Why do we trust some people and not others?  Why do we admire some people?   Why do some people make us uncomfortable?  Is it because they remind us of significant figures in our lives; our mother, our father, a brother or sister, a lover, a husband, wife, a teacher?   Are they suitable objects for our projections?  

Projection is a ubiquitous feature of human nature.  It is the cornerstone of evolution; what makes us human; the effect of an opposable thumb.  As soon as we could throw, we could make things happen; we could control the future (see  Projection, the missile of evolution. December 24th, 2010), but this required us to perform the mental trick of imagination; to think the way things might be, to make believe. 

Psychological  projection performs that same mental trick, it transfers what we feel onto somebody else, to imagine it is they who have those some feelings and attitudes.  So we protect ourselves from  psychic damage by projecting the bad stuff onto  those we recognise already possess some of the characteristics we want to get rid of.  ‘She’s just so selfish.’  ‘I can’t trust him’.   He’s so lazy, careless, unreliable, fussy, messy.   This happens  all the time.  Just listen to how ‘a gossip of girls’ on the train criticise absent ‘friends’.  Look at how politicians try to achieve a semblance of dominance and control by rubbishing their competitors; how newspapers take hold of that and amplify it.  But it’s not just bad stuff.  Idealisation is a kind of projection.  When we admire somebody, respect somebody, fall in love with somebody, we transfer our wishes for how would like to be onto that person.  They become a mentor, a role model, an object of desire.  

Projection starts, like everything else, in childhood.   Children deal with uncomfortable feelings like fear and anger by externalising them.  First identify your enemy, locate all the bad stuff into them and then you can justify an attack.  Or identify the one you admire, locate all your wishes in that person and make them your best friend.  Projection is a mental trick.  There are goodies and baddies; in my childhood these were cowboys and Indians; the English and the Germans.  How differently you see things as you grow up.   Maturity is a state of recognising the bad feelings, taking them back and containing them, realising that what we criticise in other people is also part of us, accepting our essential humanity.    

Groups, organisations, institutions, governments, states, do it all the time.  They are pathologically split; they operate at a very childlike manner and project all their own concealed characteristics, especially the bad ones like unreliability, inadequacy, lack of sophistication, to say nothing of selfishness and ruthlessness onto  their competitors.  Colonel Gadaffi is currently the embodiment of all evil though only a few years ago, he was our special friend.  But the only thing that’s changed is our own projections.   Members of an exclusive culture,  music critics, art enthusiasts, historians, theatre buffs, vintage car collectors, can tend to puff themselves up by broadcasting their lacunae of esoterica to an audience they assume knows nothing and can be diminished by their ignorance.    

But projection can only really work in society if others identify with it.  This is what the psycholanalysts (another in- group) call projective identification or to put it in everyday speak, ‘how others make us feel’.   In voodoo, pointing the bone can cause others to feel so guilty by inference whether they are or not, that they slink away and die.  They have been ostracised from the tribe; they are not worthy to belong anymore and they cannot therefore survive.  Social exclusion is a powerful force; guilt and shame, powerful identifications.  People who have done something shameful to attract the projections of others, who use it as a shield for their own shame.  And it’s always the ones with most to be ashamed of that seek out those they can offload on to.  Those who feel unhappy make those who are close to them unhappy too  

Projective identification operates in so many aspects of human behaviour.   Bullies  can’t contain their own fear, so they make others frightened of them.  Suspicious people are secretive and engender mistrust and lies.  Needy people cannot give and induce need in others.  Those who are envious put on airs and graces to try to make others envy them.  Lovers who feel insecure may do something to make their partners feel jealous.  Unhappy and lonely people make those who are close to them unhappy too because at least they are toegether in their misery.  Teachers, who are not confident,  can make their students feel stupid,  but equally the over-confident student can make a teacher defensive.  ‘You make me feel sick,  you make me so angry, you just make me depressed.’    These are all common identifications within relationships. 

Those who carry a grudge are attracted to political groups, but can be very dangerous because they can cause others to feel bad and act out.   So did Ian Brady make Myra Hindley do it.  Projective identification is never a justification in law but it happens. 

War is mutual projection as each side used propaganda to unsettle the other.  Sport is the same.  Winning the mental battle wins the war or the tennis match.  Do not flinch; maintain the upper hand.   And we the observers so want the underdog, the good guy to win, we will do all we can to inspire him with our enthusiasm.  It almost worked with Tim and we’re trying our best with Andy, the nearly men of British tennis.      

Some doctors are so anxious they can make their patients terrified.  Michael Balint, the author of ‘The Doctor, the Patient and the Illness’ recognised this.  Patients pass the anxiety of not knowing what’s wrong with them on to the doctor, so that he orders more tests in order not to appear a failure.  Or their attitude may make their doctors feel angry, depressed, tired.   Emotional transference is such a powerful phenomenon.  As a therapist, I had always marvelled at how one client could make me feel so wound up and energetic; the next so tired I could fall asleep and have actually done so, but they were lying on the couch and I was sitting behind them and they never noticed.  

Actors are masters of projection.  They tune into their audience and can make us all identify with the emotions they project.  I have had two actors in therapy.  One made me feel so angry,  I actually had chest pain and needed to ask him to leave.  The other made me feel such surges of desire and compassion, it was all I could do not to take her in my arms and love her right there and then.     

But it’s not all negative.  We can also use projection to bring out the best in people.  Look at the way babies project their hunger onto their mother, who identifies with it and feeds them.  Falling in love feeds upon itself.   We project our beliefs and feelings into those whom we love and if they love us too and are a suitable object for our projection, they identify our desire and act in a way that intensifies it. 

Lovers  give each other those  feelings of security, excitement, togetherness, they’ve been looking for all their life, but what then happens to the bad feelings?   Well, if they can never let this love become as imperfect as the rest of life, then these feelings are projected out onto others, and the exclusive couple clings together united against the world, unable to trust anybody else.   But most marriages are not like that.  They are states of mutual projection and identification, and partners try to look after their own well being  by making their partners shoulder the blame and feel bad.  You never think!  You’re totally selfish!   I just can’t rely on you.  In a way they need the other to get rid of the bad feelings.   When it works well, it’s a trade off.    One may make the other feel alive while the other projects a feeling of safety.  It works.  The problems come when one of them changes the dynamic; meets somebody else, suffers a setback that destroys their confidence,  accepts a job that satisfies their needs.     

Projective identification requires us to think.  When somebody behaves angrily or badly to us, we need to reflect on our own attitude and behaviour and the reason for it.  How did it all start?  What was the trigger, the fear?   We all have responsibility in our functioning society to bring out the best in people, the most constructive response,  but in a narcissistic, self seeking society, people all too often have to have their own way, because ‘we’re worth it’.   It may be unfashionable to say, but I do believe that we have the friends, the colleagues, the children and the relationships we deserve because we help to make them the way they are for us.