The reason why we don't see reality are the noises of the mind.
- Krishnamurti


Reflection I am intrigued by the psychological phenomenon called projection. Although I have just read an erudite book on the subject, I am as mystified about it as before. That does not stop me from glibly telling my friends they are projecting, when I suspect they might be. One of the annoying aspects of projection is that though it is not all that hard to detect projection in others, it is difficult indeed to notice when you do it yourself. Being sure I do a lot of projecting, I wrote this article in order to clarify my own understanding of this incredibly elusive subject. Since projection is so slippery, my method is to approach the subject through a multitude of examples.

I'll begin with what I managed to glean from "Projection and Re-collection in Jungian Psychology", by Marie-Louise von Franz.

The nature of projection

What is projected is a sum of characteristic qualities that constitutes a part of the person observed (the one on whom the projection is based). Thus a son might project the tyrannical qualities of his father onto authority figures he encounters later in life. Such a person will also behave tyrannically himself, but will not be conscious of it. When I project a motive onto someone I am seeing myself in them.

Von Franz defines projection as an unconscious, that is, unperceived and unintentional, transfer of subjective psychic elements onto an outer object. In other words, it is reading into another person certain of our qualities that we are not aware we have.

One sees in the other person something that is not there, or rather, there only to a small degree. For seldom, if ever, is nothing of what is projected present in the other. As folk wisdom has it: "Just because you're paranoid it doesn't mean they're not out to get you". The other person functions as a hook on which to hang the projection, or better, as an activator of dormant tendencies. Seeing "the man in the moon" is an analogous example. The topography of the moon is such that our mind reads a human face into it.

Many children, as well as some adults, fear the dark. They project their internally held fears out onto the environment. This is like a slide projector sending its images out into the empty darkness.

Yet the term projection is misleading in that nothing is actually sent out of ourselves. Projection is not a process or activity in its own right, but merely an aspect of perception. We project when we unknowingly include the contents of our own psyche in the perception of the world. In other words, projection is the confusion of inner reality with the reality outside us. Essentially, it arises out of the confusion of subject with object.

Jung wrote: "The effect of projection is to isolate the subject from his environment, since instead of a real relation to it there is now only an illusory one. Projections change the world into a replica of one's own unknown face." When we project, we are not relating to another person but, to aspects of our own psyche. Clearly, this is an unhealthy, if not pathological state of affairs.

Constellations and tyrants

An obvious example of projection is the way that patterns of stars in the night sky are referred to by names such as 'the big bear'. This is harmless because no one takes it literally. In fact it isn't really projection as such because it is conscious. Projection is harmful when we do the same thing but are not aware of it, analogously to actually mistaking a group of stars for an earthly animal. In fact we often mistake a person for the image we have projected onto them. A well-known fable that deals directly with projection is that of 'The Emperor's New Clothes', in which the emperor projects the admiration of his subjects to cover his naked body.

Another commonplace example is when we buy someone a present - we often buy what we ourselves would like to receive. This is part of a more general projection: that basically we see other people in terms of ourselves. When someone recounts an experience they have had, we most often think how we would have reacted in their place, rather than becoming aware of how the other person really feels. In other words, projection is a barrier to empathy.

The veneration of Hitler as a saviour-hero is an excellent example of the danger of projection. Von Franz writes: "In such cases nothing can lead the projecting parties to a clearer insight; even the soberest factual evidence will be emotionally dismissed." The reason why it is so difficult to acquire insight into one's projections is that they are mostly of an emotional nature. How else can we explain that almost an entire nation was mesmerised by a demonic megalomaniac?

With his usual incisiveness, Fromm wrote:

The adult, like the child, is longing for somebody who would make him feel certain, secure, safe, and it is for that reason that he is willing and prone to worship figures that are, or readily lend themselves to being considered, saviours and helpers even if in reality they may be half mad.

The contemporary situation where a brutal murderer totally without scruples, called Saddam Hussein is idolised by Moslems around the world as a saviour and hero, is a straightforward example of what Fromm describes.

After an election, it almost inevitably happens that the electorate becomes disenchanted with whom they have chosen. One reason for this is that there is never enough money to fund all the promises. Another is that no politicians live up to the image of noble and idealistic statesmen that their admirers want to see them as being.

Ken Wilber's explanation

So how do you tell you are projecting? Here is how Ken Wilber explains it in "No Boundary":

Imagine a man who decides to clean out his garage, with its age-old deposits of debris. He starts out with enthusiasm to carry out this long overdue task ... but soon gets diverted by some old magazines. At this point he is starting to lose touch with his drive. Yet he knows in the back of his mind that someone wants him to clean out the garage, or else he wouldn't be there at all. As he potters around aimlessly, he starts to get annoyed with the whole project. Then his wife pokes her head in and innocently asks whether he has finished yet. "Get off my back!" he snaps. For he now feels that not he but his wife wants him to clean out the garage. The projection is completed because his own drive appears to come from the outside.

When you feel some sort of pressure - from the boss, from your spouse, from school, or any other source, it is wise to interpret those feelings of pressure as a signal that you have some energy and drive that you are presently unaware of. You usually think you are reacting to pressure from someone else, but it actually comes from inside you. The other person only serves as the trigger to activate it. Once you realise that all feelings of pressure are your own unheeded drive, you can then freely decide whether to act on it or not.

