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Self-Knowledge • Trauma & Childhood

On Projection

One of the most continuously fascinating ideas in psychotherapy is the concept of projection. What this means, simply put, is that all of us have a storehouse of assumptions about what other people are like and how they will behave — which, in reality, owes very little to actual people who we meet today and a lot more to complications in our childhoods that we have generally forgotten all about.

Photo by Isi Parente on Unsplash

Furthermore, these projections tend to be distinctly and unfruitfully negative. We think worse of people than we should, and we are quicker to be afraid, angry and uncooperative than we need to be, because our imaginations are filled with dark experiences which reflect our painful origins and yet fail to do justice to a broader, more innocent, more hopeful present.

As a result, our projections gum up our relationships with the world around us. We arrive in the presence of others with a great deal more aggression, suspicion, fear or doubt than is warranted in the here and now.

The theory of projection sounds simple and plausible enough. The difficulty is that it is extremely hard to work out what it is we are actually projecting. We are far too much inside ourselves to see our own biases. We can’t tell how we’re distorting our assessments of others; there’s no gap between our judgements and our reason.

Yet we stand to make a little progress through a simple exercise which involves a little reflection on our most characteristic assumptions of other people taken as a whole. In a quiet reflexive mood, we should title a blank sheet of paper: What I expect other people will be like… and then see what comes up for us. 

A list might look like this:

— Older men in authority are judgemental and angry.

— Other people can suddenly turn around and viciously attack you.

— People only respect money and status.

— Nice people aren’t very competent or worthy of respect

— People can’t be relied upon to help when you need them.

— People might be laughing or silently ridiculing.

The list might — to an extent that surprises us — be extremely negative. Now the next question should be: why are we thinking this way? Common-sense tells us: because this is what reality is like. But the more therapeutic line counters: because this is what our childhood was like and that is what has unconsciously influenced, and poisoned, our assessment of all strangers in the present.

In order to honour the true complexity as well as hopefulness of the world as it is now, we should then ask what specific individuals from our past might be held responsible for inspiring our panoply of particular, and particularly dark, assumptions. To every generalisation on our sheet of paper, we should — with a different coloured pen — write down a particular name who might have inspired an especially caustic assessment of humanity.

If we’ve had a certain sort of childhood, we should in time be able to arrive at a definite set of names and memories. Once we start to explore, we’ll be able to see that a statement like ‘Older men in authority are judgemental and angry’ really relates to a very particular man in a very particular moment while the unhelpful idea that no one can be relied upon is the sediment of an earlier situation in which specific people didn’t help us when we badly needed them to have done so.

There are few things harder to see than our biases. But we can — with the help of exercises — learn to free ourselves from some of their more vicious though invisible tentacles. Other people can often be extremely difficult, of that there is no doubt, but to an extent that may well surprise us, it isn’t really people ‘in general’ who are the problem. It’s almost certainly people in particular who troubled us a long time ago and who we’ve taken great care to forget all about.

We may have a lot more faith in humanity once we can be more forensic and sad about a few key figures in the past.

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