ProjectionThis is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune—often the surfeits of our own behavior—we make guilty of our own disasters, the sun, the moon, and the stars.”
Shakespeare in King Lear

This article is a journey into aspects of the false self that we are conscious of and those that most of us are unaware of, with help from the psychological models of both Freud and Jung and the insights of various mystics. Like all other aspects of this book it is focused on the essential principles of self-transformation, most specifically, a shift in identity. Knowledge of this type is not necessary for an identity shift to occur but offers support for the human mind still enamored of the intellect until it learns to let go of its identification with the world of form. We can travel with the companions we will meet in this article for company until we are ready for self-reliance and then we will realize that we have nowhere to go. Paradise was where we began our journey and we simply nodded off into the dream-like illusion of P-B.

We begin with a detailed Freudian definition to provide the context for an understanding of projection and we chose that of Calvin S. Hall from his book A Primer of Freudian Psychology.  “When a person is made to feel anxious by pressure upon the ego from the id or superego, he can try to relieve his anxiety by attributing its causation to the external world. Instead of saying, ‘I hate him,’ one can say, ‘He hates me’; or instead of saying, ‘My conscience is bothering me’ one can say, ‘He is bothering me.’ In the first case, one denies that the hostility springs from the id and attributes it to another person. In the second case, one denies the source of the feelings of persecution and ascribes it to someone else. This type of ego defense against neurotic and moral anxiety is called projection.

Let’s review the relationship among the ego, id and the superego which will help us understand the root causes of projection. The ego is our personality which comes from the Latin persona, for an actor’s mask. A healthy ego through the practice of meditation can become the detached observer of life. Such egos are rare because most of us get caught up in the dynamics of the false self or ego survival strategy which includes projection. Among the benefits of a profound meditation practice is the attainment of a new identity beyond the ego by no longer identifying with the body, mind and emotions, but again, this is rare in our society.

The sole function of the id is the discharge of energy released in the organism by internal [shadow projection] or external stimulation [conditioned behavioral reactions]. The id seeks pleasure. Freud used the word Trieb which Bruno Bettelheim says meant, “any of the basic biological impulses or urges, such as self-preservation, hunger, sex, etc. [again we have the seeking of plenty, pleasure and power with the id providing the energy].”  Bettelheim also liked Webster’s “impulse” as an accurate translation of Trieb. “An impelling force; a sudden inclination to act, without conscious thought; a motive or tendency coming from within.”  Simple Reality and Freudian models are only roughly congruent so don’t get hung up on wanting exact equivalency. For our purposes it’s not necessary.

The superego is governed by what we could call the “perfection principle although Freud never used that label. Just as the ego is formed out of the id, the superego is formed out of the ego. The purpose of the superego is to control the aggressive and sexual impulses of the id that make a person a law-abiding (conforming) member of society. Without the superego or “conscience” the human community would be subject to chaos and anarchy; it is the moral or judicial branch of personality representing the ideal rather than the real. As we said, the superego seeks “perfection” as defined by the ego and society.

“The essential feature of projection is that the subject of the feeling, which is the person himself, is changed. It may take the form of exchanging the subject for the object. ‘I hate you’ is converted into ‘You hate me.’ Or it may take the form of substituting one subject for another subject while the object remains the same. ‘I am punishing myself’ is changed into ‘He is punishing me.’ What the ego is actually trying to do when it employs projection is to transform neurotic or moral anxiety into objective anxiety. A person who is afraid of his own aggressive and sexual impulses obtains some relief for his anxiety by attributing aggressiveness and sexuality to other people. Likewise, a person who is afraid of his own conscience [superego] consoles himself with the thought that other people are responsible for bothering him, and that it is not his conscience.”

“What is the purpose of such a transformation? It serves the purpose of changing an internal danger from the id or superego which is difficult for the ego to handle into an external danger which is easier for the ego to deal with. A person usually has more opportunity to learn how to cope with objective fears than he has to acquire skill in mastering neurotic and more real anxiety.”   This realization is all-important for those of us entertaining self-transformation. It is easier to continue false-self behaviors and remain unconscious and in denial of our suffering than to consider fundamental change. This is why people who are “awake” (Buddhas) are rare.

