For my money, Freud’s defense mechanism of projection is possibly the most brilliant and useful idea he ever came up with. Psychological projection affects all of our relationships. Furthermore, it affects every aspect of our life, both small and great.
The idea of psychological projection is simple to explain but has far-reaching implications. Essentially, we repress any attitudes, beliefs, assumptions, prejudices, and feelings that would make us feel less about ourselves. These denied thoughts are simply thrust down into the unconscious where we hope they will wither and die away.
Unfortunately, our denied and repressed attitudes refuse to be quiet. They will show up in the people and experiences of our everyday life. Because we feel negatively about these qualities in ourselves, we will judge those others who mirror these qualities back to us.
Projection in Action
Working to heal our many experiences of psychological projection is one of the most difficult and rewarding things we can possibly do for our mental health. It also takes an incredible amount of courage and self-honesty.
To discover and accept the fact that you have the same qualities as some of the people who annoy you the most is the most painful and most liberating psychological experience you can have.
For the brave and open-minded, discovering ways in which you are engaging in projection is relatively simple. Look at the relationships you have, from the most intimate, to work relationships, to the most casual. Of all of those people in your life, which ones are you most likely to be projecting on? My answer, with which many professionals would disagree, is all of them.
I believe that psychological projection is something that happens constantly, both waking and sleeping. Our dreams are one big projection party. So everyone you know and everyone you meet is telling you something about yourself.
It Ain’t All Bad
One of the things I have discovered about projection is that it works on all of those things that we deny and repress, including the very positive aspects of the self. Although it might seem hard to believe (or “counterintuitive,” as a colleague of mine said), we also deny and repress some of our most amazing qualities and characteristics.
What I said to my friend and colleague is that we deny and repress our power, our beauty, and our divinity as much as we deny and repress our more negative qualities. We are afraid to admit to our most admirable potentials as we are afraid to admit to our shortcomings and negative qualities. Why? Because if we admitted to those transcendent qualities and aptitudes, we are afraid we would have to do something about it.
How to Understand Projection in Real Life
I have said that we project onto everyone in our life, from the most intimate to the most casual relationship. We also project onto every experience we have, whether close and personal or global in nature.
What is this really like? Is there any experience we have in life that mimics this kind of ongoing and global projection? There happens to be such an experience and it is one we all have every single night. Our dreams mimic this projection experience perfectly.
Although there are plenty of differences of opinion among dream workers and scientific experts in the field, there is a general agreement that the persons and objects in our dreams represent aspects of the self. In other words, everything in our dreams is a projection, whether positive or negative.
Frederick (Fritz) Perls developed Gestalt Therapy (along with Laura Goldstein) to take advantage of this dream projection to help us understand our dreams.
In Gestalt Therapy, the subject would pick a person or object from a dream. There would be two chairs facing one another and usually a pillow to represent the object or person in the dream. The subject would speak to the pillow and ask it questions about what it represented. The subject would then change chairs and answer her own question on behalf of the dream figure.
It may sound a bit silly to a sophisticated audience but it was and still is a very effective dream work tool. It is based on two assumptions. One is that the persons and objects in your dream represent some part of the self. Secondly, the dreamer knows what the dream symbol means and Gestalt Therapy was a technique for teasing out that meaning.
Life as a Dream
This leads me to a simple way of understanding our daily projections and using them to heal ourselves physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. If we accept the premise that we are constantly projecting our repressed and denied qualities and characteristics, both negative and positive, then life is truly just like a dream. All of the people, places, objects, and experiences represent aspects of the self.
Just as psychological projection operates in the dream state, so does it operate automatically and flawlessly in the waking state. Having the courage to recognize and take back our projections is one of the most healing spiritual growth techniques available to us.
What this means practically is that we can work on our difficult relationships. Instead of spending all of our time and energy finding fault with our adversary, what if we were to look at the relationships and say to ourselves, “What if this were a dream?”
If it were dream, you would step back from the interactions in the dream and ask yourself, what is this person trying to tell me about myself? What aspect of myself do they represent? What qualities and characteristics am I projecting onto them that I need to take back and integrate back into my personality?
As I said, this is not easy work. It requires courage and self-honesty and recognizing some of our projections onto others can be quite painful. But the freedom gained from this work is worth whatever temporary pain we must endure.
Step back and recognize that life is but a dream. Instead of trying to change the dream, change yourself and then the dream will change.