I get home from work. I’m tired, I’m hungry, and I don’t feel like cooking. I reach into the freezer for tater tots and chicken nuggets—“Who cares? That’s not too unhealthy.” Then my cat Charlie pops his head into the kitchen and stares up at me with a pleading look in his eyes. “Don’t do it, dad! You’ve been eating so healthfully lately, and you and mom bought those nice, fresh vegetables in the fridge that you were going to cook with.”
I sigh. “Okay, Charlie. Thanks for lookin’ out for dad,” I say, somewhat begrudgingly. I put the frozen food away and pull out a bag of kale.
What Happened There?
Charlie didn’t say anything to me. Sure, he was making eye contact (we’re close like that), but that was the extent of our communication. Nonetheless, it felt like he somehow talked me out of my quick-fix dinner and into massaging some kale. How did Charlie seem to communicate that much? How did he influence my thinking?
Only I can control my mind, of course, and only I can convince myself to make healthy eating choices. However, I am clearly conflicted about doing so. After all, I keep both healthy stuff and junk food in the house. Though I planned a healthy meal when I was shopping, in that moment a few days later I just wanted the tots. Could it be what I saw in Charlie’s eyes was simply one side of my own inner conflict around healthy eating?
In that moment, I had two co-existing attitudes around food operating in my mind—one part of me saying, “Who cares? Eat the junk food!” and another part saying, “Dude, take care of your body. It’s a temple!” When I reached for the tater tots, I sided with one side of that conflict, and through the psychological defense mechanism projection, I began to experience my internal conflict about eating healthy as an external, interpersonal conflict (or interspecies conflict) between me and Charlie. His eyes were reflecting back the self-love and self-care I was denying myself as I sided with my more self-destructive, junk-foodie longings. As I prepared to fill myself with beige, processed foods, I saw the part of me that I was selectively forgetting, the part that wants to take good care of me, reflected back at me in Charlie.
Rather than trying to fight me and control me, Charlie had been elected to play an opposing role in my own internal fight. Through a psychological mechanism called projection, he was cast as the “healthy” part of me that I was trying to disown. At that moment, I could not experience my healthy longings as located inside me; I was more comfortable taking the opposite, crunchy, greasy side of the conflict. I projected my healthy longings out and saw them in Charlie’s eyes, where I was, for some reason, more able to listen to them.
So what is projection, how does it work, and how else might it show up in our mental lives?
Projection: Seeing Our Own Feelings in Someone Else
Simply put, projection is the tendency of the human mind to resolve anxiety and conflicted, mixed feelings and thoughts by imagining a part of the anxiety-producing or conflicted mental content is located outside of us, often relocated in someone else (e.g., Frederickson, 2013). If we are conflicted about feeling angry toward people whom we also love, we may begin, via projection, to imagine instead they are angry at us—“I’m not angry, you are the angry one!” This is why some people consider projection to be an important contributor to paranoid thinking. According to this theory, I become paranoid because I experience my own anger, which I have disowned because it is anxiety-provoking, as coming back toward me from the outside.
Projection can be advantageous—evacuating an aspect of our thoughts and feelings we are not ready to face can prevent us from crippling anxiety. Projection can also reduce anxiety because it helps us feel that new people, who are always somewhat a mystery to us, are familiar. For example, if I can be certain everyone I meet will hate me, because I am always projecting my self-hatred out onto others, at least I have the comfort of knowing what to expect! Even if I am misperceiving people because of my projections onto them, at least I will not have to deal with the anxieties and unknowns of connecting with a new, unknown person. Projection, like all psychological defense mechanisms, can help reduce anxiety in these limited ways.
Despite the potential anxiety relief provided by projection, there are certain side effects that can make us feel worse—and often lead people to seek therapy.
Problematic Side Effects of Projection
If I am frequently relocating pieces of myself into other people, I may lose track of who I am. Without direct access to my thoughts and emotions, I may begin to feel as though I have been emptied out. Many people come to therapy with concerns about who they really are and what they feel about themselves and their lives. Sometimes this is due to projection.
