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3 Reasons Your Clients Project and What You Can Do About It

How to deal with projection in therapy


Projection is a kind of defence mechanism in which uncomfortable feelings or characteristics of ourselves are projected onto others in order to avoid the discomfort of seeing them within ourselves.

“Do not taunt your neighbour with the blemish you yourself have.”

– from the Babylonian Talmud 500AD

Sometimes, when people have a strong emotional reaction against something, it may be that inwardly they’re actually all for it. A classic case of “The lady doth protest too much”, as Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet.

One aspect of this kind of self-deception is projecting one’s own inner thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and motivations onto other people.

This is what is known as psychological projection. It’s a block to self-understanding and therefore to self-development. While it may provide comfort to the projector in the short term, it inevitably causes unhappiness and fractured relationships in the long term – as diminished understanding always does.

People, at least sometimes, describe themselves when they describe others.

Here’s a case in point.

“Why should your child get the main part?!”

I heard recently about a woman who attended a parent-teacher meeting at her child’s school. She asked a simple question about whether the school play would be running that year.

Later she received three aggressive messages from another mother demanding to know why the hell she thought her son should play the main part in the school play!

The first woman hadn’t even thought about which children should be cast in which roles, let alone said anything about it! Intriguingly, the second woman’s son ended up being cast in the main role – partly due to the efforts and insistence of his aggressive mother!

This seemed to be a classic case of projection. What was on the mind of one person was projected onto another. But there’s an important element of projection that we need to understand.

Unconscious manipulation

Projection can be a slippery fish. We can’t always be sure that someone is projecting, but we can certainly feel they might be. Hypocrisy may simply be lack of insight, but equally it may be conscious brazenness.

For example, the behaviour of the woman in the above story might have been some kind of conscious, manipulative ‘first strike’ in what she perceived as a battle of wills. Projection shouldn’t be confused with manipulative deflection.

True projection is an unconscious behaviour brought about by lack of self-awareness. Other examples might include:

  • A man who is attracted to a female co-worker begins accusing his wife of flirting with her co-workers.
  • A woman who continually gossips accuses other people of talking behind her back.
  • A psychotherapy client who resists all therapeutic input feels their therapist isn’t really committed to helping them.
  • A therapist who is having a hard time with his teenage son comes to resent a teenage client, assuming without much evidence that the client has the same difficult attitudes his son has.

Often we see a kind of denial or cognitive dissonance within clients who tend to project their own stuff onto others. It can be as though a part of them knows they’re not seeing or admitting the full picture.

In its darker shade, projection manifests as assuming or believing one’s own unrecognized or hidden faults or inadequacies lie within others. Thus we project what is inside to the outside, and are thereby relieved of the burden of truly knowing ourselves.

In its darker shade, projection manifests as assuming or believing one's own unrecognized faults lie within others. Thus we project what is inside to the outside, and are thereby relieved of the burden of truly knowing ourselves.Click To Tweet

So why do people project?

Reason one: It’s easier to look outward

Freud saw projection as a kind of defence mechanism in which uncomfortable feelings or characteristics of ourselves are projected onto others in order to avoid the discomfort or pain of seeing those negative elements within ourselves.

Most of us like to see ourselves in the best possible light: “I am good, fair, decent, kind.” Secure in this belief, we often feel we can do as we please (and get approval for doing it!) without ever really stopping to examine our motivations.

But when less worthy motivations bubble up within us, it creates tension and conflict. Malice, jealousy, or fear may not be emotions we want to admit to ourselves. But we sense they are there somewhere… so we find them in others!

So projection is the next step on from denial. Aspects of the self that are not flattering, or hold no place in the bundle of impulses and ideals that make up our sense of who we are, are simply not seen. But because they are sensed, we assume they originate from others.

How to help the client overcome this

We can gently challenge the client’s beliefs with Socratic questions.

One young client repeatedly described her parents as lazy. She was 23, and she lived off them. They both worked full time, cooked for her, and gave her lifts as she didn’t drive. In light of all this, I asked, in what ways were they lazy? She didn’t really answer, but it seemed to me this was one of the first times she had even thought about it like that.

I further asked what a genuinely lazy person might be like. She described someone not doing anything.

I said, “Do you mean such a person would expect others to do most things for them even though they were capable of doing them for themselves?”

She nodded. I then suggested that a person wasn’t lazy, but their behaviour could be – and fortunately behaviour can be changed.

If someone doesn’t recognize some inner characteristic or behaviour, then rather than pointing it out – at which point defences may rear their automatic head – we can simply explore the issue generally, so they can begin to observe themselves more objectively without feeling pressured or got at.

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Reason two: Projection serves narcissism

Sometimes projection is simply an aspect of arrogance. When a client continually casts blame outward for feelings or characteristics they themselves have, it may be that they are currently unable to see themselves as anything less than perfect.

Maybe life has not yet therapeutically humbled them enough. Perhaps they hold an elevated, superior sense of themselves (regardless of their actions!) as compared to others. They may in fact meet the criteria for narcissism.

