distorting reality : understanding projection

Distorted Reality

“Our brain is mapping the world. Often that map is distorted, but it’s a map with constant immediate sensory input.”  

–  E. O. Wilson


One of our defining human characteristics is our ability to protect ourselves when we experience pain or fear. Whilst this feature has undoubtedly served us incredibly well in many situations, it is something which often distorts our ability to experience things as they actually are.

One way we protect ourselves is through projecting things onto other people. For example:

I may not like another person. But I have a value that says I should like everyone. So I project onto them that they do not like me. This allows me to avoid them and also to handle my own feelings of dislike.

In this instance, our projection protects us from the anxiety and distress that arises if we accept that we might have certain thoughts or feelings (e.g., anger, disrespect). Our  projections are often out of awareness and can drown out other perceptions, limiting our ability to make contact with the other person.

Projections are often associated with something we have incorporated into ourselves at an earlier stage of development. For example, if we grew up in a household or society where expressing anger was frowned upon or even forbidden, then we will have a strong inner ‘rule’ that it is not ok to be angry. If we find ourselves becoming angry with someone, it will be much easier to experience the other person as being angry at us.

Other examples of projection include:

  • an unfaithful husband who can’t tolerate his guilt suspects his wife of infidelity,
  • a woman who is attracted to a fellow worker accuses the person of sexual advances.

types of projections

Projection has been called the most effective of all the defence mechanisms and it can manifest itself in a number of different ways:

  • Neurotic projection is when we perceive other people to be operating in ways that we cannot accept in ourselves (e.g., brave, callous, angry, sad, honest, lying . . . )
  • Complementary projection is assuming that others do, think and feel things in the same way that you do.
  • Complimentary projection is assuming that others can do things as well as you can.

Projection is also at play when we see our own traits in other people – this can lead to the ‘false consensus‘ effect when we overestimate how many people agree with our point of view. Empathy can be considered to be a reverse form of projection. The empathic person experiences the perceived emotions of others by projecting the other person onto themselves.

In the next post, we will see how taking personal accountability for our projections can help us make better contact with other people, leading to more authentic relationships.

further resources

The following resources provide further reading, insights and exercises you can try out.

Changingminds.org – a great site for finding useful summaries on various aspects of how we change what others think, believe, feel and do.

Psychoanalysis of Organisations – this classic book by Robert De Board takes a wide-ranging overview of the major psychoanalytic theorists and organizational researchers and ends with the writer’s own idea about how the two groups work together. Written in plain English, it is a valuable read for managers, behavioural scientists, psychoanalysts and counsellors, and interesting for the general reader too.


By | 2017-11-28T21:25:54+00:00 28 Nov 2017|Uncategorized|