According to Ken Wilber, the basic mechanism of projection is that "an impulse (such as drive, anger or desire) which arises in you and is naturally aimed at the environment, when projected, appears as an impulse originating in the environment and aimed at you." The two major characteristics of projection are that you feel you completely lack the projected impulse, trait, or tendency, and that it appears to exist outside you, usually in other people.

Witch hunts

Wilber cites the witch hunt as one of the clearest instances of projection: "The witch hunt begins when a person loses track of some trait or tendency in himself which he deems evil, satanic, demonic, or at least unworthy." Wilber calls a person's dark side a little black heart, something we all possess. Believing that he has no little black heart, the witch hunter assumes an air of righteousness. Because he finds it very uncomfortable, he resists his little black heart: "The more he resists it, the more strength it acquires and the more it demands his awareness. Finally, because he can deny it no longer, he does start to see it. But he sees it in the only way he can - as residing in other people. He knows somebody has a little black heart, but since it just can't be him, it must be someone else." All that remains is to find someone onto whom he can project his shadow. He then despises this someone with the same passion he feels against his own dark side. It is also interesting to note that those who most vehemently seek to root out the devil become most like him in their actions. A pre-occupation with rooting out heresy shows the power of projected doubt.

Often the best clue that we are projecting is the depth of the feeling in us, that is stirred up by the other person. An exaggerated reaction suggests we are projecting.

In particular, many people decry how loathsome homosexuals are. According to Wilber, they do so because they are "uncomfortable with their own natural, unavoidable, but minor homosexual inclinations, and so project them". They subconsciously fear they might become homosexuals themselves. Thus they come to hate the homosexual inclinations of other people, but only because they hate them in themselves. There is a long tradition of shooting the bearer of bad news. We dislike people who see our dark side.

Will, a former gay-basher, who eventually came to terms with his own latent homosexuality, believes that like him, most of the young thugs who take the lead in gay-bashing gangs do so because of doubts about their own sexual identity. When they grow up, when sex holds less of a threat, they stop bashing.

I heard the story of a violent disagreement between a mother and her daughter. After four years of estrangement, the mother wrote a conciliatory letter to her daughter. Yet the letter angered the daughter even further because she believed that the contents of the letter, though fine in themselves, were something that her mother should have applied to herself, rather than addressing them to her.

Then there is what Wilber calls "the interminable gossip about everybody else that tells you much more about the gossiper than about the object of gossip. But all these are instances of individuals desperate to prove that their own shadows belong to other people."

The situation might be summed up as:
            All the world projects but I and thee,
            And even thee projects on me.

In search of a criterion

It is difficult to frame a criterion to determine when one is projecting. A projection is just an (unconsciously derived) opinion, and like any other opinion, the only way to test it is by continuously and scrupulously matching it against reality. The problem with dispelling projections is that because they are emotionally determined they make objective assessment difficult. As a result, the checking of projections is often a self-fulfilling process. Re-assessing my opinion of something is often like buying another copy of the same newspaper to check a story. Further, since projection arises in the first place from a disturbance of perception - which is our means of gaining information about the world - its effects are deeply insidious. It is as though we have astigmatism and seek to eradicate it by thinking of circles as being round when they appear oval.

Introspection is needed to be aware of how my own likes and dislikes, predilections, prejudices and especially complexes influence the way I see the world. If I know that I am over-sensitive to something or that I give undue importance to some aspect of life, then this awareness helps me to realise what sort of situations or people prompt me to project. Whenever our reactions are strongly charged emotionally, it is worth asking whether projection is involved. One way to check our perceptions of a person is by comparing our perceptions with how other people see this person. Though, of course, there is nothing to stop two people from projecting the same quality onto a third person. Projection is often a matter of exaggeration, of mistaking a part for a whole, eg of mistaking a person's bitchy comment for a bitchy person.

I may be well aware that I project a quality such as nastiness or sexiness onto another person, but this is not the sort of awareness that allows me to eliminate the projection. My thinking about an unconscious process does not render it conscious, nor does my knowledge stop its operation. RD Laing makes the same point using the example of the defence mechanism called 'splitting': "Even when a person develops sufficient insight to see that 'splitting', for example, is going on, he usually experiences this splitting as indeed a mechanism, so to say, an impersonal process which has taken over, which he can observe but cannot control or stop." So it is no easy matter to stop projecting.

We are reminded of how easy it is to project onto others when we find ourselves blaming something on another person, when in fact it was of our own doing. This is often shown in trivial incidents, like forgetting to switch off the light or misplacing things. It is so tempting to blame someone else for what goes wrong, displacing our anger from ourselves. I have caught myself doing this many times.

Wilber has compiled a helpful table of symptoms and the corresponding shadow qualities that commonly cause them. In most of these instances the symptom is the projection of the shadow form.