There are two major problems with projection. First, we are failing to take responsibility for our emotional reactions; and secondly, we are in denial of what is happening and losing the opportunity to develop self-reliance. The overall downside to projection is that we fail to live in the present moment and are therefore living in a delusional world, the narrative of P-B.

In trying to understand projection, we have obviously entered a “world” very unfamiliar to most of us. Not only are we unaware of what a projection is but even when we begin to grasp the idea, we can get dizzy trying to determine which direction a projection is going. “A projection is a trait, attitude, feeling or bit of behavior which actually belongs to your own personality but is not experienced as such; instead, it is attributed to objects or persons in the environment and then experienced as directed toward you by them instead of the other way around. The projector, unaware, for instance, that he is rejecting others, believes that they are rejecting him; or, unaware of his tendencies to approach others sexually, feels that they make sexual approaches to him.”

To add to the confusion of trying to figure out where the projections are coming from or going to we realize we don’t know “who” is doing the projection. Ken Wilber comes to our aid in pointing out that “in all these cases of shadow projection we have ‘neurotically’ tried to render our self-image acceptable by making it inaccurate. All of those facets of our self-image, our ego, which are incompatible with what we superficially believe to be our best interests. As a result, we narrow our identity to only a fraction of our ego, namely, to the distorted and impoverished persona. And so by the same stroke are we doomed to be haunted forever by our own Shadow, which we now refuse to give even the briefest conscious hearing. But the Shadow always has its say, for it forces entry into consciousness as anxiety, guilt, fear, and depression. The Shadow becomes symptom, and fastens itself to us as a vampire battens on its prey.”  Now we know why the metaphor of the vampire is appearing recently in so many books, movies and TV series.

Projection is clearly one of the major components of self-destructive human behavior and without getting control over this source of our reactive behavior we will never escape the illusion of P-B. No matter how rough the ride, we must not let this horse throw us because it has to be tamed if we are to have any hope of riding it to our destination. The “mirror principle” is a simple rule that will help us keep our eye on the prize. If someone triggers a reaction in us, we know they are reflecting back to us traits within ourselves that we find objectionable. Or as John Ruskan says, “It takes one to know one. The realization that you are projecting is the most important aspect of awareness.”  Understanding and using this insight will make us all “horse-whisperers.”

In the interest of having a variety of sources of wisdom, we consult Seth, a voice from the realm of the disembodied. “You project your thoughts, feelings, and expectations outward into flesh. Your feelings, your conscious and unconscious thoughts, all alter and form your physical image … your feelings and thoughts form your exterior experience in the same way, or that the events appear to happen to you are initiated by you within your mental or psychic inner environment.”   In other words, we have met the enemy and he is … Oh no! Say it isn’t so.

As we deepen our self-knowledge, what we need to change and why we need to change it comes into clearer focus—we begin to see our false-self identity as problematic.  Repetition now becomes a learning tool. “When we project, the world becomes a mirror, reflecting our own qualities back to us.”  And it is usually not a pretty reflection.

Let us now shift to examples of how projection operates in both our inner and outer world. Our worldview, our beliefs, attitudes and values, determine our identity and our identity determines what we project on the human community and what appears to be projected onto us.

For a good illustration of the influence of a person’s worldview on projection, we look into the minds of two academics projecting two different narratives onto the natural world. They are both looking at the same behaviors of apes but coming up with different conclusions. “When one reads Owen Lovejoy’s descriptions of ‘The Origin of Man,’ [one] recognizes that Lovejoy is projecting the American suburbs back onto the African savanna … Weak females with dependent infants needed big strong men to protect them. The narratives of primatology emphasize the systems of male-dominance of baboons and chimpanzees, and conveniently overlook the system of female-dominance in the case of the Bonobo chimpanzees … anthropologist Adrienne Zihlman doesn’t see a family back there in three million B.C.E., but something much more like the female-centered cluster of the pygmy chimpanzees. So the alpha males at Berkeley see a kind of macho protoculture at the dawn of man, but the feminists at Santa Cruz see a more cooperative and female-centered culture at the dawn of humanity. What we are determines what we see.”

