Psychologists who focus on the behavior of their patients do not have use for this idea, but it is useful for people who are trying to learn about themselves.
The clearest way to explain Projection is to give a few examples. Lying in bed in the early morning, unable to sleep, thinking about this and that I hear an owl outside, in the distance. After a moment, however, it becomes clear the sound is not an owl. After another moment it becomes clear it's a sound in my ear. Somehow this sound was projected out. Moreover, the instant I recognize it as in my ear, the Projection is withdrawn, and it is now inside the ear. Without my trying, the sound moved to inside my head. The shift was instantaneous. The sound had been Projected from the inside to the outside.
This example is typical in a few ways. First, projection is not something we try to do or do consciously. It happens, and it happens unconsciously. Second, while projecting, you are not aware you are projecting. It is only after it is "withdrawn" that you become aware you were projecting. Third, projection is natural. It can cause problems (and, at times, it can appear pathological), but it is normal. Fourth, projection is not just a belief that is false. It wasn't just that I came to believe that the sound was in my ear. It actually seemed to move.
How prevalent is projection? I leave this for the reader to decide, but another example might be useful. It is from the domain of feelings instead of the domain of the senses (hearing). Many years ago I saw a model who had to live in a hospital, in a wheel chair. She had married a man she called "a prince of a man." It turned out he was irrationally and incorrectly jealous of her and hired hit men to mar her beauty. They beat her up and used a knife to disfigure her face, and they cut out an eye. Obviously her view of him changed. Looking back at how she saw him as a prince, she was forced to realize that this was an image she had of a prince charming that she projected out onto the real man who she had married.
The owl example and this example are different. One big difference is that love is central in our lives. When projection involves such a deep and central part of our lives, it is very resistant to being rooted out. This same model met another man, and, believe it or not, he too was "a prince among men." She married him, and the beating and mutilation she received from him led to her having to live the rest of her life in the hospital where I met her.
Here is one more example, an important one. It is an experience many people have as they get older. When young they see their parents in a very positive, worshipful way or in a very negative way, or, sometimes, in both ways. They don't think rationally about it, "This is the way I see my parents, maybe I'm right and maybe I'm wrong." To them it just is the way things are. It is reality. There is not even a question. However, as these children grow up and become responsible adults, they begin to see their parents differently, more realistically. The drama recedes, and the parents seem no different than everybody else. Looking back, it is difficult to believe how they ever saw their parents the way they had seen them.
The words of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:11-12 seem to express a recognition of the phenomenon of Projection. The implication is that even though we outgrow childish projections, now we have adult ones:
“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly.”
You can even project onto yourself. We have to learn what we are just as we learn what other people are. It is possible to get old and die and never learn what we are like, because we insulated ourselves from the opinion of others.
Projection is wide-spread. We project onto minerals (like diamonds) and other natural objects (like mountains and rivers and planets and the sun and moon and the galaxies), animals (like dogs and cats and spiders), and onto strangers and foreigners and people from other countries and of other religions and races. Everything unknown can, and usually is, an object of our projections.
And there are collective projections. A whole country projects a certain image onto its movie stars or its rulers or onto other countries. It is clear to those who think a lot about projection that projection, though a normal and natural and unavoidable and even necessary and important psychological phenomenon, can be very dangerous and can lead to endless misunderstandings and arguments and wars.
It is in no way easy to understand the mechanism that allows something in one place to appear to be outside. It seems we are getting down into the basic nature of the mind and of reality. It is a topic for psychology and a topic for philosophers, and I will get it into it later.
I have given the impression that Projection is bad, at best, a necessary evil. But Projection is the beginning of knowledge. In new “projects” it is impossible to see it or the path to it, because they don't exist yet. In the blur and confusion of a beginner's state of mind, an image is seen outside, often of someone who seems to be where we want to be. They have the perfect marriage or they are a wizard of Wall Street or a genius in science. This serves to give us hope and to focus our energy. It is the projection of our own goal and ideal. It is our Imagination, but, if we saw it that way, we would stop dead in our tracks. But, seeing it outside, as real, our Energy flows out, and we start out, with high hopes. After pursuing the dream for a while, we can begin to separate the dream from reality, and we understand ourselves better and the object of our projections better. You have to follow the projection to come to understand it was a projection. You can't sit outside the dance and understand dancing.