CC0 Public Domain
Source: CC0 Public Domain

I want to introduce today a very important psychological concept called "projection."  It can sound a little be abstract. Like most things psychological, it needs to be experienced to be fully understood.

Perhaps one good way to approach it is to imagine watching a movie, an instance of literal projection, in this case of a film on a large white screen.  We as movie watchers experience a variety of feelings watching the movie.  We may laugh, we may become frightened, we may cry.  At some level all of us know what we are watching is not really happening, but we respond as if it is.  How and why does this happen?

Before trying to answer that, I want to take it one step further:  not all of us respond to the same movie in the same way.  Some of us may love the hero, some of us may be indifferent.  Some of us find the heroine enchanting; others find her manipulative.  We can argue or discuss with each other after the movie what "really" happened, and in such discussions we cannot quite grasp how the person who watched the very same movie with us can see it so differently.  Surely they are wrong and we are right.

This was brought home very palpably to me in a psychology class I attended in graduate school.  The teacher wanted us to understand the concept of projection so she had us all watch the movie Aliens as a class.  After the class we talked about characters we liked, or hated, or had some kind of strong response to.

Within about 20 minutes it was clear to me that something very interesting and profound was happening.  How could my fellow students respond so passionately to a character who was so unimportant?  Why did the woman seated to my left see this male character in the way she did, when it was so clear to me he wasn't that way at all?  When it came time for me to speak about the character I had the most identification with, I can remember the passion and emotion in my voice as I defended his character to the class.  And as I heard myself explaining who he really was and why he should be seen in this way, I realized I was actually talking about myself.  I was trying to explain to the class an aspect of my personality that was frequently misunderstood by those around me, by those who saw one thing when really something additional was lurking beneath the surface.

What this showed me was that what we see out there is something that also exists within us, that we all project onto the world in general and people in particular aspects of our inner world, much as the movie projector projects the film onto a blank screen. 

And to add one more level to an already very rich picture, consider this:  how we respond to the outer world and the people around us contributes to how the outer world and other people respond to us.  So to some extent, we literally create the world we live in in each and every moment by what we project onto the world.  Having some awareness of this can give us greater control of how we interpret the world around us and, consequently, how the outside world will respond to us.

In coming posts I want to flesh this out further by describing the two commonest ways projection occurs:  negative projections and positive projections.

You are reading

Putting Psyche Back Into Psychotherapy

Why What I Admire In You Also Says Something About Me

How the good we see in others should help us to see the good in ourselves

Why What I Hate in You Also Says Something about Me

Negative projection, its source, and its solution.

Projection: How We See Ourselves in the Outer World

What is "real" and what is our internal drama played out on the screen of life?