Projection can be a very complicated behavior. C. G. Jung had profound insights into projection garnered during the many years of his psychotherapy practice and dream interpretation with both modern and primitive peoples. “The importance that modern psychology attaches to the ‘parental complex’ is a direct continuation of primitive man’s experience of the dangerous power of the ancestral spirits. Even the error of judgment which leads him unthinkingly to assume that the spirits are realities of the external world is carried on in our assumption (which is only partly correct) that the real parents are responsible for the parental complex … The simple soul is of course unaware of the fact that his nearest relations, who exercise immediate influence over him, create in him an image which is only partly a replica of themselves, while its other part is compounded of elements derived from himself. The imago is built up of parental influences plus the specific reactions of the child; it is therefore an image that reflects the object with very considerable qualifications.

“Naturally, the simple soul believes that his parents are as he sees them. The image is unconsciously projected, and when the parents die, the projected image goes on working as though it were a spirit existing on its own. The primitive mind then speaks of parental spirits who return by night (revenants), while the modern man calls it a father or mother complex. The more limited a man’s field of consciousness is, the more numerous the psychic contents (imagos) which meet him as quasi-external apparitions, either in the form of spirits, or as magical potencies projected upon living people (magicians, witches, etc.). Nevertheless, the feeling that it ‘belongs’ is not at first sufficiently strong for the complex to be sensed as a subjective content of consciousness. It remains in a sort of no man’s land between conscious and unconscious, in the half-shadow, in part belonging or akin to the conscious subject, in part an autonomous being, and meeting consciousness as such. At all events it is not necessarily obedient to the subject’s intentions, it may even be of a higher order, more often than not a source of inspiration or warning, or of ‘supernatural’ information.”

Returning to Seth we will learn to appreciate what a profound and objective, if unorthodox, source of wisdom he is. Focusing on projection as a source of violence and injustice in the world, Seth explains what we would all do well to consider when reforming the policies and institutions of our communities. “The man who has believed that he was evil may now see the world, or persons of another faith or political affiliation, as evil instead. He then feels rid of the problem itself but is quite ready to attack it in others and with great self-righteousness and justification. You will often try to project a problem outward to free yourself. If this is done the question at issue will seem forever outside of you, beyond solution, and of mass proportion.”

Seth continues.  “As a society you may project it upon the criminal, as a nation upon a foreign country. As an individual you may place this power upon an employer, a labor union, or any other segment of society … The criminal or murderer being executed dies for the ‘evil’ within each member of his society, then, and a magical transference take place. [Transference is a process in and by which an individual’s feelings, thoughts and wishes shift from one person to another.]

“The detective and his criminal wear versions of the same mask. Following such ideas, you end up with segregations in which the ill, being powerless, are isolated; the criminals are kept together; and the old are held in institutions or in cultural ghettos with their own kind. Transference of personal problems are all involved here, and clusters of beliefs.

“The criminal element represents the individual’s own feared and un-faced aggressions. These fears are closeted on an individual basis, and those people who express them socially are imprisoned. The enforced incarceration of violent men often leads to a riot, and the private closeting of normal aggression often brings psychological rioting and outbursts of physical symptoms.

“The individual who speaks out most loudly for the death penalty feels that he himself should really be condemned to death, to pay for the great aggression (violence) within him that he dares not express.

“Society as you know it, not understanding the nature of normal aggression, considers it violent. The prisons and law enforcement agencies need criminals in the same way that criminals need them, for they operate within the same system of belief. Each accepts violence as a method of behavior and survival. If you do not understand that you create your own reality, then you may assign all good results to a personified god, and need the existence of a devil to explain the undesirable reality. So churches as they now exist in Western society need a devil as well as a god.

“In all cases, little effort is made to understand the basic problems beneath, and the social segregations merely build up the pressure, so to speak, so that those with like beliefs are kept in situations that only perpetuate the basic causes. [The “shattering” of Oneness, the disintegration of society, proceeds in this way.]