SYMPTOM                        translated to                       ITS ORIGINAL SHADOW FORM
Pressure ...................................................................... Drive
Rejection ("Nobody likes me") ..................................... "I wouldn't give them the time of day!"
Guilt ("You make me feel guilty") .................................. "I resent your demands"
Anxiety ....................................................................... Excitement
Self-consciousness ("Everybody's looking at me")......... "I'm more interested in people than I know"
Impotence/frigidity ....................................................... "I wouldn't give him/her the satisfaction"
Fear ("They want to hurt me") ...................................... Hostility ("I'm angry and attacking without knowing it")
Sad ............................................................................. Mad!
Withdrawn ................................................................. "I'll push you all away!"
I can't ......................................................................... "I won't damnit!"
Obligation ("I have to") ................................................ Desire ("I want to")
Hatred ("I despise you for X") ..................................... Autobiographical gossip ("I dislike X in myself")
Envy ("You're sooo great") .......................................... "I'm a bit better than I know"

People we project onto

Not only negative parts of ourselves are projected. A friend of mine who is very secure emotionally, tends to project this quality onto others. Consequently, he finds it hard to understand many common behaviours that arise out of insecurity. Similarly, people who are very honest by nature rarely impute dishonesty to others, without compelling evidence. There is a lot of truth in the saying that, "It takes one to know one".

In our society, no group of people arouses more curiosity and admiration than do film stars. The widespread adulation of film actors results from mass projection (pun not intended). These people become larger than life figures on the screen, acting out the unlived lives of their admirers. The public is fascinated by film stars not because of their intrinsic qualities (except, arguably, for sex-appeal), but because they serve as carriers for qualities such as heroism, romance, charisma, mystery and excitement. These qualities are present in the viewers themselves, but are not acknowledged nor manifested, and hence are projected.

Romantic novels perform a similar role for their readers. They provide a fictitious person of the opposite sex, onto whom otherwise unexpressed feelings of romantic love can be projected. A person who is incapable of penetrating the wall of separateness with their spouse, may be moved to tears when they vicariously participate in the love story of a fictitious couple.

People project onto the royal family even more than they do onto film stars. Royals are perceived as being different from ordinary humans. Someone once observed that the queen does not go to the toilet. The royal family are seen as living a life that is more fantasy than reality. People project onto the royals all their yearnings for a totally luxurious life, and live vicariously through them. In particular, the marriage of Charles and Diana was, for many people, the most powerful carrier of their ideals of romance. A friend of mine spent a year travelling around the world. His highlight was seeing Prince Charles from a distance...

Probably the people most projected-onto are pop-stars. This is shown by the hysteria at rock-concerts and the idolisation by teenagers of people whose only accomplishment is to sing or play guitar.

To a lesser degree, we unknowingly project onto doctors, lawyers, professors, Nobel prize winners, sports champions, and pygmies. To the extent that we do so, we do not see the person but the title or group and the qualities we associate with it. We assume that a champion or expert is never at a loss, or subject to the same failings and doubts as are the rest of us. We think that a famous author or philosopher is different from ordinary people.

Did you hear the story about the nun, the punk and the Kit-Kat? This is actually a true story told, on herself, by a nun of the Sacred Heart Convent. Feeling hungry while on a visit to London, she went into a cafeteria and bought herself a bread roll and a Kit-Kat. She looked around for a vacant seat in the crowded hall. The only unoccupied one was at a table at which a punk was sitting. Reluctantly, she sat down at his table. She noticed that he had eaten a piece of her Kit-Kat. Angrily she broke off a piece and ate it. The punk ate another piece. In despair, she grabbed her bread roll and ran out of the cafeteria.

When she later opened her handbag, she found a bread roll and an untouched Kit-Kat inside it. So much for the nun's illusion, but what chance did the poor punk have? He must have been certain she was a thief. The incident probably changed his image of nuns.


Prejudice is nothing but the projection of a fixed pattern of beliefs concerning some group, onto an individual we do not know, belonging to that group. If we have ever encountered only one Armenian in our life, then the next time we meet one, our perceptions are likely to be coloured by our impression of the first person.

We are all rife with cultural prejudices of all kinds. One example is our attitude to jewellery, ornaments and self-mutilation. In Western culture pierced ears are regarded as normal, pierced noses are not, though this is now changing. Neck extension and skull deformation are beyond the pale for us. In cultures where these are practised they are merely normal. A more glaring example is the practice of genital mutilation of young girls, which is perfectly normal in some societies but totally abhorrent to us.

In 1996 there was a televised debate between two Australian politicians, Keating and Howard. A subsequent poll indicated the following reactions: among ALP voters 81% thought that Keating had won, while 7% thought he had lost. Among Coalition voters 82% thought that Keating had lost and 7% that he had won. This seems to indicate that our evaluation of the logic of an argument has more to do with our pre-existing beliefs than with rationality as such. This was shown quite sharply in the OJ Simpson case, where people believed him to be guilty or innocent depending on whether they themselves were black or white.

On a more mundane level, a meal at my favourite restaurant seems good even if it isn't. That is to say, my positive attitude has the effect of diminishing faults and exaggerating positives in a place that I like. In a place I dislike, the opposite is the case.


Projection has enjoyed a long and colourful role in the history of science and philosophy. It is at least as old as Plato's cave. Plato believed that the world of ideas was more real than the world revealed by the senses. Arguably, this wasn't really projection because it was a conscious belief. Yet this mode of thinking became so entrenched in Western thought for the next two thousand years that few, if any, of the thinkers who followed were aware of the basic assumptions they were making.

