Projection: why do we push away responsibility?

Have you become a projector, instead of just being? Photo by Alex Litvin on Unsplash

Projection is the tendency of our minds to deny personal responsibility.  We tend to want to appear good to ourselves, and so we push away anything liable to criticism.  In simple terms, we build a picture of our own lives in which we are the victim of someone else’s oppression.  This enables us to avoid the potential pain of guilt.  Guilt is the sense that our behaviour has caused suffering to ourselves or others, or is outside ethical bounds.


The origins of projection can sometimes be found in childhood.  As a defensive mechanism, it has some effect, but it also has some unfortunate side effects.  Imagine a daughter whose mother is always ready to hit them if they do something ‘wrong’.  The daughter may, at an early age, ingest an ethic that goes something like this: if you are seen to be doing something that someone else could criticise, then you are likely to get hit.

If she wants to avoid getting hit, the daughter then has some decisions to make.  She can continue as she was, but she gets hit.  Or she can blame someone else, and avoid getting hit.  If she has a sibling available, she may start to push the blame over there.  True, the sibling then gets punished, but at least the daughter herself is safer.  This may seem a cynical way to live.  It’s not intentional.  It’s just defensive, borne of fear.

Now imagine that the sibling starts to fight back.  A perpetual war erupts, in which each sibling is always trying to make themselves look saintly in their mother’s eyes, and furthermore to make the other sibling look wrong.  A world has been created in which nobody wins, because everyone has to be on their defensive guard against criticism and false blame.  The issue ceases to be about responsibility; everything becomes a tactical matter in the war to avoid criticism.


As adults, our political lives are full of this type of projection.  If you doubt me, just have a look on the internet, at social media discussions in which two sides polarise for or against something.  The sides can be left or right wing, for or against Donald Trump, for or against Brexit… there are any number of issues to polarise around.

In a reflection of the sibling wars mentioned above, we get political wars in which the main object of the game is to push a story in which one’s own self and side avoid criticism, and in which representatives of the other side attract criticism.  The more each side polarises, the higher the stakes rise for being seen to be in the wrong.  It becomes more and more likely that a person starts to ‘frame’ representatives of the other side – in other words, to present them as blameworthy without good evidence.  The need for evidence takes second place to the need to project.

In that world, one chooses a political figure on the other side, and one simply promotes any story that makes them look bad.  This is felt as justifiable because this is a war, and in a war everyone does what they can to denigrate the other side.  The other side can be called idiots, Nazis, liars, anything.

A linguistic tool often used in this war is to fudge actions into essential attributes.  For instance, if you have a story that someone has lied once, then you can linguistically call them a ‘liar’, and it would be true.  If you have a story that someone has done something abusive, then they can linguistically be called an ‘abuser’.  The effect of this linguistic trick is to stereotype the opponent, and to make it seem as though they spend their whole life doing nothing but the reprehensible thing in question.


Many of us won’t want to correct our own habitual projection.  It has become too much part of our lives.  We may want to correct and challenge the projection of the other side.  Of course we do.  We want to be the only side allowed to project, because it keeps us safer.  Furthermore, if the projection originated defensively in childhood, we may still bear the scars, in the form of unconscious fear that we will be vulnerable if we stop blaming others.  So the cycle continues.

But if we happen to want to drop the facade and give up projection, there are ways.  Essentially, there are five stages in recovering from a habit of projection:

  1. SAFETY – We have to feel we are safe enough to be less defensive
  2. NON-REACTIVITY – We have to be able to postpone the instinctive blame response that has become second nature
  3. OBSERVATION – We have to be able to observe our usual projecting behaviour
  4. LANGUAGE – We have to learn to describe our usual projecting behaviour to ourselves and others
  5. ONGOING – We have to accept an ongoing life pattern without the need to project


Meditation is a practice which tries to distil this process of awareness and acceptance.  It also embodies the above 5 stages, as follows:

  1. SAFETY – We find a safe place to sit
  2. NON-REACTIVITY – We set up an intention simply to sit, and not to react with delusion
  3. OBSERVATION – We set up an intention to observe ourselves and the world quietly
  4. LANGUAGE – We use words designed to describe what we see without distortion
  5. ONGOING – We develop the ability to live with awareness, and without delusion

In this way, meditation is a great general framework for personal development.  It contains the elements of safety, non-reactivity, observation, language and training needed to accompany self-improvement.  In particular, meditation can act as a means to break down the bad habits we’ve developed towards ourselves and others, and find more peaceful ways of coexisting.