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When a *Karen cries that she felt threatened and intruded upon by a black man, and then she proceeds to threaten and intrude upon him by calling the police, it isn’t irony…it is projection. *Karen

When a cop goes on a rant about how the world views police as “animals and thugs”, which is exactly how many cops view  and treat black people, it isn’t irony…it is projection.

When armed white men storm capitol buildings, putting the building and its occupants in lock-down, declaring that their freedoms are being threatened because they are asked to wear a face mask when in public, it isn’t irony…it is projection.

Definition of Projection

Projection is primitive psychological mechanism used when someone feels a feeling or has a thought that is incongruent with how they want to see themselves. When the feeling or thought surfaces, they must assign it to someone, and since they do not want to own it, they assign it to someone else. It is why people who frequently lie are always accusing other people of lying. It is why cheaters are paranoid that their partners are cheating on them. It is an unconscious activity the projector is unaware they are doing. And if the projector is accused of feeling or thinking the thing they are accusing the other of, they will vehemently deny it, earnestly have so completely distanced themselves from the unattractive projection, that they do not recognize it as theirs.

Comedian Jordan Klepper of the Daily Show does regular episodes where he interviews people accusing others of the very activity they are involved in, like talking about how other countries disrespect women coming out of the mouth of someone wearing a t-shirt denigrating women. It is a bewildering thing to watch folks so dissociated from their own thoughts, they don’t see what they are doing.

Projection is Common

Projection is common, and something most of us do, even somewhat regularly. But frequently, if someone challenges us, we can re-claim our projection. We might be complaining with a friend about how controlling another friend of our is, and then our friend raises their eyebrow and reminds us that we are bothered by our friends controlling behavior because it makes it hard for us to control them. We might laugh, and re-integrate the projection right then. Or we might get huffy and need a day or two before we remember they are right.

In order to reclaim projections, we need a fair amount of ego strength, because the original goal of projection is to rid ourselves of feelings or thoughts that don’t fit well with our image of ourselves. In order to tolerate knowing about parts of ourselves that we don’t like, we have to understand that humans are not either good or bad. We must understand we can be good and decent people and have ugly and mean thoughts/feelings/wishes/desires. This is what allows us to own the range of our feelings and not be forced to see in others everything we hate about ourselves.

Middle of the Road Racists Have Disowned Their Racism

When a Karen is engaged in a racist activity and we tell her she is a racist, she of course denies this. It is in earnest. She has a black friend or a co-worker, or hell, a kid who is black, and she doesn’t want to see herself as racist. She turns racism into an either/or and rejects all the nuance inside her. When her pre-judgments about other people surface, it is dissonant with her self-image so she starts to accuse them of reverse racism. She is desperate to rid herself of the discomfort of her dissonant thoughts or feelings, so projects them onto others.

The problem with projection is that all that ugliness that we evacuate into the external world, is now part of the external world we have to live in. From a psychological perspective, part of why  racists are afraid of black and brown people (or Jews or folks with disabilities or “foreigners”), is they are surrounded by a world filled with their own hateful, dark, scary projections.

Projection is the Backbone of All Isms

Analytic theory understands projection, in its most excessive use, as the foundation for isms. When people see Mexican immigrants working hard in strenuous conditions while living in comprised situations so that they can send money home to their families, they are besieged by their own struggles to work hard and project that out calling Mexicans lazy. When men who fear being flooded by emotionality see women cry and then get dressed and go to work, they project out their vulnerability and call women weak for crying. When white people who struggle to overcome the burdens of a capitalist society see black people who they see as having succeeded professionally demanding equity, they accuse black Americans of wanting special favors, the very ones they long for.

The “cure” for over-reliance on projection as a means of dealing with uncomfortable truths about the self is accepting a view of humans as complex and nuanced. A well integrated person has to accept a tall order of things about themselves they are not proud of. Emotional living is no stroll through a field of daisies. We are all filled with selfishness, pettiness, hate, fear, doubt, divisiveness, even if we came from a loving trauma-free home. Accepting our heavy, complicated truths allows us to face ourselves and work on ourselves.

All or nothing thinking is the death to curiosity and exploration, of self, others and our world. If we can only be one thing…selfish or selfless, arrogant or humble, greedy or generous, racist or enlightened…then we are trapped either hating our loathsome selves or filling the world with all the ugliness inside us we are driven to disown.  A current mantra is “we are all racist”. This is an essential frame that allows us to explore racists feelings and thoughts inside ourselves so we can work through them.

Doing Our Work

Being a good and decent person is no easy task. Many love to think chidden are filled with goodness alone and it is the badness of others or trauma or the world that corrupts them. Either these folks haven’t been parents or they are remembering it with rose-colored glasses. Children/people are selfish, greedy, and mean, right along side being gentle, generous, and playful. The work of being a good person means owning the parts of us we dislike so we can explore how to transform it.

To battle our own isms and prejudice, we have to identify it inside of ourselves, and compassionately explore how we came to have these beliefs, how they serve us and others, how they hurt us and others. We need a place to talk about it, to own it, to admit it, and sort it through. There are some great books folks are turning to right now, and folks reading these books in groups and doing other types of collective work at facing and unpacking their racism.

Find a safe place to look at yourself. Isms aren’t the only things you bump up against that you hate to see inside yourself. Don’t avoid looking it. Grab a flashlight, with a therapist, or a containing friend, or an accountability group that supports its participants to face themselves. It is so much better to know yourself, be working on change, and accepting the mixed bag that is us with integrity.


Smith is an analytically oriented psychotherapist with 25 years in practice. She is additionally the Founder/Director of Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice, which specializes in matching clients with seasoned clinicians in the Greater Philadelphia Area.

If you are interested in therapy and live in Philadelphia or the Greater Philadelphia Area, please let Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice match you with a skilled, experienced psychotherapist based on your needs and issues as well as your and own therapists’ personalities and styles. All of our therapists are available for telehealth conferencing by phone or video in response to our current need for social distancing.


Check out other posts on similar topics below:

Treating Nazis (and other Racists): Analytic Considerations on Racism

Liam Neeson’s Comments and Racist Impulses is All of Us

Want to Raise a Diversity Savvy Kid?: 3 Traps and 2 Solutions








Author Karen L. Smith MSS LCSW Karen is the founder and director of Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice, which provides thoughtful matches for clients seeking therapists in the Philadelphia Area. She provides analytically oriented psychotherapy, and offers education for other therapists seeking to deepen and enriching their work with object relation concepts.

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