Projecting – what is it about?
I was sat in a hospital waiting room, when a gentleman politely asked a grandmother, and mother, to turn down (not off) an extremely loud video. Only to be met with abuse from them.
Yelling. Shouting. Blaming. Comments on how unreasonable the man was being. How the kids can’t be expected to sit there hour after hour bored. Along with shouting at him about how dare he shout at them. Speak to them in such a way. You get the idea.
Putting aside for the moment the difficulty these people had with receiving negative feedback or potential criticism. The point was reached where the ladies were shouting at the gentleman and wrongly accusing him of being aggressive and shouting, is where they were placing their own ‘unacceptable’ behaviour onto him.
They considered shouting unacceptable. They accused him of doing so. In reality the only ones shouting were them. What were they doing? They were projecting. Why? It is a defence mechanism. And it can often cause confusion and frustration.
Whether we are projecting and we don’t realise it. Or we are on the end of it, trying to rationalise what has just happened, or figuring out why we are being unfairly accused of something, it is emotive. It creates conflict (internally and externally) and gets in the way of our becoming more self aware.
(For completeness no I didn’t allow this gentleman to be unsupported and spoke up).
So what is projecting?
The Oxford dictionary defines it as:
“..the unconscious transfer of one’s desires or emotions to another person ……..”we protect the self by a number of defence mechanisms, including repression and projection“..
Essentially, when we have difficulty expressing or coping, with certain thoughts or emotions, we can use defence mechanisms to protect our self, such as projecting. When we project we place those emotions or thoughts on others unfairly
We can also accuse or blame others for our own issues, wounds, reactions, and behaviours. Or use them as excuses for how we chose to behave.
We may find ourselves embarrassed, or frustrated that the same issues come up time and time again in our lives, particularly in times of conflict, yet can’t figure out why.
Once we learn about projection, and revisit it as new situations appear, we start to notice, grow, and create changes in how we internalise and respond.
Why does it matter if I project?
Many of us start getting curious about this because, as touched on, we notice repeat patterns, or we become upset or frustrated by how we respond. Sometimes, we initially notice it in how others behave and react, and it grows from there.
We know it can be hurtful, unhelpful, and we want it to be different.
Since projection often comes from not having an insight, once we have the insight, we can chose to make a change. We begin to acknowledge and understand our own motivations and feelings.
In doing so we can then improve:
- how we deal with conflict
- our response to feedback or criticism (perceived or real)
- our relationships, for example, by reducing what triggers us, makes us defensive, and through how we communicate
- our self confidence and self esteem for all the same reasons
- the ability to notice toxic conversations, situations, people, and how we feel and respond to those individuals
- our own happiness, and positivity, in the way we experience people, activities, conversations, and the world around us.
Why do we project?
Our defence mechanisms here usually become triggered due to discomfort from some of our own thoughts or emotions. We might feel uncomfortable with, or even unsafe around them.
Certain thoughts or feelings have come to be considered as unacceptable, or wrong, to us for whatever reason. Even where we accept them in others, we often judge ourselves more harshly around them. We will also often notice that this is reflected in some area of our self esteem, self love, and self worth.
However, as mentioned, once we become aware of this, we can use this new information. We can start to accept more of us, accept our full range of emotions, notice where we are are projecting rather than it being ‘real’, and at the same time accept we are human with any of our own perceived flaws.
With this new information and realisation, we can now make different choices in how we choose to behave, act, respond, and even change how we judge ourselves and others.
Examples of projection – three common ones.
Whilst every situation is different, three most common forms of projection, are:
- They hate us! We believe someone (or a group) dislikes us and we interpret their actions accordingly. It may surprise you, or deep down you will realise the truth, that often it is us who dislikes that person/group. There may be a reason that we don’t feel strong enough to share this, accept it, or avoid being around them. There could be some social or work pressure to like someone, or we want everyone to like us, and so can’t show that we dislike them because then they would dislike us!