It appears that Aristotle once gave an elaborate theoretical proof that his wife must have exactly 42 teeth in her mouth. It didn't occur to him to actually check whether he was right because his reasoning clearly showed that she could not have any other number. This kind of a priori thinking is a form of projection. Ptolemy and the other ancient astronomers projected their ideas about perfection onto the firmament and hence the planets were for thousands of years believed to move in circular orbits. This was not because of any observational evidence but due to a belief that the circle was perfect and that celestial bodies must therefore move in circular orbits. For the same reason, Copernicus developed his heliocentric theory using epicycles. Even Kepler, who was the first to show that planetary orbits were in fact (approximately) elliptical, was heavily steeped in a priori thinking. He was obsessed with a scheme whereby the five perfect solids would fit between the orbits of the then known six planets. More recently, Einstein expressed his distaste for quantum physics saying, "God does not play with dice."

There is a simple logical riddle that illustrates how easily we deceive ourselves. Two men come to a river where there is a boat which can only carry one person at a time. They cross. How do they do it? This is one of my favourite riddles. People either get it straight away or fail to solve it at all.

The solution is not to make a certain assumption, namely that the two men arrive at the same side. This kind of reading-in, i.e. the holding of hidden and unwarranted assumptions, has always constrained the human imagination in the history of science. It still does.


People project their narcissism onto the state, calling this patriotism, or onto their religion, calling it devotion. Militant nationalism and fanatical religious zeal arise in this way.

Projection is not a phenomenon of merely academic interest. Epictetus wrote, "We are not troubled by things, but by the opinions we have of things." If people could become aware of their projections onto others the world would be quite a different place. Would any person seek to kill another if they saw them as a person like themselves, rather than an enemy onto whom all manner of evil is projected? Once we project all our dark side onto a person or group, we feel justified in opposing them by any means at our disposal. The hatred of the Iranians for the US can only be understood if we realise that they project onto America their ideas about Satan, in other words their own rejected dark side. Perhaps it is facile to suggest that projection is responsible for all of the wars that bedevil humanity. Yet how else can we explain that people are so willing to kill one another, which is so clearly at variance with the truth that we are all the same inside?

When we project, instead of seeing another person, we see our own dark side. We do not see their humanity, and as a result lose sight of our own, unleashing cruelty. James Baldwin wrote, "It is a terrible, an inexorable law, that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one's own."

Just as projection prevents relatedness between individuals, it correspondingly damages relations among nations. A neighbouring country easily becomes seen as the enemy, while we are the good guys, and our neighbours see things that way too - only reversed. President Reagan illustrated projection when he called the Soviet Union an "evil empire". Once Gorbachev arrived on the scene, that evil inexplicably vanished. The intractable conflict between Jews and Arabs has a lot to do with the unrealistic way in which each side sees the other. Thus when an Israeli man went amok, killing seven Arabs, Time magazine reported that not a single Palestinian believed that the murderer was acting on his own, rather than on behalf of the authorities. The current fighting and the bottomless hatred between Serbs, Croats and Bosnians shows that each group is projecting all manner of devilry onto the others. To someone living in Australia, the three groups seem much the same.

Reading in

A familiar example of projection is the way that people tend to ascribe human feelings to their pets. Some pet owners claim: "He understands every word I say." Even more transparent is the projection of feelings or intentionality onto inanimate objects, as when we speak of the perversity of inanimate matter. Murphy's Law is an example of how we project our fears onto objective reality.

If I am sitting in the train and overhear an isolated fragment of conversation such as, "My wife was very upset," then my mind supplies a possible scenario. In so doing I am projecting my own preconceptions onto the situation of a person I know nothing about. The process of 'filling in the gaps' in a story is one of projection (provided we are not doing it consciously). The act of reading a novel also involves projection: we automatically use our own experience of life to create images out of the author's words, which are only symbols on a piece of paper. In this sense, reading is perhaps more of a creative activity than writing is.

At a more basic level, studies have found that we recognise words as much by context as by their actual sound. This is especially apparent when we hear an unfamiliar name for the first time. It is hard to catch it correctly. On one occasion I heard 'Do you itch' when what was actually said was, 'Can you reach?' Thus what we hear, or think we hear, has a lot to do with what we expect.

A character in David Malouf's novel, "Remembering Babylon" writes this about the early Australian explorers who perished because they didn't know how to live off the land:

... which they could not, with their English eyes perceive, since the very habit and faculty that makes apprehensible to us what is known and expected dulls our sensitivity to other forms, even with the most obvious. We must rub our eyes and look again, clear our minds of what we are looking for to see what is there.

There is a cleverly constructed drawing which can, with equal ease, be interpreted as depicting a grotesque old woman or an attractive young woman. It is used as a training exercise, in which half the participants are shown an unambiguous drawing of an ugly old woman that closely resembles the ambiguous drawing. The other half are shown a drawing of a young woman very similar to the ambiguous drawing. When they afterwards see the composite drawing, those who were first shown the old woman are convinced this is the only possible interpretation of the ambiguous drawing. Those who were first shown the young woman are equally convinced that the composite drawing is that of a young woman.

