This week, too, my article starts with a story, because I think it is the perfect introduction for today’s topic. The story is not from my pen, but reproduced as I had once heard it myself.
Once upon a time there was a couple who lived in a large house with several floors. One evening, the husband was preparing dinner in the kitchen on the ground floor, while the wife was busy with other tasks in the study on the first floor. When the meal was ready, the man called his wife to the table as agreed. “Dinner is ready,” it sounded through the house. Then silence fell again. While waiting for the wife, the man began to arrange the plates. Then he tried again, “Hey, would you please come down for dinner before it gets cold?” Again, silence followed his words. That’s when the man noticed anger slowly creeping up inside him. Lately they had talked about the woman’s obviously deteriorating hearing. With no results. She had done nothing since then, no visit to the doctor, no check-up at the acoustician, nothing. He decided to call for his wife again – but this time from the stairwell. When he opened the door to the stairwell, he was startled to see his wife standing right in front of him. “You really should see an ear doctor,” the man barked – “didn’t you hear me?”
“Yes, I heard you,” the wife replied, “and I answered you three times, ….”
There is no better way to describe what psychology calls “projection”.
Projection means that I get upset about another person’s behaviour or characteristics that I withhold from myself, do not admit to myself or am not yet at peace with myself. You could also say that I get upset BECAUSE I withhold them from myself. This “being upset” can come in different forms. As a disparaging comment (“How can somebody be so selfish and go home on time …”), as a know-it-all statement (“At that age, it’s better not to wear such funky clothes anymore …”) or as an over-emphasised distancing (“That would never occur to me!”). Especially the latter shows very well what projection actually is: a defence mechanism. We project our own inner issues and conflicts by imputing to our counterpart our repressed emotions, affects, desires and impulses, which may be in contradiction to our or society’s norms. In this way, we automatically distract from ourselves – and from the unpleasant feeling that we should actually be dealing with the issue ourselves.
By the way, projection also works in a positive sense: In this case, I project onto my counterpart everything I wish from him/her. It is not uncommon for disappointments to arise when my “positive assumption” does not come true (and sometimes it then turns into a negative one).
In this respect, projection is a killer for true dialogue with my counterpart – because I stop really seeing the other person but use him or her as an arena for my own issues.
If I am aware of this, however, projection can at the same time be a helpful indication of an inner dialogue that I should still be having with myself.
For example, if I have really decided for myself that I don’t want to wear funky clothes any more at my age, I can do that – and I don’t care how others handle it. As long as I’m convinced of my decision, it’s all good, right?
(The only exception is if the other person’s behaviour or characteristics actually affect me personally in some way).
So – the next time you get upset or outraged about someone or something, see it as an exciting invitation to look behind your emotions and ask yourself: what does that reveal about ME?
Use the look in the projection mirror to “improve your look” and then put it aside so that you can make a real connection with the other person.
Be good to yourself,