- Look at them! We judge or comment on someone else’s appearance such as their weight or sexual appeal, as it deflects away from dealing with our own fears or deeper body issues. As an aside sometimes we are envious of what they are doing or experiencing, and feel uncomfortable with wanting that. In this case, our judgment of others can also reflect a part of us that we may want to enjoy, experience, accept, or heal, albeit we are uncomfortable with doing so.
- Stop lying, yelling, etc. We unconsciously accuse others, unfairly, of thinking our own negative thoughts, acting out on our behaviours, or motivation. One unexpected example was when I spent some time being thoroughly confused, unsettled, and frustrated by an individual who repeatedly made accusations of lying. Since this couldn’t have been further from the truth, and evidence provided to the contrary was never enough, I didn’t understand. It took some time before it suddenly dawned on me, that this is what they did. They lied and so were deflecting the blame, avoiding responsibility, and projecting that trait (lying) onto others. Other examples can include accusations of ‘blaming/being blamed’, being ‘aggressive’, ‘selfish’, ‘mean’, ‘lazy’, ‘not listening’.
As mentioned, when we project, we are often struggling with our own issues around self-esteem. By not taking responsibility, and passing it over, we can avoid this painful truth. If we stop and looking at it more deeply, the reality is often the opposite. The other person isn’t thinking that way, or behaving that way. or doing those things with that motivation. Or at least not to the degree we are putting on it.
Some more examples.
Here are a few others scenarios that you might have come across:
- Discomfort around being attracted to someone else, or even being unfaithful, yet that person is accusing their partner of being unfaithful.
- An aggressive driver responding harshly when someone else does the same or not even noticing their behaviour.
- Blaming things, situations, or other people (in a different way) – if I lived in a different house or had a different job more people would want to go out with me, or if the other person hadn’t made me stay out late I wouldn’t have made that mistake.
An example based on personal achievement.
A slightly different type of projection* is based on an experience of achievement, such as:
Well I survived or did it! This projection is where, because we achieved something, can do a particular thing with ease, or ‘survived’ an experience, we expect others to be the same. It doesn’t readily allow for other people’s capabilities, skills, learning, additional factors, their cycle of where they are in the journey, or other differences Whilst it can motivate, it can also be seen as dismissive, creates frustration where you expect others to achieve, and leads away from people feeling compassion and understanding. It can also sometimes be used as excuse for poor behaviour because it [apparently] ‘did us no harm’.
How to create a change.
Since we now know that projection is essentially about defending ourselves, we start by being curious.
What triggers us? What emotions do we feel uncomfortable about? What do we judge in others? Where could we be projecting?
The act of noticing is enough to create the change, because when we start to notice our responses, patterns, and why, we automatically start to do something different. We then move to make conscious decisions of how we want to respond next time.
At the same time we can start to explore and heal gaps in our self-esteem. Hopefully, starting with being kinder and more compassionate to ourselves.
As our self esteem grows, we begin to experience even more positive feedback from taking more responsibility for our actions. We then do more of it.
We find it easier (but not necessarily always easy) to accept where we have added to a situation. We start to let go of guilt and shame associated with taking responsibility, as we no longer associate it so strongly with fault and blame. We start to notice where we have been, and when we are, projecting, and start to notice where the reality is quite different. This means we are less unhappy because we can see that what we are worrying about isn’t even true! We start making better choices about how we communicate and how we respond. In becoming more aware, we open ourselves up to a much happier and peaceful life in the long run. Better relationships with others and ourselves follow.
Insofar as creating change in others. Holding up the mirror to others can be responded to in different ways a with all feedback. Whether at work, or at home, no one size fits all. To start we need to lead by example, and as with any feedback be clear about what your intention is behind asking for the change, and what your expectations are. Allow time for it to be processed, and in time you can decide what you can change, accept, or need to let go of.
As always, be kind to yourself on your journey, and remember – “Forgive yourself for not knowing what you didn’t know before you learned it.” ― Maya Angelou.
*There are three types of projection:
Neurotic projection is perceiving others as operating in ways one unconsciously finds objectionable in yourself.
Complementary projection is assuming that others do, think and feel in the same way as you.
Complimentary projection is assuming that others can do things as well as you.