'It takes one to know one' - why there's so much truth in that expression

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Even young children know the phrase: it takes one to know one. Sigmund Freud is the famous thinker behind this logic. He called it projection: when we ‘project’ your unpleasant character traits or feelings on someone else. 

‘I can’t believe how annoyingly confident she is. She really thinks she’s something special, doesn’t she?’ Thoughts like these – they’re not pretty, but let’s be honest: we all have them sometimes. Especially regarding people we’re around a lot, such as family members, friends and significant others. 


According to psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and generations of psychoanalysts and other therapists after him, thoughts like these are about projection. We label someone else with an unpleasant feeling (jealousy, anger, fear) or character trait that actually says a lot about ourselves. We do so because it’s a trait we have ourselves (you’re quite confident yourself, too) or because you’d want to be more like this person (you’re insecure).  


Projection isn’t always obvious. An example: you’re convinced your partner is cheating on you. Nothing happened, there’s no reason to suspect anything. It’s your jealousy making you suspicious. Instead of examining the jealousy, you project the unpleasant feeling on them. 

Self protection

‘It takes one to know one’ is applicable in lots of situations. The things we blame others for, contain valuable information about ourselves. That’s because projection is a means of self protection. We point the pain, fear and insecurity we don’t want to feel at another person. That’s how we keep ourselves from dealing with pain, and blame or label others. 

Valuable lessons

So what use is it to know all this? Well, the more we know about projection, the more we can learn about who we are. Think about the qualities that annoy you in your partner, or in the people you work with. If you take an honest look at yourself, do you think you have some of those qualities in common with them? Or perhaps, do you blame them for it because of some fear or insecurity you have? Every time you project something onto someone else is a chance to learn about yourself. It’s not easy, but it’s worth trying: it makes it easier to know what you need and helps you to communicate with others. 

Text: Dorien Vrieling - Photo: Vince Fleming