“Unknowingly, the sick often give up their power to act in a healthy manner to the physicians. The doctors accept this mandate since they share the same framework of belief, so the medical profession obviously needs patients as badly as the ill need the hospitals.

“Love is propelled by all of the elements of natural aggression, and it is powerful; yet because you have made such divisions between good and evil, love appears to be weak and violence strong. This is reflected in many levels of your activities. The ‘devil’ becomes a powerful evil figure, for example. Hate is seen as far more efficient than love. The male in your society is taught to personify aggressiveness with all of those anti-social attitudes that he cannot normally demonstrate. The criminal mind expresses these for him, hence the ambiguous attitudes on the part of society, in which renegades are often romanticized.

“If you equate power with youth then you will isolate the elderly, transferring upon them your own rejected powerlessness, and they will seem to be a threat to your well-being. If you agree that violence is power then you will punish the criminal with great vindictiveness, for you will see life as a power struggle, and will concentrate upon the acts of violence—hence deepening your conviction. If you accept the basic idea that evil is more powerful than good, then your beneficial acts will bear little fruit because of your own framework; you assign such small power of action to them …

“If you accept the idea that knowledge is ‘bad,’ for instance, then in line with that belief all of your efforts to learn will be futile, or bring you great discomfort. You will not trust any knowledge that comes easily for you will feel that you have to pay, do penance for the attainment of any wisdom. Fundamental interpretations of the Bible often lead to such conclusions, so that the pursuit of knowledge itself, which has a built-in biological impetus, becomes a taboo activity [hence, the source of American anti-intellectualism].

“You must then project wisdom onto others and reject it in yourself, or be faced with a dilemma in personal values. Throughout the ages monks, priests, and religious organizations have become segregated from the rest of humanity. They have been alternately honored and feared, loved and hated. Their knowledge has been envied yet held in superstitious awe. The voodoo and the healer, the witch doctor and the priest, are all held in honor, yet are also looked upon with a certain terror because of the power and knowledge involved. The man who heals or the man who curses both imply power of knowledge to many individuals. To those who are caught up with fundamental ideas in pious terms, religious power is a frightening thing. Normal aggression, seen as evil, is therefore segregated within the self—and also seen everywhere outside.”

There are similarities between the definition of narcissism, as defined by Jim Marion, and projection. “Narcissism is a severe emotional disorder in which the person projects his or her own feelings outward onto everyone else, not realizing that other people have their own feelings or as an adult afflicted with a borderline personality in which the person constantly sees himself or herself as victimized by others and takes little or no responsibility for his or her own problems.”

Marion gives us a somewhat Christian perspective on shadow projection. “We cannot claim our own divinity and realize the Christ Consciousness or the Kingdom of Heaven as long as we continue to give away our own power, by projection or otherwise, to any guru, magisterium, or any other authority outside ourselves. That is why Jesus said, ‘Do not call anyone here on Earth father, because you have only the one Father in heaven (Matt. 23:9).’

“Note the radical type of love of which Eckhart writes. There are no judgments of any kind here, for God’s love does not judge (John 8:15). To get to this level, therefore, all judgments, including moral judgments, must be surrendered. We must stop calling anyone “good” just as much as calling anyone “bad” because both are judgments. God is now seen as neither good nor bad. God is just God. As long as we hold onto any moral judging of anyone or anything, we will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. That is because in judging others we automatically judge ourselves, just as Jesus said (Luke 6: 37). Since anything we judge against even in the worst “sinner” is a part of ourselves that we are rejecting, we cannot afford to judge anyone or anything. As long as we judge we keep our consciousness locked in dualism.”

What makes projection difficult to consciously understand is that what we are projecting is what we have deliberately made unconscious by repressing it, the personal shadow. “Because we have cut ourselves off from parts of our inner self by rejecting certain feelings, we then become more sensitive to and even attracted to qualities in others that remind us of those suppressed emotional parts we are missing. This is what is meant when it is said that you see yourself in others. However, because we have essentially condemned those inner qualities—through the act of suppression, forming our personal shadow—we then usually condemn the outer reflection. We become judgmental, intolerant; we condemn the mirror.”