The point is that our experience conditions us to interpret what we see, and that this is a process we are unconscious of. When they gaze at the same piece of paper, one group of people see the lines and shading on the page as constituting the thing called a young woman. Others look at these same areas of light and dark and 'see' the quite dissimilar shape of another thing, an ugly old woman. Yet the ambiguous drawing is neither a depiction of an old hag nor of a young woman, because it contains both. Our minds interpret images as depicting one thing or another based on our experience. This process is largely unconscious.

The fact that most people think that the eye-line is more than half-way up the human head is a form of projection. Because the lower half of the face contains all the features, we falsely believe that this part of the head is larger than the upper half. So our relative lack of interest in the upper half of the human head makes it appear smaller to us.

A person's filter lets in certain information while screening out other material. It lets in what confirms the person's frame of reference while filtering out that which is contradictory to it.

A psychologist called Rosenthal picked six kids at random from a class and said to their teacher, 'These are the brightest kids in your class.' Six months later he came back and gave the children an IQ test. The six children he had selected at random scored highest. The change had occurred because the teacher thought they were bright and had behaved towards them as if they were bright. It seems that they became bright as a result. Similar experiments have been done with maze-running rats. It was found that the experimenter's expectations influenced the results obtained.

Lyall Watson writes,

We fit sensations into our view of the way things ought to be. The classic experiment of fitting people with glasses that invert everything proves this conclusively. Within a day or two the brain makes corrections to the visual field and these people see everything the 'right' way up again, but when the glasses are removed, the whole world is once again inverted.

One of the great learning tasks that faces every new-born baby is the achievement of what is called perceptual constancy. One small aspect of this is colour recognition. Most people think that perception of colours is simply a matter of recognising different wavelengths of light. All sighted people develop, in Sacks' words, "'colour constancy', the way in which the colours of objects are preserved, so that we can categorize them and always know what we are looking at, despite great fluctuations in the wavelength of the light illuminating them. The actual wavelengths reflected by an apple, for instance, will vary considerably depending on the illumination, but we consistently see it as red, none the less." Sacks writes that an experiment by Edwin Land seemed to show that "colors are not 'out there' in the world, nor (as classical theory held) an automatic correlate of wavelength, but, rather, are constructed by the brain."

I have noticed that some of the nastiest disputes between people arise when there is no personal contact, just the written word. In such cases each person projects nastiness and unreasonableness onto the other, and the dispute becomes increasingly acrimonious. This is because written communication is so terse and devoid of nuance, causing us to exercise our imagination.


While it is true that we don't see others as they really are but as we imagine them to be, this is even more true of ourselves.

Anorexia provides an interesting example of projection. When sufferers from this life-threatening disease look in the mirror they see fatness, no matter how emaciated they look to everyone else. No amount of objective evidence can convince them otherwise. A milder example of the same phenomenon is seen in some women, who always think themselves overweight, yet they think their friends of equal girth skinny.

Another form of self-projection is seen in rationalisation, the process of ascribing reasonable motives to our own irrational behaviour. This is most clearly seen under laboratory conditions. Thus a subject was, without his knowledge, given a post-hypnotic suggestion to open an umbrella indoors. When the experimenter asked him why he had opened the umbrella, he gave some reasonable-sounding reply, such as, "To see whether it was working." Another example was a 'split-brain' patient, whose brain was surgically separated into left and right halves by cutting the corpus callosum. It was possible to ask questions of the separate halves of this person's brain. He was asked to match two cards with two images he saw on a screen. This was done in such a way that his right brain matched one image and the left brain the other. When he was asked to explain his choice, his left brain - speech is a left-brain function - could explain its own choice but not that of the right brain. He made up a plausible sounding but incorrect explanation. How often do we deceive ourselves in similar ways in daily life?

People who speak with an accent do not hear it. Yet they can detect another's accent in the same language. In fact we do not really hear the sound of our own voice when we speak. This becomes apparent when we hear a recording of our own voice.


People in close relationships commonly project their own negative traits onto their partner. They avoid their own problems by becoming concerned with the defects and frailties of the other person. Fromm observes: "They have a fine appreciation for even the minor shortcomings of the other person, and go blissfully ahead ignoring their own - always busy trying to accuse or to reform the other person. If two people both do it - as is so often the case - the relationship of love becomes transformed into one of mutual projection. If I am domineering or indecisive, or greedy, I accuse my partner of it." In other words projection causes each person to focus on making their partner improve, while avoiding working on themselves.

On a more fundamental level, a man is attracted to a woman and vice versa because of the opposites each sees in the other. The man is lured by "feminine" attributes such as being gentle, warm, affectionate, supportive, caring, feeling, sensitive. The woman is attracted by "masculine" attributes: being strong, thinking, ambitious, active, brave, assertive, tough. Conditioning makes both sexes one-sided. A girl is trained to develop mainly her feminine side, and to suppress "masculine" traits such as anger, assertiveness and boisterousness. A boy is taught not to cry and to suppress his gentler feelings.

