Projection is the spitting out onto the other the poison that someone tried to force one to take in/on. The infant is forced or coerced into eating strained spinach (yuk!), and then, spits it out in the parent's face. "There, you eat it!" The response may be "Bad baby! What's wrong with you? It's good." The infant may be emotionally punished, shamed, and instructed to deny his or her desires and feelings. He or she is somehow supposed to deny his or her own experience of that spinach tasting yucky and instead, experience it as delicious. The infant is denied his or her own reality by the caregiver. The infant attempts to refute the denial by creating an alternate reality through projection. "You're the one who's shouting! So, you never make a mistake?! If you hadn't… then I wouldn't…" are forms of projection. Fear of betrayal may come from one person's insecurity about being safe in the relationship. He or she may feel angry as well. This can lead to projection that the other person will betray him/her. Or an anxious or enraged person will accuse the other person as the one who is insecure or angry. Projections back and forth are accusations that deepen the injuries and build contempt. It is usually very obvious to both participants that this dynamic is hugely toxic to the relationship and to each other's self-esteem, but neither or one is unable to stop. Often, if one partner persists, he or she can eventually trigger the other to retaliate… to spit back even if the other person is originally trying to stop. The energy is to blame the other person rather than to accept one's control and power in the dynamic. Projection thus is another form of denial in that it denies responsibility for ones feelings and actions. The therapist must refocus the individual on his or her own choices in the dynamic, break the blame game, and foster responsibility.
As with denial, there may be a cultural model for this in the person's background. Projection, which is a form of attacking the attacker may be culturally appropriate for some individuals from their family and/or community. Projection also may be related to the victim mentality. The victim mentality can be an individual mentality but also can be pervasive in a community that has experienced victimization historically. Such communities been victimized because of identification by race, religion, class, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and so forth. The victim mentality is overtly less aggressive but has the same underlying premise, "I have no real power and control, therefore I must blame, project, attack in projection; or be passive, compliant as defined in the victim mythology." For example, when Juan spoke of his distress and loneliness coming home and finding his wife Claudia and kids off somewhere unbeknownst to him, Claudia asserted her self-righteous victimhood. She blamed Juan as the one who started it by not letting her know where he had gone or when he'd be back. "What am I supposed to do… wait for him to show up in his own good time?" was an assertion that she had no viable choice but to respond in kind- nasty and uncivilized as it may be.
The therapist may find that a direct challenge is powerful. "Claudia, you're saying that you have to retaliate against Juan… that you have to do the same to him? You're saying that you wouldn't be cold or cruel if Juan weren't cold or cruel first? You seem to be asserting that your morality is positive only if your Juan is nice to you? That purposely leaving him without letting him know what's going on… that is choosing to be cruel back is ok? That's bull! If it's wrong for Juan to do it to you, then it's just as wrong for you to do it to him too." The therapist moves off of a therapeutically but often, artificial and unreal non-judgmental stance to asserting a clear morality or set of values. This is not therapist morality put upon clients, but the clients' morality reflected back to them and their being called to task for their violations. And, since projection is reactive to one's experience, the therapist should confirm the experience. And then, set boundaries. "Juan hurt you… or, you're hurt by what he did. It's hard to be hurt. It's very difficult, and the only way you know how to deal with that is to attack back. And you need to find another way. It's not just Juan. It's you too. Juan is responsible for his part. And you are responsible for your part." This direct confrontation of projection can be very difficult for someone steeped in the victim mentality. Models for Claudia's projection behavior may be a feminine cultural model, or perhaps, an ethnic cultural model, or her mother and father's dynamics for example. Exploring an original model may be an appropriate and revealing therapeutic tactic to uncover projection.