A projection happens anytime someone unconsciously places their own beliefs, desires, conclusions or experiences onto another person or group of people. In its positive form, it may help us empathize with others, as we use our experience to imagine their realities. Unfortunately, projection has a darker side and becomes less positive when it serves as a defense mechanism against some threat or anxiety we don’t like to acknowledge. For instance, I am unconsciously upset but don’t like to admit to inner turbulence and so project the experience onto others by claiming it’s they who are upset. Or, perhaps, your physical mannerisms somehow remind me of my father so I imagine that you, too, will be critical of me — without thinking about that at all — so I rebel against you before we’ve even been introduced!
Mostly, we are uncomfortable identifying and examining our projections, yet they can represent a trove of information about ourselves. Examining them — playing with them and learning from them — is a way to enhance our inner freedom and transcend the limits they place on our thinking processes and understanding of the real world.
Here is a four-box tool I use sometimes with clients:
Box A represents something I assume about myself — a label of some kind, one that I believe to a greater or lesser degree, one that is likely problematic; for example, that I’m “a bull in a china shop” or “like to plan everything” or “run from conflict” — or other conclusion according to the informal scoring system we all use to evaluate our own and others’ behavior as leaders.
Box B represents the system or culture that I believe I operate within; for example, that people are “overwhelmed” in my workplace or that the system is “intractable” or “top leadership doesn’t take responsibility.” Box A and Box B both represent our perceptual conclusions, meaning patterns of belief that may not be entirely supported by evidence.
While it is sometimes difficult to draw out of ourselves responses for Box A and B, it often comes down to listening closely to the way we talk informally about ourselves and our environment to best friends or partners — or the stranger who happens to engage us in conversation at an airport lounge — in other words, when we are letting down our hair.
Boxes C and D, which we’ll get to in a moment, represent the exploration and response to projection, but before going there, if you’ve got an A and B in mind, you might notice there’s a symbiotic relationship between the two. The environment (system, culture) called out in Box B is often related to what we believe causes us to be the way we’ve described ourselves in Box A.
In this example, there is a symbiotic relationship between seeing oneself as a caretaker and seeing the environment as “fragile and tense,” which therefore requires caretaking. In effect, my traits are justified by my environment, although I may also see them as simply part of who I am. This apparent relationship (and rationalization) is useful in holding onto my status quo by giving my traits a special adaptive value. It may also, however, reduce my sense of choice about doing things differently. Projection is defense but it often provokes a sense of helplessness or entrapment in circumstance.
Box C begins to break down that rationalization by conducting what teacher, Byron Katie, calls a “turnaround” as part of The Work of personal growth and freedom. The idea is to experiment with different versions of a conclusion we’ve drawn to see what we might have personally disowned — in this way unearthing an unconscious projection. In the example above the turnaround focuses on retracting the idea that it’s just the environment that is tense and fragile, but maybe it’s me (or also me) that’s tense and fragile. Meditating on the turnaround can loosen the narrow, habitual, energy-limiting and fixed reality of our assumptions about what’s “out there.” Instead it focuses us on what’s “in here” but maybe hard to acknowledge. The person in this instance may not like considering herself fragile in any way, yet when she meditates on the turnaround, she can see it does hold an uncomfortable truth for her. Exploring that truth she is able to reassess the situation and see what is beyond the projection that protects her from her fears. That’s Box D, the actual challenge that is being avoided through the projection.
Here’s another example:
In this case, the self-belief that “I’m a perfectionist” is related to a conclusion about the system that “Any little mistake will get me thrown out.” In other words, I need to be a perfectionist in order to survive here. The turnaround — moving from Box B to Box C — returns the projection to its owner via the realization that the risk is not coming from others, but from oneself. Both of these examples originated in real world examples. In this instance the person already had a track record of blowing out of jobs when they seemed to become too risky and the chance for mistakes so high that he no longer felt he had a real chance to progress in her career. When he pulled back the projection he became calmer, stopped jacking up his fears for the purpose of self-motivation through negative self-talk, and began attending to something closer to reality: an environment where work could be improved and mistakes were not automatically fatal. Perfectionism, it turned out, was a defense against the actual discomfort of messy projects and relationships that required a higher level of vulnerability and true self-support.
These examples are highly situational and have many other facets so please don’t see them as universal or definitive. In fact, I think you may have to be quite close to the situation and circumstances to even figure out what elements and circumstances are important to consider before definitively filling in the boxes. Getting there might require dialogue and drilling down into personal perceptions and conclusions that have been taken for granted for a long time. Nevertheless, at its best the diagram is a tool that can help us raise our heads above the water in which we are swimming.
The goal is awareness, an awareness that brings freedom, new openness, curiosity, realistic goals and care for self and others, with all of that based on what’s real rather than self-deception.