I was watching Where The Crawdads Sing with my wife and one son when a statement by the main character caught my attention. In a conversation with her lawyer about the reality of a jury of her peers judging her on what they knew about her, Kya Clark says, “They’re not deciding anything about me. It’s them. They are judging themselves.”
That’s a statement we could unpack at several levels. One of them is the tendency we have to unconsciously project unwanted emotions or traits we don’t like about ourselves onto someone else. We tend to feel more comfortable seeing negative qualities in others rather than in ourselves.
Projection is, at its heart, a defense mechanism. Like all defense mechanisms, projection keeps discomfort about ourselves outside our awareness. It is the most pronounced in people who are not self-aware, feel inferior, or have low self-esteem. Just about any “ism” you can think of is caused or significantly exacerbated by projection. Hate is one of the easiest emotions to project onto another person or group of people.
“The happiest people I know are always evaluating and improving themselves. The unhappy people are usually evaluating and judging others.” – Lisa Villa Prosen
Overcoming the habit or need to project is not easy, but it is doable. If I recognize that I am projecting, I shouldn’t beat myself up as that will likely lead to more projecting. Rather, I should focus on why I am projecting and work on resolving those issues. Projection is an outward symptom caused by an inability to tolerate recognizing or experiencing the negatives about myself.
Projecting evokes anger because it puts the focus on what others are doing, which I cannot control, rather than my own emotions, over which I do hold sway. Projecting also creates distance in relationships. In essence, when you’re judging another person, you are not understanding them but rather revealing something about yourself.
Overcoming projecting isn’t easy because it’s rooted in my own insecurities, but it is possible if I am willing to do some soul searching. Self-reflection and viewing yourself with detachment and curiosity, never judgment, is the starting point. Here are some other things that help:
Noticing when I’m presuming someone’s experience, without them telling me. It is easiest to see other people as I see myself. Therefore, I will naturally assume that they mean what I would have meant or are feeling what I would be feeling. This is a false assumption. I would be better served by contemplating what their experiences might have been, or even better, asking them.
Looking for my strong reactions. Personally, I hate being cut off in traffic or impeded or really even passed. Yet I do these things myself. When someone does these things to me, I have strong emotional responses. These reactions are deeply rooted in my need to succeed and advance and, if I am not being self-aware, my response can be unreasonably strong. When I notice myself having strong emotional responses, I can use that as a signal to think about why this is triggering me and process that instead of lashing out at another human.
Practicing noticing and eliminating “you” statements. In recovery meetings, we practice making “I” statements as a method to focus on our own actions, healings, and process. Projecting is common in addiction, and learning to stop making everything about what other people are doing is critical to our success.
Being curious, not judgmental. Judgement is met with defensiveness. Typically, we dislike things in other people that we do not like about ourselves or that remind us of previous versions of ourselves. However, rather than using outward judgement to avoid feeling hurt, I try to focus on curiosity and learn about the other person’s experiences.
Becoming familiar with my own insecurities. This is the hardest part but yields the richest rewards. If I do not heal from who and what hurt me, I will project that pain on people who are not actually hurting me. Every interaction I have is an opportunity to learn more about myself and become more authentic.
I cannot lead a healthy community if I am not seeking personal health. Projecting is a strong indicator that I have insecurities or old hurts that I have not resolved. Conversely, being self-aware and curious (about myself and about others) can improve my authenticity, my emotional self-control, and my relationships. Realizing and accepting that it is usually not the other person who is the problem—it’s me—is the Bison Way.