“Personal accountability is the life-giver, the thing that fills the soul with esteem and repairs it from the inside out.”
In the last post, we learned how we project thoughts and feelings onto other people in order to avoid feeling anxiety. One consequence of these projections is that we are constantly shrouding the other person with our fantasies and never see them as they actually are. This limits the amount of real contact we have with them and is the source of much misunderstanding in our world. Exploring the projections that you habitually make onto other people can be a very useful process in developing a more direct and authentic way of relating to others.
noticing your introjections
One way of reclaiming our projections is to simply notice when you have an internal ‘rule’ and say things like: “I / They should . . . ” or “I / They shouldn’t . . . ” be or do something. We are often unfairly and unconsciously projecting these rules onto other people without really considering how appropriate or fair we are being.
These ‘rules’ are ways you have learned to behave in a historical context, very often adopted as part of our family or societal upbringing. In a sense, they are ‘agreements’ that we have made between ourselves and other people in order to belong to a specific group. In psychology, these are called introjections as they are things we have taken into ourselves without fully considering whether they are universally helpful to us. Noticing our introjections can act as a signal that we are living a life based on a set of rules or agreements that were appropriate for an earlier context and now need updating for the way we want to live our life now.
noticing your emotional reaction
Another way of reclaiming your projections is to notice when you are experiencing a heightened sense of emotion. Because projections are based on an avoidance of something that is often deeply anxiety provoking, the feelings that are generated are often out of proportion to the actual reality of the situation.
Many people believe that the intense emotions and irrationality generated when we fall ‘in’ love with someone is based on projection. In this case, the projection is of those positive aspects that we refuse to see in ourselves (kindness, softness, generosity, beauty, compassion, sexiness . . .). The ‘in’ love phase is often characterised by the complete obliteration of those attributes of the other person with which we are uncomfortable. Over time, the projections start wearing off and we then begin to see some of the less desirable traits in the other. For many people, this ‘reality check’ is too painful and they separate from their partner, looking to find someone ‘perfect’ once again. The reality is that we are actually falling in love with ourselves over and over again. The sooner we can acknowledge that we have the attributes that we seek in another, the less likely we will dupe ourselves.
noticing ‘halos’ and ‘horns’
It is often possible for us to spot our projections before we even engage with the other person. If we notice we are thinking of the other person in black or white terms, then we are probably caught up in a projection. For example, there will be many situations when we meet someone and are immediately drawn towards qualities which we could label as positive or negative. This ‘halo’ or horns’ reaction is often caused by us seeing in the other what we don’t accept in ourselves.
By noticing ourselves doing this, we can deliberately challenge ourself to see or do the opposite of what we are caught up in. For example, if we notice we are habitually drawn to criticise or challenge another person, we might find a way of appreciating or supporting them.
noticing other people’s projections
Given that projection is such a pervasive phenomenon, it is likely that each of us will be projected upon by many others. This can be an unsettling experience and one that is fraught with danger. For example, in many organisations, people project feelings of hopefulness, omniscience and omnipotence upon their leaders. The reality is of course that these leaders are struggling with the very same questions of conscience, choice and consequence as their staff. If the leaders cannot find ways to gently dissolve the fantasies they will become caught in a ‘follower’s trap’ where they will be seriously misunderstood and over time potentially mistrusted.
Another area in organisations that is ripe for projection is the process of feedback. Flattery or criticism from another person can often be a projection of something they are unable to accept in themselves. You can often notice this is happening when you are feeling ‘missed’ or you don’t recognise yourself in what the person is saying about you. When others are using projection, you can hold up a mirror to show them what they are doing. As usual, this may well be met with other forms of resistance.
“Understanding how you project can be very helpful, if you have the courage to look at it. But all forms of projection can be boiled down to one simple message: ‘It’s not about me. It’s about you.’ That’s the content. I am refusing to look at my stuff and trying to hand it to you.”
The following resources provide further reading, insights and exercises you can try out.
The Four Agreements – don Miguel Ruiz reveals the source of self-limiting beliefs that rob us of joy and create needless suffering.