As a consequence of this one-sided development, the adult person wants to be completed in a relationship, to experience what they miss in themselves. The man can experience caring and gentleness through interaction with his wife - but without owning these qualities. For they are present in him just as much as in his wife, only undeveloped and unperceived. Conversely, his wife may want him to be strong, so that she would feel secure with him. Again, it is her own strength she is projecting. Projection thus acts as the glue in the relationship. It also keeps each person stuck in a sex-role.

Of course these are stereotypes: real people are more complex and varied. There are also many cases of role reversal. It seems true of most of the couples I know personally that the woman is the assertive decision-maker, while the man is the more sensitive of the two. This shows that it is misleading to speak of masculine and feminine qualities: a gender-free terminology such as yin and yang is preferable. I don't use it because it is less familiar.

Gloria Steinem was referring to the misguided yearning to be completed by another when she wrote, "We could become the men we wanted to marry." She also wrote,

When we look for a missing part of ourselves in other people, we blot out their uniqueness. Since most of us have been deprived along gender lines, we generalize about the 'opposite sex'... thus rendering it a blank screen on which we project our hopes (in romance) or our fears (in hate). No wonder romance turns so easily to hate, and vice versa.

I believe women project less onto men than vice versa. There are more men who put women on pedestals than women who see knights on white chargers. I think this is because women are more realistic.

Ernest Becker wrote, "If your partner is your 'all' then any shortcoming in him becomes a major threat to you." So by identifying strongly with someone we become almost as unwilling to see their flaws as our own.

No matter how macho he may be, a man's gentle side will show itself when he plays with little children. He then allows himself to drop the masculine image and to bring out not only the child inside him, but also the feminine, nurturing part of his nature. It intrigues me that the majority of the most burly and masculine-looking men I have met have turned out to be more gentle than the average male. My theory is that because these men are so obviously masculine in the physical sense, they don't feel they need to prove their maleness by acting tough, and so feel free to express their gentle side.

A common form of projection in the family context is the way that parents transfer their own wishes, ideals, and especially fears onto their offspring. They tend to burden their children with their own unfulfilled yearnings and ambitions. Of course, they rationalise that these demands are only for their children's own good. Fromm comments: "When a person feels that he has not been able to make sense of his own life, he tries to make sense of it in terms of the life of his children." I know one father who said he hoped that his son would be an improved version of himself. As for projecting fear, it is not unusual for a mother who is brave and stoical when it comes to her own person, to be exaggeratedly fearful about her children.

Romantic love

Romantic love, especially love at first sight, is a classic instance of projection. A man who falls in love in this way is not relating to the other person, since he doesn't know her at all. Instead, he is responding to his inner image of the ideal woman (ie his anima). In fact, the less he knows the woman, the easier it is for him to project his inner ideal onto her. One lady criticised her own lack of love, saying, "If I loved him I wouldn't have seen his faults". Hence the saying, "Love is blind." More accurately, love without knowledge, which is projection, is blind.

Rosemary Sullivan asked the writer Elizabeth Smart "why the man in her novel with whom the narrator was so desperately in love hardly had an identity. He seemed to me faceless. 'Of course he has no face,' she replied impatiently. 'He is a love object.'"

Richard Roberts writes:

Naturally when one falls in love, some projection has occurred; otherwise the individual singled out as the source of our enchantment would not stand out from all the rest. When we see this happen to one of our friends we say, 'I wonder what he sees in her.' When it happens to us, we are quite sure the object of our love has special qualities others do not possess.

Needless to say, no man nor woman can live up to the ideal their lover projects onto them. When they realise that the other person is imperfect, just as they are, disillusionment results and the period of "being in love" ends. With luck, the experience of romantic love may transform into the experience of loving - which is to appreciate the other person for what they are, not for what we would like them to be. Alternatively, it may lead the disappointed projectionist to seek another person to fall in love with.

People are so bitter after the break-up of a love affair because they feel profoundly cheated. Cheated because the ideal person they saw in their partner turned out to be merely human. Divorces are often bitter and hateful. I think this is in large part because of the disillusionment resulting from failed projection. It can be very confusing if you speak to both sides - how do you reconcile such sharply conflicting versions? People talking about their ex-spouses make them sound diabolical, or at least highly unreasonable. Yet these same people were previously loved. The angel has become a devil. What has changed? Of course, the disappointed spouse has also experienced broken trust and various grievances.

The question arises, "Why is falling in love such a wonderful, peak experience if it is merely projection?" It is because the person in love is accessing the finest and deepest part of their nature. The problem is they are locating its source outside, whereas it is actually inside. The mistake involved is not that the divine aspect does not exist, but where it is perceived to be. Of course the other person also has this wonderful part inside them; the catch is that the person in love is not responding to this part in the beloved, but in themselves, only unwittingly.


Perhaps no area of life is richer in projection than sex is. Why does a man suddenly feel desire for a particular woman that he sees in the street, but not for another? It is not the woman herself who is sexy, only a male's reaction makes her so. His reaction has nothing to do with how sexy she feels herself. She merely triggers the male's predisposition to being affected by a given image or turn-on. This is the real cause of sexual attraction. When the sight of a woman excites me this is simply because she arouses the anima image (the ideal of woman) that is already within me. What else could the response of sexual arousal be, if not a reaction to a stimulus for which there exists an inner predisposition? For example, if I am turned on by girls with long hair, it is this predisposition that is the actual cause of my feeling attraction for a particular girl, not the girl herself, who may well be on her way to a hair-cut.