Hindu mysticism from the Vedanta supports Western psychological insights further emphasizing the universal wisdom found not only in sacred scripture throughout the world but within each person. “We cannot see outside what we are not inside.”

“Blame is the next most common way of rejecting ourselves. We blame because we want to avoid responsibility. When we blame any person, object, or circumstance for our experience, we essentially become blind to reality. Self-acceptance is impossible, and we simmer in self-rejection. This includes blaming ourselves, which is called guilt, a special form of self-rejection. Blame is essentially the same as complaining.”

“The conscious ego, however, wants to blame because it is defending itself. It does not want to feel that it could be stupid enough to cause harm to itself. The nature of the ego, and of highly egocentric people in particular, is always to be right, and blame is usually how self-righteousness is maintained.”

All the world’s a stage and each of us as actors have a large array of masks or personas that we can take on and off and we do so unconsciously. To escape from this dark drama, we must unmask these characters that we have created. “The shadow is projected in two forms: individually, in the shape of the people to whom we ascribe all the evil, and collectively, in its most general form, as the Enemy, the personification of evil. Its mythological representations are the devil, archenemy, tempter, fiend or double; or the dark or evil one of a pair of brothers or sisters.”  Revealing these imposters takes courage. It may seem easier to just let the drama play itself out to the last act but only a person unmindful of the horrors unfolding on the stage of life want to take part in that tragedy.

Unexplainable horrific events in the history of humanity become understandable, according to Laurens Van der Post, when the process of collective projection is grasped. “I concluded that the Germans behaved as they did to us all in general and to the Jews in particular because we both had become literal symbols and in the process had lost our common humanity for them. We had become mirrors for them wherein they could not separate a reflection of a hidden aspect of themselves they despised and rejected from the mirror itself, and thought they could rid themselves of the enemy within forever by destroying what reflected it in the world.”

The nationally recognized authority on self-esteem, Nathaniel Brandon adds a further explanation of a cause for group projection. “It would be hard to name a more certain sign of poor self-esteem than the need to perceive some other group as inferior.”

As is the case for virtually all human self-destructive behavior, we can find the root cause in fear. “Remember that whatever we misunderstand we tend to fear; what we fear, we easily hate; and what we hate becomes an incredibly magnetic hook for our wildest and most hideous shadow projections.”

Personal shadow projection helps explain how we have created the illusion of P-B and why it is so mesmerizing, so difficult to see. “When we refuse to face the shadow or try to fight it with willpower alone, saying, “Get thee behind me, Satan,” we merely relegate this energy to the unconscious, and from there it exerts its power in a negative, compulsive, projected form. Then our projections transform our surrounding world into a setting which shows us our own faces, though we do not recognize them as our own. We become increasingly isolated; instead of a real relation to the surrounding world there is only an illusory one, for we relate not to the world as it is but to the “evil, wicked world” which our shadow projection shows us. The result is an inflated, autoerotic state of being, cut off from reality, which usually takes the well-known form of “if only so and so were such and such,” or “When this will have happened,” or “If I were properly understood” or “appreciated.”

“Such an impasse is seen by us, because of our projections, as the ill will of the environment, and thus a vicious circle is established, continuing ad infinitum, ad nauseam. These projections eventually so shape our own attitudes toward others that at last we literally bring about that which we project. We imagine ourselves so long pursued by ill will that ill will is eventually produced by others in response to our vitriolic defensiveness. Our fellow men see this as unprovoked hostility; this arouses their defensiveness and their shadow projections upon us, to which we in turn react with our defensiveness, thereby causing more ill will.”  It is hard to imagine a worse nightmare—but we don’t have to imagine it—we live it each and every day. “Projections of all kinds obscure our views of our fellow men, spoiling its objectivity, and thus spoiling all possibility of genuine human relationships.”

Whew! We are learning about a formidable challenge. Time for a little “humor” break before we forge on. Andrea Sachs was interviewing Deepak Chopra for Time magazine article.

Sachs: “Is it ever unnerving to have so many people following your every word?”