For the narcissist, any perceived or potentially constructive criticism, even a whiff of a hint that they might be, in some ways, ripe for personal improvement, should be greeted with scorn and projection. They might say, “You’re just saying that because you’re jealous of me!” when in fact they are probably envious of others themselves.

How to help the client overcome this

Time may be the great corrective. Humility is needed for people to even begin to look at themselves without excessive bias.

I’ve written specifically about working with the narcissistic client here. In that article I cite research that shows how narcissism can cause all kinds of complications and failures for the narcissist (and often those around them), including great difficulty maintaining long-term relationships. If the narcissist always projects all problems onto others then, not surprisingly, relationships rot fast.

Eventually a person with narcissistic tendencies may start to see the patterns in their behaviour and stop looking outward for the cause or blame – sometimes, at least!

Of course, one aspect of narcissism is a need or desire to dominate others.

Reason three: A desire to dominate others

One characteristic that we may easily overlook in our clients is the desire to dominate others, be it socially – with opinions and views – or even physically. And there are myriad ways people do this.

Clients who project often tend not to take responsibility for anything much, instead transferring any and all blame onto others. They may sound arrogant and conceited, and often appear to have little insight into their own feelings and motivations. There is often a sense of superiority, which can easily spill over into a sense of dominance that, for some, can be quite intoxicating.

So projection may, in some instances, serve a kind of power play. And again, this may not be a conscious strategy.

I had a client who criticised most everyone in her life. She would blame, belittle, and berate all and sundry. She was known for it.

“Oh, I tell people what’s wrong with them right to their face!” she told me proudly. Then she added something which startled me.

“People are afraid of me!” she said. She positively gleamed with glee as she said this.

“And that’s a good thing?” I asked.

She changed the subject.

This client was sometimes aggressive, dismissive of others, and judgemental of people based on immutable characteristics. Yet I noticed that she described others as having all the characteristics she displayed.

“People live in fear of what I’m going to say next!” Again the glee was noticeable. And yet ironically she did want better relationships with people.

I asked her if she felt she could ever be described as being in some way like the people she criticized. She looked astonished, then laughed. Yet over time she became more able to look to herself and recognize ways in which she did sometimes display the negative traits she accused others of having.

It was a genuine revelation when I suggested that it wasn’t always necessary to point out to everyone their faults and failings as she saw them.

Bit by bit she did begin to see herself more objectively and worked at becoming less critical of others.

How to help the client overcome this

I told this client about the phenomenon of spontaneous trait transference (STT).1 Research shows that when we are describing someone, even when the listener is fully aware we are talking about someone else, they will tend to transfer those traits onto us.

So if I describe someone as kind and decent, honest and fair, you may subconsciously associate me with those characteristics. But if I continually badmouth others, then likewise you will begin to associate me with those negative characteristics.

This is an interesting finding. Maybe it’s because people intuitively know about psychological projection, even if they’ve never done a psychology class in their life.

Telling clients who project about spontaneous trait transference can help them begin to question what they are really doing. If they intuit that projection doesn’t even work (because of STT), they may begin to look into themselves a little more.

Fear of truly knowing oneself is understandable, because there are elements within us all that are less than flattering. But unless we can see them and take steps to improve ourselves, these elements can fester and grow.

There is no shame

We can help clients who seem to project to be honest with themselves by simply making it clear that there is no shame in feeling envious or resentful, or even irrationally hating others.

Why?

Because we don’t choose to have these feelings. Nearly all of us have uncharitable thoughts and feelings and motivations sometimes. But until we accept them within ourselves they will, like weeds untended, grow and distort our vision of reality.

We don’t choose whom to be attracted to or whom to feel spiteful about. It’s what we do with these feelings, and our understanding of them, that’s important. When we understand ourselves and our motivations, we are in a much better place to control our impulses.

To think that all parts of us are wonderful when they are not – or, conversely, that all parts of us are terrible when they are not – is to walk the road directly away from self-understanding.

Self-concept versus reality

In a way, there are two versions of each of us – the person we think we are, and the person we actually are.

This isn’t to say that self-concepts don’t overlap with reality at all. But for those with low self-esteem or excessively high, narcissistic self-esteem, self-concept and reality are seriously out of whack.

Projection happens when we misinterpret what comes from inside us as coming from outside us: “I feel a sense of envy, so someone around here must be envious (and hey, it might just be you!)”

It’s hard for clients to improve their lives until they are able to see themselves realistically. Ultimately, real humility and the development of insight – the rare skill of observing ourselves more objectively – is what helps us, and, of course, our clients, develop ways to be more honest with ourselves.

We can help clients project less by first recognizing why they might be projecting – by gently guiding them to acknowledge that they may be resisting facing themselves as they are rather than as they ideally like to feel they are. And we can help them appreciate that there is no shame in having faults and failings because, as the Talmud recognized so long ago, we all have “blemishes”.

Lift Low Self-Esteem Quickly

You can learn highly effective strategies for lifting low self-esteem with Mark in his online, video-supported course How to Lift Low Self-Esteem In Your Clients. Read more here.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

You can get my book FREE when you subscribe to my therapy techniques newsletter. Click here to subscribe free now.

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