A Headshrinker's Guide to the Galaxy

Psychoanalytic wisdom for everyday life

Projection 201: It's All My Fault!

Because no one is entirely responsible for their problems

It's all my fault.  Bad, bad, bad.  I can't do anything right.  Sound familiar?  Well, if you can relate, I've got good news for you.  Just like "the devil made me do it" distorts the picture, "it's all my fault" isn't the whole truth either.

In a recent post, Projection 101:  The Devil Made Me Do It, I explored the idea that human beings have a tendency to get rid of felt-to-be bad aspects of ourselves and attribute them to others.  Several readers responded, but what if I always blame myself?  This is a less popular but still all-too-familiar unconscious procedure.   Oddly enough, blaming ourselves keeps us just as stuck from changing as does blaming the other guy.  Here's how it works.

If you blame yourself for everything that goes wrong, you have a misconception of what is happening.  No one is entirely responsible for their problems.  Problems in life are a mix of good and bad, the result of multiple influences, and the contribution of many players.   Put simply, most problems in life are co-created.  Yes, we each have a hand in them, but that does not mean they are entirely our fault.

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So, when we blame ourselves entirely, we are engaged in another process: splitting.  Splitting goes hand-in-hand with projection.  We see ourselves and others as either all-good or all-bad.  Through the unconscious processes of splitting and projection, we get rid of half of the story and put it into someone else.  In the case of "it's all my fault," we hold on to the bad stuff and identify ourselves entirely with it.  That means that we actually get rid of the good stuff and put it into someone else.  Strange that we would do such a thing. 

Why would we project the good stuff and leave ourselves feeling all-bad?  Well, that question requires an answer far too complex for a 600 word blog post!  But, one of the reasons we might do such a thing is that it is a very clever protection from change.  And, as I have explored in previous posts, we human beings have a great fear of change and a great investment in maintaining the status quo—even if we feel miserable.

You see, if we view ourselves as all-bad, we believe we have nothing good to work with.  In our distorted view of ourselves, we don't have any good stuff inside that we could draw on—nothing that could help us get up, dust ourselves off, and go about the essential work of making repair.  If we believe we have nothing good inside, we remain collapsed in a dung heap of self-hatred.  It is a very tricky—and very unconscious—protection from taking responsibility for our contribution to our troubles and doing something constructive about it.

Now, I must offer one last observation about projection.  As you may have noticed, it tends to turn into a blame-game.  What might begin as trying-to-understand becomes trying-to-find-fault.  It takes effort to keep ourselves from going down that road.  But we need to.  Real understanding can't take place in a court-of-law.  It can only happen when there is a genuine search for truth.  The purpose of psychoanalytic insight is not to condemn us to the gallows; it is to learn more about what makes us tick so that we can make positive, lasting changes in our lives.

Copyright 2011  Jennifer L. Kunst, Ph.D.

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Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, working with adults and couples in her private practice in Pasadena, CA.

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