It’s like when there’s a piece of lint on a projector’s lens. We think there’s a flaw on the screen, and we try to change this person and that person, whomever the flaw appears on next. But it’s futile to try to change the projected images. Once we realize where the lint is, we can clear the lens itself. This is the end of suffering, and the beginning of a little joy in paradise.

–-- Byron Katie

Using Projections to Gain Self-Knowledge

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:

Screenshot 2023-03-14 at 2.00.12 PM

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.

Screenshot 2023-03-14 at 2.05.36 PM

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:

Screenshot 2023-03-14 at 2.06.30 PM

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.


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