Anais Nin cogently observed, “We see things not as they are but as we are.“
Our capacity for understanding others emotionally really gets messed up when we unconsciously impose our feelings onto them. Here we deny our own feelings or thoughts (usually negative) and in self-defense attribute them to others. In the psychological world this is called projection.
When our projection is negative we may perceive the person as threatening.
When our projection is positive, we may recognize a couple of good qualities but then incorrectly also assume that everything else about that person is positive.
Consequently, we find ourselves being either strongly attracted or repelled by the person to whom we are projecting onto. Our resulting perception or understanding of that person is distorted.
Julie was an MBA student at a university in Pennsylvania. Although she was getting good grades, she was struggling with feelings of insecurity. Julie had been socialized to be cooperative and felt uncomfortable with the overt competitive atmosphere in one of her classes. She was having a hard time being assertive with her ideas in class and was beginning to feel resentful. The teacher of the class, Dr. Smith, was an associate professor who was confident, ambitious, and highly accomplished in her field. The MBA students admired Dr. Smith and enjoyed taking her classes. Julie did not.
Julie soon discovered that she had been assigned a new course advisor and that it was Dr. Smith. When Julie and Dr. Smith had their first advisory meeting, Dr. Smith asked about Julie’s long-term goals. Julie expressed uncertainty. Dr. Smith remarked to Julie that she should think carefully about her direction before they decided which courses she should take. Feeling humiliated, Julie left the meeting, later telling her best friend that she was going to switch advisors. When asked why, Julie said she viewed Dr. Smith as a cutthroat competitor who would try to eclipse her talent and ignore her contributions. In reality, her advisor wanted to make their time together optimally productive and had Julie’s best interests in mind.
Because Julie was uncomfortable with and could not acknowledge her own competitive urges and the negative feelings it evoked in her about herself, she projected those feelings onto her advisor who she then experienced as intimidating rather than the helpful and supportive advisor she, in fact, was.
In this example, Julie’s projection resulted in her having a distorted perception of her advisor and their relationship. If Julie continued to hold this faulty view of her advisor, it could eventually preclude the development of a potentially productive and healthy relationship. In addition, in situations such as these where projection distorts one’s perception of another person, one’s capacity for empathy is limited or impossible. Recall that empathy is the capacity for understanding the (genuine) feeling states and motives ofanother person.
Because projection is a subtle process that occurs without self-awareness, how can we learn to see when we are projecting and put it aside to perceive the other individual more accurately?
The following suggestions will help you identify and manage projection.
- Use a trusted colleague or friend to provide you with candid feedback on your negative and positive attributes.
- Explore with that confidant possible problematic individuals where projecting your weakness onto them may be an important variable.
- Learn to suspend negative feelings toward or judgments of others until you have processed them (by engaging 1-2).
- Ask yourself: “Am I reading this person accurately and could my strong negative reaction be more about me than about him or her?”
- Once you have practiced 1-3, make an attempt to try to get to know one of the “problematic” individuals without having any other agenda. Try to go into this encounter thinking of something Abraham Lincoln once said: “I don’t like that man. I need to get to know him better.”
- After you’ve examined your presuppositions about the other person and learned more about who he or she truly is, you can consciously choose to respond to him or her in a more positive or (at least) a neutral way.
Once we free ourselves from our tendency to experience and understand others through our individual filters of projection or pre-judgment, we are free to be more receptive to the real world of the other.
Making a more authentic connection with another opens up the possibility for empathy.
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