The woman is like the key that starts the mechanism of male desire, but she only functions as such because the man already has a lock inside him that matches her key.

I am ashamed to admit this, but I immediately respect a woman simply because she is pretty. I also feel more comfortable with a woman who is not pretty. I know this is absurd. It is because I project various qualities, such as having strong character, being interesting, being refined etc, onto a girl if I find her pretty or sexy. She is just an ordinary girl except that she happens to match my idea of beauty, activating my projection. I wish I could switch off being affected by a woman's looks - provided I could switch it back on again! Looking at a large terrier in the street one day prompted the realisation that I projected onto him in a similar way. I imagined he was something special as a dog because he looked cute. Yet inside he is a dog like any other; he feels no different for looking cute. The same applies to a pretty girl - she feels the same inside as any other girl does. This is even more obvious when I realise that I won't feel any different just because someone thinks me attractive.

Lace projections

As for finding lacy underwear erotic and pretty on a woman, isn't this a man responding to the feminine, not in himself - where he does not want to see it - but outside? What could predispose him so except an inner femininity, an inner need for things frilly and frivolous, a need that goes directly counter to what we call masculinity?

It is ironic that traditionally, manhood has been measured by a man's sexual potency, ie ultimately by how much he was sexually aroused by females.

Interestingly, although women are generally much more concerned with beauty in their clothes, their homes, and their own appearance than are men, exactly the opposite is true when it comes to the attractiveness of their partner. Most men will become interested in a woman provided they find her physically attractive. This is not true of women, who tend to prefer intellect, personality or other qualities. I think a woman's appearance is pre-eminently important to a man because he invests his need for beauty in the opposite sex. This applies to both physical and inner beauty. I am aware that I do this, that I want to see beauty in a woman rather than in myself.

In "Male Chauvinism:, Michael Korda quotes a successful professional woman who suddenly realised how a man was projecting onto her:

One man I was promoting came up to my apartment, and I liked him, you know, and I wasn't at all unhappy at the idea we might sleep together, and he put his arm around me and said, "Listen, you're a terrific PR girl, really sharp and tough and smart, but I bet there's a different person there, a loving, warm person." Well, I told him to get out. There isn't a different person there. I'm tough and loving, smart and warm, or I hope I am. I suddenly realized that he thought that my work was a kind of pose, a put-on, all he had to do is take off his pants and I'd become some fantasy figure out of his imagination. He didn't want to sleep with me, he wanted to sleep with his idea of what a woman he sleeps with ought to be like. And he doesn't even understand that my success is part of me, it can't be separated from my character, my personality.

Even prostitutes do it

The book, "Prostitutes, Our Life", edited by Claude Jaget, provides many instances of projection. One prostitute commented on the obnoxious behaviour of a group of men whom she encountered while on the beat: "But deep down they're scared. They tell jokes, they insult you, because they're embarrassed, uneasy, ashamed in front of their friends. So their shame is turned against us - and it's the girl who gets it."

Another prostitute takes up the same theme:

They don't want to see us in their field of vision, in everyday life. It's like someone who's really ugly taking all the mirrors out of their home; it doesn't stop them being ugly, but at least there's nothing around to confront them with it. We're like people's bad consciences... Ultimately, men need sex to be dirty, forbidden, if they're going to enjoy it properly. Besides, sex, debauchery, filth, for them it's all the same thing. They can't help wanting it, but at the same time they don't want to accept it. So they fix things so that they can despise the girl instead of themselves. When a guy asks for 'specialties' he never blames himself for asking, he blames the girl for agreeing to it... The ones that ask me to defecate in their mouths, they're the ones who turn on me afterwards and say, 'You're disgusting, agreeing to that, you're a slut. I don't know how you can do such filthy things.'

A third prostitute reinforces the picture of men projecting,
They think we're capable of the most unbelievable things, the most repulsive things that could be, as long as we are paid for it. For example, what's totally vile and filthy is when clients see our dogs and ask us to do it with them... To the clients we're monsters, completely twisted, with monstrous mentalities; yet all the time it's going on in their heads, not ours.

To the pure all is pure; dirt is in the eye of the onlooker. Prudish people see filth everywhere. Nor can they resist the urge to look. In sexually repressed India, a lady called Shobha De has become the country's top-selling writer since Independence by writing erotica. She has also caused unprecedented outrage. One of her readers commented, "This lady is a very dirty lady. Her books are full of wicked and filthy thoughts." Another admitted, "I am reading everything she is writing. In one book I am counting 73 copulations. I am shocked only. Really, her head is full of perversions."

Referring to her customers, one prostitute said:

Some days, I just don't understand what they've come looking for; it takes four minutes... The main thing is what's going on in their heads, not what's actually going on in their bodies. On the one hand they just want to get it off; and on the other, they make a big song and dance about it in their fantasies; and they think it's one and the same thing. In actual fact, they can buy the chance of getting it off, but they never get all the rest, their fantasies. They must always be left unsatisfied.

