a defense mechanism.
Consequently, early theories of projection viewed it as a byproduct of mental health concerns and pathological personality disorders. Carl Jung was a former student of Freud who found himself disagreeing with a number of Freud’s theories and approaches. Jung later launched his own philosophy of mind, psychoanalysis. Within that Jung theorized popular terms such as the unconscious and the shadow. In his Collected Works, Jung describes psychological projection as:
“The expulsion of a subjective content into an object; it is the opposite of introjection. Accordingly, it is a process of dissimilation, by which a subjective content becomes alienated from the subject and is, so to speak, embodied in the object. The subject gets rid of painful, incompatible contents by projecting them.”Carl Jung
For Jung, psychological projection isn’t always a defense mechanism. Instead, it occurs when parts of the shadow (the unconscious parts of the psyche that have been denied or suppressed) are projected onto the external world. At the extreme ends are paranoia, psychosis, or schizophrenia, where projections become severely reflected within an environment, or develop into hallucinations and other forms of mental illness that are best dealt with by a qualified mental health professional.
However, projection occurs with everyone, to various degrees, because everyone has a shadow. In fact, psychological projection can even be positive! Many people project desirable traits onto others. Empathy, an incredibly adaptable and healthy trait, contains a form of projection, by having a conscious awareness of one’s own suffering, thoughts, and feelings in another.
Types of Projection
When a suppressed aspect of the shadow is projected, it bypasses the process of accepting that thing as part of the self. It’s much easier and more comfortable to “see” these things in other people rather than experience these negative feelings in our own life, and to accept them as a part of ourselves.
The unfaithful lover may mistrust their partner to avoid taking responsibility for infidelity. The enlightened thinker may delight in condoning the moral shortcomings of other people, unable to integrate moral “imperfection” into their own sense of self-image.
As with everything within, there is a shadow and light element. Not only do negative emotions reside in the shadow, but positive qualities, too. Many people project their gold onto others, either gurus or leaders they pedestal and look up to, unaware that they also have a similar potential for greatness.
There are a number of different types of psychological projection that highlight these differences:
This type of projection is closest to Freud’s theory of projection as a defense mechanism. It’s the process of externalizing unwanted feelings or thoughts onto someone else. This is a form of maladaptive behavior because it appears to deal with psychological issues by “getting rid” of them.
With this type of projection, someone assumes that others share similar opinions, beliefs, and feelings, such as ethical or political views. This can be adaptive and useful when used to make bonds, create harmony with groups.
This projection occurs when a person assumes others have the same skills and abilities. For example, someone who is able to research quickly may assume others are able to process at the same speed. By using your own skillset as the baseline, there’s a risk of overestimating or underestimating what others are capable of.
This is the basis for empathy — rather than displace one’s inner experience onto someone else, empathy is the process of taking someone else’s emotions and claiming them as your own. Again, there is a balance to be found, as excessive empathy can lead to an erosion of individual boundaries.
As you look through this list, consider how these types of projections may occur in your life. As is common with psychology and inner work, it pays to look at patterns. If there is an unsolved issue, it’s likely you’ll be projecting feelings in similar ways. For example, you might notice you always “see” anger of judgment from people in positions of authority.
Examples of Projection
There are a number of common types of projection. By far, the most powerful is in romantic relationships. When two people “fall in love,” their sense of separation can dissolve, and often both people will project their image of perfection onto the other. That projection will soon shift, however, as the honeymoon period starts to fade, and the gap between expectations and reality dissolves. Another is in the form of a guru or teacher, where people project their sense of spiritual fulfillment or wisdom onto a “chosen one.”
The more day-to-day types of projection include people who are quick to judge and detect undesired emotions or traits in others. For example, someone who is highly judgemental will quickly detect others who are judgemental, while overlooking their own tendency of judgment. Equally, insecurities are often projected onto other people — someone with low self-esteem may assume others think poorly of them.
Additionally, psychological projection can occur in a more abstract way. People who have been raised in a strict religious setting might project self-judgment or shame onto an external “God.” Confirmation bias, too, can be viewed as a form of psychological projection. For example, people with unaddressed childhood trauma might be more prone to interpreting neutral facial expressions as threatening, a biased person perception that stems from their tough upbringing.
How to Stop Projecting
Projection is often seen as a way to avoid difficult emotions or unhealed issues. In many ways, it’s the psyche’s attempt at helping. It just goes about it in an unhealthy and unskillful way. Fortunately, understanding the mechanics of projection allows you to make greater strides in your own self-development.
What you project contains the source of issues that, once resolved, will lead to greater growth and fulfillment, as well as improved physical health. Below are five steps to reclaiming that process.
1. Accept Psychological Projections Are Common in Everyday Life
Psychological projection is part of everyday life. Everyone is prone to it. That includes you, and other people. Understanding the principle of neurotic projection can help you to avoid blaming other people, or situations, for unwanted or unpleasant desires and emotions.
It also allows you to stop taking excessive responsibility for other people’s unwanted junk! The more you take responsibility for your projections, the less hold other people’s projections will have over you.
