Psychological projection is a theory in psychology in which humans defend themselves against their own unconscious impulses or qualities (both positive and negative) by denying their existence in themselves while attributing them to others. (//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychological_projection)
I have a sneaking suspicion that if many of us understood more about projection – and its use as a defence by the person in front of us, we would be a lot happier, and communication would be a lot easier. And the thing that we need to hang on to about projection, is it’s the root of why different people see you in a different way .. because most of what they are seeing is a reflection or aspect of THEMSELVES.
As therapists, we are taught about projection as a way to further understand our clients. A client who, as the therapeutic relationship develops, expresses a certain hostility towards the therapist – is said to be projecting the hostility she actually feels, usually, toward one of her parents, for example. If we don’t catch this projection, its possible that the therapist gets a little stuck, feels a little insecure in their work and so on. In not catching the projection, the work ends up getting missed – because its understood that this unconscious hostility toward the parent is pushing the clients behaviour and making them unhappy. Not in fact, the actual relationship with the therapist.
One strong, industrious, entrepreneurial and successful woman I know, laments that many are intimidated by her, that her seriousness in business and knowing what she wants is interpreted as aggressive, as being pushy, as just too much. I find it interesting because I have never had that experience of her.. as you can surmise by my introduction of her I find her smart. I’m proud of her. I want to see her rise further in her endeavours. I know she can. And I have to wonder, if she were surrounded by more people who felt the way I did rather than those feeling threatened, how different would things be for her?
That’s an important question don’t you think? It means that depending on whom I surround myself with, I might find myself more supported, more encouraged to continue, to succeed, my success wouldn’t be inhibited by you possibly being threatened by it.
Which brings me to… I cannot depend on you feeling comfortable with what you see in me in order for me to be ok. I have to accept that some people will project on to me their own fear of success, their own belief that they could never succeed, their own regret at not being more agentic in their lives, their own anger at not being supported in their own experience… right? Because this IS what projection is largely about. So my self-esteem needs to be intact for me to tolerate what others may “think” of me. I need to trust myself. I need to listen to my voice and believe in myself.
Back to my example, I am not threatened by the successful young woman sitting in front of me because at some level I fancy myself a successful woman, I can see myself in her, that’s a bit of a projection also isn’t it? So it’s a positive one rather than a negative one. And while it probably feels good to be on the receiving end of a positive projection, I would argue that you need to be ok in your own skin, know your own self, love your own self, so as not to be “undone” by a projection that isn’t positive.
Projection is a powerful bit of communication… listen for it.