I grew up a loser. In elementary school, with my speech impediment, dyslexia, and social incompetence I failed with consistency. One of the ways I coped was to project on to others how they were jerks. I often saw their success as not fair, setting me up to be a victim. The better others did, the worse I felt and the more others were wrong.
We all project on to others, as I did to make up for where I felt inadequate. Alternatively, maybe it’s putting someone on a pedestal. Our projections are a natural attempt to fill in the gaps in our worthiness.
Rather than deny this natural skill of projecting, let’s understand it – then put it to good use. Exploring what’s behind projections will set us free to heal many of our saboteurs, thereby setting others and ourselves up for success.
“Transference is a phenomenon characterized by unconscious redirection of feelings from one person to another.” [i] When you can’t feel what is occurring, you may “project” (transfer) that feeling on to another person. If it’s not OK in your world to be angry, you may see another person as overly angry when they are just expressing minor anger or frustration.
Freud taught us the concept of transference, where a patient substitutes the therapist for someone else. He might fall in love with the therapist, interpreting the caring he receives from the therapist as her loving him.
When we don’t have a frame (i.e., a way to understand or contextualize an experience), we will push it onto another relationship, often imagined. Rather than challenge our limited frame, we look for a way to make it about someone else. Unable to accept an experience, it becomes about someone else doing something.
Humans are self-referential. We first interpret the world from our perspective, our filters. As the center of our world, life is always about us. When we aren’t projecting onto another, we are projecting onto ourselves. I did this when I saw myself as a victim to life.
To the extent, I saw the world being about myself when it wasn’t; I wasn’t allowing myself to have the full experience of the moment. In those moments, I was arrogant. In another moment, that arrogance was a projection. In all those moments, I was unable to experience what I felt, so I passed it on to another as a projection.
In our men’s groups, we work with mirrors, another distillate of projections. A mirror is that emotional resonance you feel with another. If your friend is sad because he just broke up with his partner, you may feel sad. That is a mirror. Our children frequently mirror our emotions. If you come home from a rotten day at work, frustrated and short-tempered, that may be exactly when your child throws a tantrum, seemingly out of nowhere.
Our groups are an excellent place to become aware of these unconscious mirrors. If Joe is angry about how Sam admonished him for asserting his need to be heard, you may find yourself also getting mad at Joe. Someone in the group may ask, “What is your anger at Joe about?” in an attempt to take you deeper into your experience. As you step beyond the projection of your anger onto Joe, and deeper into your own anger about those who shut you down, you own your mirror.
How you resonate with another person’s experience triggers in you a similar experience. Often this knee-jerk reaction is unconscious. We travel through the day projecting and reacting without knowing we are more than the audience to someone else’s play.
Over time, we create macro patterns of projections. I was creating in my life that people had more power and success than I had, reinforcing my belief that I was always doomed to fail. Some of these people stepped up to take advantage of me, only to reinforce my belief systems. The thought of having my life based on relationships that supported me didn’t even exist as a fantasy.
I continued to attract relationships that used me and repelled those that would have supported me. I created a whole set of explanations of why the world was this way… of course not just for me, but for everyone.
On a micro level, in the present moment I was in a trance. Asleep at the wheel, unaware first of my deeper emotions and unaware of what was occurring. This lack of awareness also made it easy for others to project onto me. I wasn’t going to stop it because I didn’t know it was happening. If I had any clue it was, I was hesitant to put a stop to it. To speak up would put my belief systems and projections at risk—and I didn’t want to do that. If I wasn’t happy, at least I knew the lay of the land.
It’s easy to see how your projections become self-fulfilling.We attract those who will be good actors in our play, or at least we continue to choose to see everyone from the same perspective.
Make Projecting Work for You
The most powerful way to unwind this process and to empower you with its skills is to become aware. Know where you are before you step.
Forty years of practicing and teaching mindfulness showed me that it can be painful at first to slow down and feel what is happening in the moment. We are trained to jump out of the moment because, as kids, emotional escape was the only survival tool we had. We couldn’t run or fight, so we froze—trapped in the stress. When trapped, a mammal will play dead while still being ready for the fight on the inside.
