Projection is a common defence defence mechanism that involves the individual attributing their unwanted thoughts, feelings, desires and motives onto another person. It was first proposed by Anna Freud, but further developed by psychologists such as Carl Jung and Melanie Klein. The aim is to prevent ourselves from experiencing what our unconscious mind deems to be unacceptable. The unacceptable feeling or thought becomes split off, and gotten rid of, by placing or projecting it onto to someone else.
We project onto, and treat, others in ways that in reality reflect how we actually think or feel about ourselves. We can see how this self-deception takes us further away from reality, and we can see how shaytan can use it to trick ourselves, and take us further away from the truth.
It is thus important that we face our own reality – however uncomfortable that may be – in order to continue working on ourselves, and engaging in Jihad Al Nafs, in this world, so that we can gain closeness to Allah (swt) InShaAllah.
Some Examples of Projection!
Sanna dislikes Maryam, but unconsciously believes this hatred is unacceptable – rather than recognising and acknowledging this fact, Sanna’s unconscious mind will project this hatred onto Maryam. Sanna’s conscious thought/feeling will then become ‘Maryam hates me’. Sanna is denying the aspect of herself that ‘hates’ but she makes this feeling acceptable to herself by projecting it onto Maryam and making out that Maryam is the one who has this undesirable characteristic – Maryam is the one who ‘hates’ her.
Ashraf experiences a lot of anger but unconsciously believes anger is an unacceptable emotion, he then projects this on to his wife Sara, and accuses her of being aggressive and having an anger management problem.
Layla is unable to acknowledge her own selfishness but accuses others – family and friends – of wanting everything their own way and only thinking of themselves.
Bilal is lazy at work but instead of acknowledging this he accuses his work colleagues of not pulling their weight.
A further example is when a person is having thoughts about infidelity, rather than owning and working through these undesirable feelings, the person unconsciously projects these thoughts onto their spouse and may begin to think or accuse their spouse of being unfaithful.
Projection is a very common defence mechanism but it distorts reality and is one of the most primitive defence mechanisms (second only to denial) and originates in early childhood. It is also closely related to denial as a person first denies an aspect of themselves before projecting it onto someone else.
Klein interestingly also saw projection as a means to try to connect to others and parts of them that we ourselves would wish to obtain. This explains the propensity in certain people to engage in positive projection e.g. she is so kind and selfless; he is so powerful and successful.
Projection as a Society
Projection is a common defence mechanism and can occur on an individual level as well as on a societal or collective level when a population projects their unacceptable characteristics/feelings/thoughts etc onto another population or onto an individual.
Acts of terrorism, violence and brutality are often projected from one country onto another. Country A may accuse country B of war crimes, cruelty and abuse yet the reality is that country A are themselves guilty of perpetrating such acts.
Islam and Muslim countries are often accused by Western countries/governments of being backward, barbaric and oppressive when the reality is that those countries making such accusations often meet the criteria for such heinous characteristics themselves.
The West’s Projection onto the Hijab
The hijab is a salient example of a symbol onto which the West and secularists love to project their own unacceptable feelings. As Muslims we know the hijab represents modesty, dignity respect and liberation for women. Yet the West love to stigmatise it as a sign of the repression and oppression of women. The reality is that the western view of women, in which women are often sexualised and objectified, is itself highly oppressive. Yet rather than acknowledge this they project these unacceptable feelings and beliefs onto the veiled Muslim women by claiming that she is oppressed and needs to be liberated.
You’re Such a Bully you *@!%.!
Bullies generally feel insecure and vulnerable and hence project their vulnerability onto other people that they then target. A contemporary example of projective bullying is that meted out by the far-left radicals and woke brigade who in the name of anti-bullying, inclusivity and tolerance actually harbour feelings of hatred, intolerance and aggression themselves. They project these unsavoury feelings onto anyone who holds a different view. This ‘other’ then becomes labelled with whichever ‘-phobe’ or ‘-ist’ fits their narrative and is consequently attacked, demonised and bullied as a result.
Projecting Onto Our Children
As parents it is not uncommon to project our own insecurities and emotional problems unwittingly onto our children.
If as a parent, we feel a failure, we may unconsciously project these feelings onto our own children, but aim to combat them by doing all we can to ensure our child becomes perfect. A parent with unacknowledged anxiety problems may believe their child has anxiety issues and aim to get the child diagnosed and treated as such. A parent who is socially anxious may deny her child the opportunity to go on a play date or party stating that the child is too shy or nervous. A parent with unacknowledged anger may believe their child is aggressive and has behavioural problems and so on …
As parents it is really important to reflect on whether our own child’s problems are actually un-owned aspects of ourselves that we then project on to our children. If not, our children will end up being burdened and carrying our problems which will then become their problems which they in turn may pass down to their children and so on.
Working on Projection in Ourselves
Projection involves making others responsible for feelings that we ourselves are not comfortable facing, owning and working through. It can be a learnt behaviour from childhood, a result from a childhood trauma and so on. Working on and through projection in yourself is definitely possible but not something that can be achieved overnight.
To start to become aware of projection in yourself it helps to become more aware of and accepting of all your emotions and to examine and reflect on yourself more honestly.
If you feel overwhelmed, or feel your daily life is being negatively impacted then you can also seek the help of a trained counsellor or mental health professional to help you with this.
If you notice projection in others (often easier to do than notice in ourselves) highlighting it is only advisable if that person is emotionally resilient, otherwise they are likely to become more defensive. People need to be ready and feel safe and understood in order to work through their propensity to project. Therefore simply pointing out projection in the other person is likely to make them become more entrenched in their views.
Reflective and/or Journalling Exercise
Use the below questions to help you begin to reflect on potential times you may project
- Think of people in your life that trigger a strong emotional response e.g. I hate her/him; he/she is so arrogant, my child is too nervous to go to social events etc….
- Try to identify the associated feeling and/or thought etc related to the emotional response e.g anger, anxiety
- Explore your own thoughts, feelings and reactions to that feeling/thought, where it originates from etc e.g. I was taught as a child that anger was unacceptable
- See if you can identify the ‘unacceptable’ quality in yourself