It seems to me that this woman is saying something important about male sexuality. I think she means that the physical act of sex is not what her clients really want. That what they want more than the act of coitus is to experience the content of their fantasies. They want her to be the screen onto which they can project their fancies.

"Almighty God created sexual desire in ten parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one to men." Thus wrote Ali ibn Abu Taleb, Mohammed's son-in-law. Geraldine Brooks reports that a sheik in rural Egypt urged a ban on the sale of zucchini and eggplants because stuffing the long, fleshy vegetables might give women "lewd thoughts".

In his autobiography, Koestler mentions a prostitute who worked topless in a brothel. As soon as she was out in the street, men would offer her ten times the normal fee for sex just to look inside her blouse. This shows the male's need of mystery, which allows him to project the partly conscious yearnings that lie in his psyche.

One prostitute described her dream like this,

My own dream is for my daughter to get married in white and to be a virgin... I know perfectly well that it's a bit silly too, but after all I've gone through, that would make up for it all, it would be the ideal.

Another lady of the night provides a straight-forward instance of projecting judgement onto others, "Even if I get some pleasure too, I don't think it's the same... It can happen if I find them attractive. I realise that in saying this I risk being thought of as a slut."

Something out of nothing

Lyall Watson reports, "Under conditions of sensory deprivation very little is coming in, so each small piece of information receives far more than the usual amount of attention and becomes enormously magnified." Subjects become disoriented, dreams are powerful and hallucinations may happen.

There is a theory that under normal conditions dreams arise as elaborations of tiny but random stimulations of the nervous system during sleep. Dreams are in any case projections, since it is the mind unconsciously putting 'out there' material of its own creation.

Oliver Sacks's description of people who confabulate due to the absence of short-term memory seems to have much in common with normal dreaming:

For him they were not fictions, but how he suddenly saw or interpreted, the world. Its radical flux and incoherence could not be tolerated, acknowledged, for an instant - there was, instead, this strange, delirious, quasi-coherence, as Mr Thompson, with his ceaseless, unconscious, quick-fire inventions continually improvised a world around him... a dream, of ever-changing people, figures, situations... Such a frenzy may call forth quite brilliant powers of invention and fancy... for such a patient must literally make himself (and his world) up every moment...

Solipsism, the notion that there is no reality outside our minds, holds that all perception is projection. Essentially that life is a dream, as it is for the person Sacks described.

Nor should we neglect the power of wishful thinking. I once shot a penalty in soccer and missed. Reflecting on this afterwards, I realised that my memory had quickly falsified the event by greatly diminishing the margin by which I had missed.


The mechanism of projection is obvious in the religion of the ancient Greeks, who endowed their gods with typically human characteristics, including childish whims, a preoccupation with philandering, and various human frailties.

Psychologically speaking, the concept of God is a projection of our ideas of perfection. For example, Descartes' proof of God's existence - that God, the most wonderful thing we can imagine, must come from an objective reality - is a textbook instance of projection, except that one could argue it was a conscious act. Man has a deep need for wholeness and transcendence, as well as a tremendous potential for goodness. These inner qualities are not fully manifested in most of us, so they belong to our shadow. This part of our psyche is projected outside us, onto an external entity we call God. God is then the outer object that acts as a carrier for our own qualities of perfection, qualities that we only dimly perceive within ourselves.

"Our Father who art in Heaven." Is this not a clear projection of a human relationship? Christianity teaches that God made man in His own image. Nowadays, it is widely recognised that the converse is true. Further, Heaven is an extrapolation of earth-bound desires, as well as a projection of our inner capacity for bliss. In the Koran, heaven is described as a place where men luxuriate in fine clothes and food, while attended by bashful, high-bosomed virgins.

Likewise, God Himself is a projection of our specifically human ideals - what else could He be? We cannot speak of what lies outside human experience. Note also that religions reflect the patriarchal order of society, so that God is endowed with maleness.

That God is a projection is explicitly acknowledged in bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion to God. The practitioner of bhakti yoga focuses their devotion and love on something relatively tangible and concrete: God in one of His manifestations. S.S. Saraswati writes: "However, this love is a projection of the ego; a highly spiritualized and purified projection, but nevertheless still of the ego." Ultimately, the yogi transcends the duality that gives rise to the projection, and achieves self-realisation. It is worth noting that from the yogic stand-point, Christianity, Islam and theistic Buddhism are all considered to be bhakti faiths.

Withdrawing projections

A common example of projection is that people tend to be most critical of others when they exhibit failings present in themselves. By contrast, we own our shadow when we recognise ourselves in other people's actions that we disapprove of. The withdrawal of projections, self-recollection, is a gathering together of the self. Arguably, this is what the Eastern mystics mean by seeing through the veil of maya and achieving self-realisation.

Let Jung have the last word:

If you imagine someone who is brave enough to withdraw all these projections, then you get an individual who is conscious of a considerable shadow. Such a man has saddled himself with new problems and complexes. He has become a serious problem to himself as he is now unable to say they do this or that, they are wrong, and they must be fought against. Such a man knows that whatever is wrong in the world is wrong in himself.

Tad Boniecki

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