With everyone else checked out, we went with the flow. Others were happy to accommodate our need to stay unaware. It worked for them. To be aware starts to unravel the web of delusion not only for yourself, but also for others. You may want to escape, but others will be resistant; they will shoot the messenger of change.
Assume you are projecting—we all do. Assume there are places you are unaware you’re doing it. I continue to find places in my life I project, even if it’s a positive previously unaware projection. Also, assume others are and start looking for their projections. When someone “accuses” you of feeling or believing something that is way off the mark, know that they are projecting, and they are probably feeling that. The more you see it in others, the more you will see it in yourself.
Once you become aware, accept, and then forgive—yourself and others—go deeper into what is behind that behavior. Ask yourself, “What is my projection doing or saying that I’m not doing or saying?” Feel your body and emotions respond to that question. Slow down and let the responses come to you as if you are waiting for a child to speak to you.
You may ask yourself what you want. Along with repressed feelings are often repressed wants. Rarely is it OK for kids to ask directly for what they want when they haven’t been getting it, so we all learn how to be covert to get what we want. Discover what the real want is here. You may be surprised how simple it is. Accept others’ deeper emotions and needs, not their projections.. The compassion you express for others will support your growth. Own your part in their play, and speak your truths of how your co-conspired or just allowed the play to keep playing. First, own your part. Then you can hold a space of acceptance for the other person. The person who initiates takes the bigger risk and gets the bigger healing.
Milton Erickson, MD, a psychiatrist who invented indirect hypnosis, is famous for taking a limiting behavior using and its skill for the positive. We can do the same here through adding awareness to the process. Rather than projecting out of survival, you project out of caring.
Turn your projections around by being mindful of your actions, feelings, and wants. Allow yourself to be vulnerable — first to your own feelings, and then to other people. Allow yourself to feel discomfort so you can accept it then release it. Rather than do the old behavior of moving away from the pain, step into it—surrender to it. It will be more intense for an instant. Then the pain will start to release. Occasionally you will feel euphoric from the release.
As you accept and surrender, you are letting go of your shame around doing something you might judge as stupid. We all did the best we could with the tools we had as kids. Now you have new tools and you can open up to those deeper feelings and wants.
This simple process of going towards the pain and surrendering to it will set you free, AND it will train your unconscious to be more in the flow of the moment. Where in the past you would have shut done and initiated your projection coping mechanism, now you can feel the urge, go deep into the feeling, open up and create a resonance of openness for others to mirror.
The more you practice the art of conscious projections, the more you demonstrate to others that whatever they feel is OK, they are safe with you. You show them that you are less reactive, less likely to step back and more likely to step into the difficult conversations. You show yourself and others that you have their emotional back.
When you escape from the projection-transference-mirror traps, it allows you to challenge what’s not true. You will speak to the elephants in the room that everybody’s ignoring. Your acts of courage tell others that you care about honest relationships.
This new strength allows you to leave relationships that are toxic. You are now ready to accept any loss for a bigger gain. You’ve created space in your life for relationships that support not your survival behaviors, but your joy.
Continue to deconstruct what doesn’t work. Own and accept parts for what they are — your old attempts to survive. Construct a new world of relationships of truth.
Put this to work right now. Create an ongoing list of your projections, and if you want to go further, a list of others’ projections they attempt to run on you.
Take one projection on for a week. Intend to be fully aware of when you do it, or think of doing it. Stop in that moment, feel what is behind the desire to project. What do you really want? Where is that feeling in your body? Whose voices do you hear speaking to you? What do you want to say back to those voices? Continue to deepen the emotional sensations as you release them.
Be aware of others projecting on you, and when that makes you want to respond with your projection. Notice how you want to enter into that dance, then step away.
Once you recognize and turn your projections around, start helping others by accepting them completely. Don’t accept what they are projecting; accept the deeper emotions and wants. Use your new ability to accept your experience to guide them in accepting theirs.
What will be the first projection of yours that you take on?
Photo by Sébastien Marchand