For instance, if I am not comfortable feeling my feelings about someone, I may look to others to tell me, “What should I be feeling?” In doing so, I project my ability to perceive and know my feelings into others. This can leave a person feeling like they have no feelings, or like they just don’t know themselves, and this empty feeling can lead to depressed states that compel people to seek therapy.
Let’s say that because of my developmental history I am anxious and uncomfortable about taking on a powerful or assertive role in relationships. To reduce this anxiety in relationships, I may relinquish the control or power I have, letting the other person take the lead and make the decisions. By projecting the sense of power I fear in myself into my friend, I put my friend in control and I play out the role of passive follower.
A good therapist will recognize how our projections show up in therapy—in the ways we relate to them, ourselves, and others. A good therapist will help us see our projections and help us evaluate the costs and benefits of projecting. Then it is up to us: Will we allow the rejected and projected parts of ourselves to return to us?
Some people prefer this way of relating, and that is fine. However, others find themselves getting into conflicts with the friends they place in the control/power role via projection. Perhaps, eventually, the friend gets tired of making all the decisions and has some longings to be passive, or perhaps we decide we don’t like being “controlled” anymore. This can lead to fights and to the end of relationships if we become too entrenched in our assigned roles in the passive/assertive split; this, too, can bring people to therapy.
When we begin to see the things we fear inside ourselves looking back at us in another’s eyes, life can be scary. For instance, if I hate myself, but am uncomfortable admitting this, I can, through projection, imagine others hate me. This can make the world a scary place. Imagine walking into a room and everyone there looking like the most self-hating, judgmental part of your mind. A room full of angry judges—terrifying!
People who rely heavily on projection can experience the world in this frightful way. If we are uncomfortable with our own anger, we can grow to fear others as “the angry ones.” If we are uncomfortable with sexual feelings, we may be disturbed by the thought others are lusting after us. If we are conflicted about whether to pay attention to ourselves, we may suffer from the fear, through projection, that others are watching us or listening to us against our will.
Needless to say, these types of projection do not reduce our anxiety but can actually increase it, because we have now distorted the world into a scary place full of angry, lustful people. The additional anxiety we can feel in response to our projections is called “projective anxiety” (Frederickson, 2013).
Recovering from Projection in Therapy
If projection leaves us feeling emptied out or afraid, or damages our relationships, how can we recover? Can we gather up the pieces of ourselves that we farmed out to others so we can become more whole?
In therapy, like any other relationship, our projections will come rolling out into the room. We may fear our therapist’s judgment, having cast our self-judging parts upon them. We may fear they will “mess with” us, when in fact our “messing with” ourselves is what has led us to therapy. The potential for projection in therapy is nearly limitless—we can cast the therapist in any role we want to disown. We can see any feeling we are afraid to feel ourselves in their eyes and begin to fear the therapist.
A good therapist will not take this personally. A good therapist will recognize how our projections show up in therapy—in the ways we relate to them, ourselves, and others. A good therapist will help us see our projections and help us evaluate the costs and benefits of projecting. Then it is up to us: Will we allow the rejected and projected parts of ourselves to return to us? Will we accept the feelings and thoughts we have “emptied” out through projection back into our inner world so we can feel more whole and live more authentically? How we decide to answer these questions will help determine the trajectory of our therapy and our relationship to ourselves.
Through reflecting on my experiences in the kitchen with my cat Charlie, I was better able to recognize the inner conflict in myself about what and how to eat and take back the parts of me that I was projecting, so I could make decisions with the totality of my feelings in mind. That capacity to reflect on and accept my inner complexity is a difficult and life-enriching work in progress, and a product of much help I have had from good therapists and other good people (and cats) in my life.
Frederickson, J. (2013). Co-creating change: Effective dynamic therapy techniques. Kansas City, MO: Seven Leaves Press.
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