So, What is a Projection?

A friend asked me recently, “So, what is a projection?” I was surprised since I thought she knew; I thought everybody knew. Don’t teenage girls squabble and shout, “Oh, you’re just projecting”? But then it’s also true that in psychology (as in religion) we have to re-learn everything we thought we knew every day. It actually makes life interesting.

I recall my first encounter with projection. I was on the playground in fourth grade, and Ronnie Stone was making my life miserable as usual. He added a new insult: “And you do this weird thing with your eyes.” I was shocked. That was the weird thing Ronnie did with his eyes—not that I dared to point it out—but he was saying I was doing it!

He was “throwing out” (Latin, projectio) onto me a perception that was actually true about himself. And he did so in order to defend himself against having to face a “weird” fact about his own behavior.

Freud described this in the opening pages of his groundbreaking, The Interpretation of Dreams, of 1900. He was discussing the ancients’ view of the world: “which led them to project into the external world as though they were realities things which in fact enjoyed reality only within their own minds.” In individuals, he called projection a “defense mechanism” to protect the fragile ego against unpleasant truths.

Some of the ancients actually knew of this already. Jesus scolded: “How can you say to your brother: ‘Brother, let me take out the splinter that is in your eye,’ when you cannot see the plank in your own? Hypocrite!” (Luke 6.41-42). It is an interesting idea that when we see something wrong with another person (a splinter) it might just be because we have an even bigger wrong (a plank) within ourselves. Artists have stayed away from this parable (Domenico Fetti is an exception), doubtless thinking it too ugly to portray. Ethically, of course, it is very ugly—to accuse someone else of your own fault.

The ancient Indians focused less on the ethics and more on the illusions (māyā) caused by projection. Hinduism was fascinated that someone could step into a pool of water and be terrified that he’d just stepped on a snake—when it was only a rope. It is such an important distortion of reality that I titled my book on that religion, The Snake and the Rope. There is a positive version of the problem: excitedly seeing silver on the beach—when it is only mother-of-pearl in a shell. Their point is that if a person is deluded about what’s actually happening, that person’s feelings, thoughts, and actions will be distorted as well. The Buddha agreed and poked fun at a man who was in love with a woman he’d never met. Sound familiar?

What is missing in this discussion thus far is the “unconscious,” a modern discovery about the nature of the mind. Projections are not conscious events: instead, they are “thrown out” onto other things and people from a person’s unconscious psyche. This means no one knows, by definition, that he or she is projecting, is distorting reality, and is morally in the wrong (even if the other guy does have a “splinter” in his eye). Projections are also involuntary—they just happen to us unconsciously. Usually, they have an emotional charge. And we find ourselves caught up in otherwise inexplicable complications. We think and talk about them a lot.

Projections are also powerful, as powerful as the unconscious. So if someone says to a besotted fellow, “Don’t you see? She’s not good for you,” he won’t see it! He’ll be convinced against all argument that she’s “silver” or—heaven forbid—just a “rope” and not actually a snake. Facts won’t matter. He’ll even add to his projection the defense mechanism of “rationalization”—making up stories why this or that can’t be true. If pressed, “denial” will be trotted out. The human capacity for outright denial is very great. Politics, cynically, relies upon it. We even need it during war.

What is missing in this discussion, also, is Jung’s discovery that projections can be creative. I just might be projecting some unconscious ability onto someone I admire, an ability that actually lies within me and that deserves to be acknowledged in some way. In fact, the unconscious might have this goal in mind by “forcing” me to admire that other person a little too much. Melville admired Hawthorne more than Hawthorne could take; but, then, Melville was not conscious of the fact that he was the more important writer! If I fall in love irrationally (with a snake or a rope), it may be that I am being forced by the unconscious to learn—in the midst of a (failed or successful) marriage—how lovely I really am myself.

Most important, Jung realized that “God in heaven” is a projection of the deepest level of the unconscious psyche. This explains religion. It explains the irrationality of religion (against all argument and the facts) and explains its power. For without “God” we are not deep but shallow, unrooted, a victim of the winds of current opinion. A “right relationship” to the Energy of the collective unconscious provides the energy to live life meaningfully; without it, we are depressed since there is neither energy nor meaning.

Over time, traditional religion came close to Jung’s realization: Jeremiah’s circumcision of the “heart,” Jesus’s Kingdom of God “within,” Islam’s Allāh who is “closer than the jugular vein,” Hinduism’s sacred “Self” within the body, Buddhism’s denial that anything outside really matters.

But all these religions are supported by a net of projections and are either dead or dying. That is because unconscious projections are vulnerable to conscious truth and wear away over time. The good news is that when a projection fails, it can be found again at its origin—within one’s psyche! This is called “assimilation of projections” in Jungian psychology and takes a lifetime of work, a daily regimen. It means that regularly I find parts of myself outside that really belong within—bad parts but also good ones, even Divine qualities that do not deserve to be displaced onto such poor substitutes as work and family, politics and sports, vying for my “allegiance.”

In my view, Jung’s most important question and answer has to do with our “desires,” what we really want out of life when all is said and done: “What is behind all this desirousness? A thirsting for the eternal . . . ,” i.e., our desiring to be in touch with the deepest reaches of ourselves. (Collected Works 14, par. 192). I have no idea if my friend asked me—“What is a projection?”—because this question about the meaning of life lay behind it. But it does.

WANT MORE? Read Marie-Louise von Franz, Projection and Re-Collection in Jungian Psychology (Open Court, 1980).

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