Chopra: “I always tell people not to create an image of me, [projection] because no matter what image you create, it never conforms to reality. When you create images, then sooner or later they’re defiled. Be like my children and my wife, who never take me seriously.”

There is an old Sufi story about a philosopher who made an appointment to debate with Nasrudin, a Sufi wisdom teacher. When the philosopher arrived for his appointment he found Nasrudin away from his home. Infuriated, the philosopher picked up a piece of chalk and wrote “Stupid Oaf” on Nasrudin’s gate. When Nasrudin got home and saw this he rushed right over to the philosopher’s house. “I had forgotten,” he said, “that you were to call. And I’m sorry I missed our appointment. But, I remembered our appointment the minute I saw that you had written your name on my gate.”   Projection and counter-projection and so life goes for the sleep-walkers in P-B.

Mount up, it’s time to get back to work, this time the teacher riding alongside us will be Ken Wilber, American philosopher extraordinaire. “Us, the Good Guys, versus Them, the Bad Guys. Our impassioned fight with the devils of this world is nothing but elaborate shadow-boxing. All this really stems from Freud’s original insight that all emotions are intra-psychic and intra-personal, not inter-psychic and inter-personal—that is to say, emotions are experienced (on the Ego Level at least) not between me and thee but between me and me.”

“The projector is connected … with his projected aggression by fear. As projected excitement is felt as anxiety, as projected desire is felt as pressure, projected aggression is felt as fear … projected anger is felt as depression … M-A-D has become S-A-D, and we become the depressed victims of our own anger. The person who is depressed need only ask himself, “What am I so mad at?”

C. G. Jung makes a critical point. “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 the replica of one’s own unknown face … one dreams a world whose reality remains forever unattainable … and the still worse feeling of sterility are in their turn explained by projection as the malevolence of the environment, and by means of this vicious circle the isolation is intensified. The more projections are thrust in between the subject and the environment, the harder it is for the ego to see through its illusions.”

We have fleshed out the basic problem connecting projection with the illusion of P-B and now we will hear what our fellow riders have to say about dealing with this skittish horse. Mr. Wilber seems to have his mount under control. “If the first step in the ‘cure’ of shadow projections is to take responsibility for the projections, then the second step is simply to reverse the direction of the projection itself and gently do unto others what we have heretofore been unmercifully doing unto ourselves. Thus, “The world rejects me” freely translates into “I reject, at least for the moment, the whole damn world!” “My parents want me to study” translates into “I want to study.” “My poor mother needs me” becomes “I need to be close to her.”

“Thus it stands to reason that if you would like to know just how your Shadow views the world, then—as a type of personal experiment—simply assume exactly the opposite of whatever you consciously desire, like, feel, want, intend, or believe. In this way you may consciously contact, express, play, and ultimately re-own your opposites.”

“Projection on the Ego Level is very easily identified: if a person or thing in the environment informs us, we probably aren’t projecting; on the other hand, if it affects us, chances are that we are the victim of our own projections.”  Translating Wilber’s analysis into the language of Simple Reality we would say that if we experience afflictive emotion, a reaction, then we are projecting and the person or thing in the environment seems to be producing our physical, mental or emotional suffering.

Elizabeth Lesser continues with helpful insights into how to remain in the saddle. “When you [stop] projections you no longer rush to condemn another, nor do you put people up on pedestals. You see yourself and others clearly. You are willing to admit your own faults. You are better able to take credit for your talents and achievements. Therefore, you develop an instinct of when to give ground and when to stand firm.”

My resistance reveals to me my shadow material and hence an opportunity for self-awareness. If I refrain from projection and take responsibility for my “reactions” then I move toward liberation from shadow material and empowerment from the integration of shadow and persona. “Such a man knows that whatever is wrong in the world is in himself, and if he only learns to deal with his own shadow then he has done something real for the world. He has succeeded in removing an infinitesimal part at least of the unsolved gigantic, social problems of our day. These problems are unwieldy and poisoned by mutual projections. How can anyone see straight when he does not even see himself and that darkness which he himself carries unconsciously into all his dealings.


References available in Trilogy 2 – Who Am I? 


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