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Projection 101: The Devil Made Me Do It!

How to take responsibility and stop the madness!

You know you do it. We all do. Who wants to take responsibility for the bad stuff we do, the mistakes we make, the yucky feelings inside? It's so much easier to pass them off onto someone else. It wasn't me; it was the other guy. Or we can always call upon the old standby: the devil made me do it! Projection 101.

In a recent post, Three Fingers Pointing Back to You, I introduced the concept of projection (or projective identification, same thing in my book). We see in other people the very things we do not want to see in ourselves. What makes this crafty little defense work is that we are able to see these shameful aspects of ourselves in other people because, in unconscious fantasy, we put them there.

Thanks to the cleverness of the unconscious mind, we are able to manipulate our picture of reality and see it as we wish to see it—usually in a way that initially makes us feel more comfortable. Here is the origin of the idea that "the devil made me do it." Perhaps you remember the scene in the Garden of Eden. The story goes that God said Adam and Eve could eat of any fruit in the Garden except for the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. And, of course, that's the fruit that they found irresistible.

Now, a lot could be said about this story, but I am lifting up just one aspect to help make my point. Adam and Eve—being the symbolic representatives of all of us human beings—felt they could only be satisfied if they ate the only fruit that was off-limits. Call it curiosity, greed, envy, rebelliousness, individuation—call it what you will, we just can't help ourselves. So when God asks them what they have done, they do what humans tend to do. They blamed the other guy; they passed the buck. Adam says Eve made him do it; Eve says the devil made her do it. And so projection is born!

Here's how the script goes. It's not my fault; it's someone else's fault. I don't feel envious of other people, but they sure seem envious of me. I don't feel ashamed; you should feel ashamed. By means of projection, we get rid of unwanted feelings and relocate them in someone else.

Sounds pretty neat, eh? Well, it may be neat at first but the relief doesn't last very long. You see, the bad feelings we get rid of—like a boomerang—have a natural pressure to come back. We may experience this dynamic as that nagging feeling that our spouse, or boss, or friend, or the stranger on the street is out to get us. Or we are always looking over our shoulder, on the look-out for the ulterior motive of another, overly sensitized to reading something negative in feedback from other people. By their very nature, the projections we put out want to come back. They want to come home where they belong. In other words, they haunt us.

While I will talk more about the dynamic of projection in future posts, the truth is that projection is one of the most destructive ways of handling our difficulties. We fare better in life when we can take more and more responsibility for ourselves—when we can own the good, the bad, and the ugly when it belongs to us. We have very little power to influence our lives for the better when we imagine we have no part in our troubles. But when we own our own stuff, we have the chance to make a change for the better. We Adams and Eves have been trying to figure that one out for a very long time.

Copyright 2011 Jennifer L. Kunst, Ph.D.

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