Psychological Projection

Psychological projection is the process of misinterpreting what is “inside” as coming from “outside”. It forms the basis of empathy by the projection of personal experiences to understand someone else’s subjective world.

In its malignant forms, it is a defense mechanism in which the ego defends itself against disowned and highly negative parts of the self by denying their existence in themselves and attributing them to others, breeding misunderstanding and causing untold interpersonal damage.

A bully may project their own feelings of vulnerability onto the target, or a person who is confused may project feelings of confusion and inadequacy onto other people. Projection incorporates blame shifting and can manifest as shame dumping. Projection has been described as an early phase of introjection.

Projection may help a fragile ego reduce anxiety, but at the cost of a certain dissociation, as in dissociative identity disorder. In extreme cases, an individual’s personality may end up becoming critically depleted. In such cases, therapy may be required which would include the slow rebuilding of the personality through the “taking back” of such projections.

A prominent precursor in the formulation of the projection principle was Giambattista Vico. In 1841, Ludwig Feuerbach was the first enlightenment thinker to employ this concept as the basis for a systematic critique of religion.

Projection was also conceptualised by Sigmund Freud in his letters to Wilhelm Fliess, and further refined by Karl Abraham and Anna Freud. Freud considered that, in projection, thoughts, motivations, desires, and feelings that cannot be accepted as one’s own are dealt with by being placed in the outside world and attributed to someone else. What the ego repudiates is split off and placed in another.

Freud would later come to believe that projection did not take place arbitrarily, but rather seized on and exaggerated an element that already existed on a small scale in the other person.

Some studies were critical of Freud’s theory. Research on social projection supports the existence of a false-consensus effect whereby humans have a broad tendency to believe that others are similar to themselves, and thus “project” their personal traits onto others. This applies to both good and bad traits; it is not a defense mechanism for denying the existence of the trait within the self.

Projection tends to come to the fore in normal people at times of personal or political crisis but is more commonly found in narcissistic personality disorder or borderline personality disorder .

Carl Jung considered that the unacceptable parts of the personality represented by the Shadow archetype were particularly likely to give rise to projection, both small-scale and on a national/international basis. Marie-Louise Von Franz extended her view of projection, stating that “wherever known reality stops, where we touch the unknown, there we project an archetypal image”.

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