Humans use the power of projection every day. Inventors imagine new inventions the world has never seen, musicians write songs no ears have ever heard, and artists paint pictures that exist only in their mind. Unfortunately, when it comes to relationships, we tend to use projection in negative ways, especially when it comes to putting the blame on someone else during an argument! But what if we truly understood the power of projection to cultivate empathy and create space for healing within and with others?
How Projection impacts our Perception
If you’ve ever said to yourself or to another person, “I would never act, say or do that” you were projecting.
In the following piece, Gestalt Therapist Pamela Bohan describes how a proper use of projection can lead to healthy boundaries and deeper connections. And we might even be able to learn something from people we don’t like:
Projection is one thing that people do that continues to fascinate me in my practice and provides a deep well of information for my patients. In essence it is the act putting something of yourself onto the environment. The environment includes other people, animals, inanimate objects and even our culture. Projection impacts the perception of ourselves and the world around us.
As a concept it seems simple enough, however, as a neurosis it is done without awareness and is difficult to spot in ourselves. Often, by way of projection, we are rejecting something we have difficulty accepting in ourselves and it can be painful to acknowledge so the resistance can be strong. If you’ve ever said to yourself or to another person, “I would never act, say or do that” you were projecting. Arrogance, deceit, calculation, aggression and spite are the root of many annoyances and atrocities committed by people. These traits are part of our humanity that every human has the potential to demonstrate given the right conditions.
From Projection to Empathy
Before we dive too deep into reclaiming our darkest traits it is important to consider how projection benefits us or, what we would call in the Gestalt Therapy tradition, a health boundary disturbance. First of all, projection is an important part of creativity. Most artists and visionaries are good projectors. You can not create something that you do not already posses yourself. In fact many artists come to understand that they are exploring aspects of themselves through their work even if it is not their intent at the time of their creation.
Projection is also how we are able to empathize. We actually project what we imagine someone is feeling in a situation on to them whether or not it’s true. We put ourselves in their shoes. This goes a long way towards relating with other people. This type of projection has a dark side too, particularly if we are making choices for others or holding ourselves back without checking in first, and can lead to a lot of second guessing or contrived behaviour.
Imagine what a first date might be like for someone who neurotically projects in this way. If you have a solid relationship with someone you can gain insight and relief by directly asking to confirm your projections. It’s incredible to find out that something you’re worrying about isn’t even on your friend or family member’s mind.
One of the best opportunities for working with projection is considering people we don’t like. It’s just a reality that some people just rub us the wrong way. Don’t get too hung up on it because there are people who don’t like you either. Some may chalk this up to unresolvable differences but when you take projection into consideration it may boil down to rejected similarities. We often feel dislike for people who embody traits that we don’t like to own up to in ourselves.
Projecting our Negative Traits onto Others
Projecting is a way to dissociate or keep at distance something we find distasteful that we have rejected because it disrupts our self image. The need to maintain this self image is usually born out of a need to create a sense of stability at a time in our development when the environment wasn’t stable and we were still dependant on that environment. Another unfortunate aspect of unhealthy projection is that it cuts us off from aspects of ourselves that we need to meet our environment.
Can you imagine the good use of a so called negative trait like arrogance? Or deceit? Arrogance might be what you need to take a risk or demand your due. Deceit would be helpful in planning a surprise birthday party. Or in a life or death situation to protect an innocent person, such as Jewish children who were placed in gentile homes during the second world war. Despite this we are unlikely to describe ourselves to others as arrogant or deceitful.
A very common thing to do is to project negative traits about our parents on to others. In the moment it is unlikely you will have the knowledge that this is what you are doing, although a sign might be conflict or resentment. It can take some digging around to find out exactly what it is about the non-parent person that is reminding you of your parent. Sometimes it can be the sound of someone’s voice, the style of their hair or something less tangible like their attitude.
We also project positive traits onto people that remind us of people we like (including our parents, because they have good traits too!). Of course this means we behave differently around people depending on who we are projecting on to them. Of course there are some people who make good screens for our projections. Authority figures make great projection screens. Ever have a boss you didn’t like? Likely you had some negative projections.
An Opportunity to Explore your Shadow
As you can imagine working with projection can get quite layered and can really effect relationships, particularly if you consider that people you are projecting onto are projecting on to you! What this all points to is how strongly our perception of now can be impacted by the past.
Now what you’ve all been waiting for- there is always some truth to projection. Maybe even since you began reading this article you’ve been saying to yourself, “that guy really is a jerk, it has nothing to do with me.” It’s very likely true that he behaves like a jerk sometimes. And isn’t great that he’s giving you the opportunity to explore a shadow aspect of yourself?
- Think of a person you dislike.
- Now identify a few traits about that person that bother you. Are they bossy? Rude? Gregarious? Controlling
- Speak the traits out loud by completing the statement “I am…” For example “I am controlling.”
- After you’ve said them out loud it’s likely you felt strongly about one or two of them.
- Pick one.
- Repeat the statement “I am…”
- Now ask yourself when is this true about you? How do avoid being this way? Is there any place in your life that you could use more of this trait but you are fearful of being that way?
- Notice what happens with your feeling and your body during this experiment. If you’ve had some strong feelings or resistance you may have touched the surface of a deeply disowned part of yourself and are on your way to reclaiming it.
Projection for Healing and Personal Evolution
It seems there is a lot we can learn from projection, especially the pieces of ourselves that are only revealed when we notice them in others. In this way, projection provides us with an opportunity to learn from people we don’t like – or if we put it another way – it helps us learn from the person we don’t like inside of us. This doesn’t mean that we should hate ourselves for uncovering traits we don’t like, but rather, it creates a powerful opportunity to bring our shadow sides into the open where we can seek the healing and personal evolution that wasn’t possible when they were hiding inside of us.