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*Psycho/analytic corner* Projection: what is it?

Updated: Oct 4, 2022

What is Projection in Psychology

Projection is an unconscious psychic process that leads the individual to transfer his own characteristics onto other people or external objects, leading him to believe that these qualities actually belong to the other. It is a "defence mechanism" that has always belonged to the human psyche and that is acted in an unconscious way.

What is a "defence mechanism"

By "defence mechanism" we mean that function proper to the Ego that is activated when faced with situations that are too intense, situations that the Ego is not able to handle directly. It is a form of psychic defence that has always been inherent in the nature of man.

In fact, the Ego includes a series of regulatory functions that have the task to keep under control the stimuli from the world, to manage instincts and drives in order to ensure a correct functioning of the Ego.

Projections are part of these forms of defence of the ego, forms that operate outside the sphere of consciousness, therefore purely unconscious. There are many different types of defence mechanisms, projection being only one of them.

Each type of defence mechanism leads the individual to act in a certain way in order to manage, albeit unconsciously, to deal with emotional conflicts and sources of stress.

Projection and Jung

For Jung, projection is not strictly definable as a defence mechanism but rather as a constructive process in that a significant psychological change takes place in the subject: undifferentiated unconscious contents emerge becoming progressively more conscious. This process favours a widening of consciousness and thus a constructive development of the psyche.

"Jung defined projection as an unconscious, i.e. unconscious and unintentional transfer of subjective psychic elements onto an external object. The individual sees in this object something that is not there, or is there only in a small part." (Marie Louise von Franz)

Projection is that mechanism of the psyche that leads to seeing in others, qualities that they do not have or have only in a small part, creating 'non-objective' relationships. What we see in others are none other than our own qualities/defects that we can recognise as belonging to us, even if they are present at an unconscious level.

The person on whom the projection is acted upon takes on characteristics that lead them to be devalued or idealised excessively, creating illusory situations. This happens because in each of us there is an unconscious personality called the Shadow, a kind of 'inferior' personality.

This unconscious personality, i.e. our Shadow, is made up of all those contents removed from consciousness because they are considered, in the course of our existence, incompatible with the moral rules of a conscious attitude.

In fact, everything that is considered 'ugly, dirty and bad' is removed, as a form of defence, in order to maintain a functioning Ego. But what the conscience removes is not permanently erased but remains latent, remains in the Shadow and finds expression through the mechanism of projection.

In this way we find ourselves projecting our personal psychology, our Shadow, onto others.

Making the Shadow conscious is part of the initial process of self-knowledge and it is through the mechanism of projection that we are able to bring to light those dark parts that might otherwise remain hidden for a lifetime.

"Everything about others that irritates us can lead us to an understanding of ourselves." (C.G.Jung)

It is in fact an unconscious autonomous process that is not consciously managed. It is not we who project unconscious content but it is the content itself that autonomously, without our control, projects itself onto an object.

Therefore when we find qualities in others that disturb us or that we admire, they are in fact qualities that belong to us, qualities that through the mechanism of projection are transferred onto subjects that automatically become our mirror.

We are able to recognise these qualities precisely because they belong to us, otherwise, know we would not be able to recognise them: 'You only recognise what you know', says an old saying.

Understanding that this is projection, however, is not easy because the reality we have created we think of as the only absolute reality, thus misleading us.

The intrinsic characteristic of projection is precisely that it creates an identity union between subject and object, that is, psychological equality that does not allow for the psychic distinction between subject and object.

A projection can only be recognised and defined when the need arises to break this identity relationship between subject and object. This occurs when the identity with the object becomes a disturbing element, creating a sense of unease. Only then can one recognise the projection and withdraw the projected contents into the object, recognising them as one's own contents.

With this withdrawal mechanism, the individual achieves a high degree of awareness. In this way, projection becomes a psychological instrument of differentiation between self and other; a constructive and fundamental process for individuation.

"(...) the bearer of projection is not in fact, and experience teaches us this, an object taken at will, but it is always an object that offers, as it were, a suitable attachment to what it is intended to support." (C.G.Jung)

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