Projection is one of the most useful concepts in psychoanalytic theory. It is a mechanism where we project what we can’t or won’t see in ourselves onto the people or structures around us. This gives us psychic relief, usually in the form of anxiety reduction, since we don’t have to deal with the qualities that are uncomfortable to us when we ascribe them to something or someone else.
We’ve all been perpetrators as well as victims of this process. Whenever you feel yourself unfairly pigeonholed, assigned a role by someone that you don’t feel fits you at all and in fact makes you want to strongly come to your own defense, there’s a good chance projection is going on.
Projection is not limited to the qualities we find distasteful in ourselves though. The pendulum swings in either direction. An example of projection of negative qualities that you’re surely familiar with is the practice of scapegoating, where villagers would place all their sins over the year onto a goat and then run it out of town. An example of projection of positive qualities is belief in gods, whereby the special human capacity that comes from being sentient intelligent organisms still tied to nature yet transcending it, a reality at once inspiring and terrifying in its implications, doesn’t have to be dealt with. This capacity is ascribed to something that is all-knowing and all-powerful, something beyond nature, something that can adequately handle the gift.
The reason to do away with projection is pretty obvious if we can agree that the maxim ‘know thyself’ is essential for well-being and self-actualization. We have no compass, no starting point from which to grow, if we project away our real qualities. What we’re left with instead is a fictional self-concept that might make us feel better but leads us away from the truth of our situations. When we can recognize and embrace the good and the bad in ourselves these qualities can’t hurt us because we get to consciously decide what to do with them.