Complementary projection can allow you to expand your level of open-mindedness when it comes to the diversity of opinions and perspectives from other people. Rather than assume people think in the same way, open yourself up to other ways of viewing, and allow your beliefs and opinions to change. And complimentary projection can allow you to get a clearer view of others, accepting them where they’re at, not where they’re placed in comparison to you.
2. Understand the Defensive Nature of Projecting Feelings
The irony with psychological projection is that it’s common for people who are projecting to be competently unaware of the process and respond to their own projection. Rapid-fire projection can create a self-fulfilling prophecy which makes it even harder to detect the source of discomfort or negative emotion. For example, someone who is angry might project that anger onto their partner, by accusing them of being frustrated with them. If their partner responds with anger, it “confirms” their original belief.
When psychological projection is a defense mechanism, and a way to get rid of uncomfortable feelings, any confrontation is likely to be met with a form of denial. In the above example, if the person’s partner tells them they’re not frustrated, the person projecting may continue the accusation or make the more difficult step of acknowledging their own projection.
I’ve been caught in projections a number of times, and it’s painful. Sometimes, as the awareness dawns on me, I’ve continued to stick to my initial narrative because the discomfort is too much, even when faced with a reasonable explanation. Eventually, with great difficulty, I’ll start to accept that I’m in the midst of projection. Some patience is required, though.
3. Work to Distinguish Projection from Intuition
As someone who is immersed in this field and has studied both depth psychology and spirituality for over a decade, I can’t stress this step enough. Human relationships are built upon dynamics. No issue is ever always exclusively the responsibility of one person. Yet in becoming aware of the process of projection, you might start to assume everything you feel or experience is projection.
I see this a lot in spiritual circles. People are clued up on projection so accuse others of projection. Nowhere is this more common than a self-proclaimed guru, who believes themselves to be of such a high level of awareness they have no projections, so always blame students’ uncomfortable feelings on this process. This can quickly lead to abusive or manipulative dynamics.
Part of inner work is to clarify the difference between projection and intuition. Sometimes, anger is justified. Sometimes, you might be sensitive to someone else’s nonverbal body language, which your body translates as a threat. Sometimes, someone might be projecting their own unwanted emotions onto you. The skill is in having a process of discernment, and always refining this process.
4. Get Help in Recognizing Projections from People You Trust
Improving your levels of discernment goes hand-in-hand with trusting people in your life to “reflect” you. Again, this term is used in spiritual circles and has the potential for transformation. When you trust someone else who is working on their self-awareness, they will be better able to detect when you’re projecting. Nowhere is this more intense than in a romantic relationship.
My partner and I have made an agreement to support each other’s growth in this way, and will often reflect when we believe the other one is projection. Keep in mind the nature of projection is denial or discomfort, so this is a high-stakes game, and one not to be taken lightly. Accusing the other person of projection can be a form of projection. You can see where that can get messy, very quickly.
But, if you’re able to navigate this with respect, and trust someone else to always try their best while taking responsibility for their own emotions, relationships with other “conscious” people can be a way to identify your projections, and overcome them, much quicker than working alone.
5. Use Your Environment as a Source of Self-Illumination
I’m a big believer in viewing projection as a process and an opportunity, not something to relinquish forever. When you view projections in this way, they become part of a support system for your own development. This becomes highly valuable because when you recognize projections, you discover part of an unconscious process.
This is then the breadcrumb to do deeper work. It doesn’t have to be a source of shame or self-rejection, but self-illumination. When emotionally unsettled, caught up in blaming or judging someone else, start asking yourself: am I projecting right now? Or: what projection could I be perceiving in my external world?
Keep in mind that projections usually have the quality of consistency. If there is an unresolved issue, it’ll likely occur in specific patterns or forms. Getting angry because you’re running late for work one time, and someone cuts you up in traffic, doesn’t necessarily indicate projection. But find yourself irate during every morning commute? That’s a clue to dig a little deeper.
Understanding psychological projections has the potential of transforming your world in a big way. When you start to look to your environment as an interactive sensory/psychological dynamic, your view of reality changes.
Psychology is inseparable from perception. While clear seeing is possible, it’s best to assume that in any given moment, your reality is likely being shaped or influenced to some degree by your thoughts, your mood, or aspects of your shadow.
This doesn’t have to be feared, but seen as another powerful tool to catalyze your own development. Keep going with the work, and this interactive nature will become clearer. An extreme example of a transcendental, mystical projection are synchronicities, where your external reality reflects a psychological process in seemingly impossible ways.
The deeper you go, the more the lines between the source of projection and external reality become. You become the movie director and the audience transfixed by the motion picture. In the words of Jung:
“We must bear in mind that we do not make projections, rather they happen to us. This fact permits the conclusion that we originally read our first physical, and particularly psychological, insights into the stars. In other words what is farthest is actually nearest. Somehow, as the Gnostics surmised, we have ‘collected’ ourselves from out of the cosmos.”Carl Jung