Projecting onto Others

Q: My partner has read some books on personal development. He uses the term “projection” a lot. Often he says, “You’re just projecting that on me.” I don’t understand what he means and he isn’t able to really explain it. What is he talking about?

A: This phenomenon occurs in relationships of all sorts: intimate, parent-child, teacher-student, friendship, supervisor-employee. All of us project some of the time. Imagine a slide projector. You see the image on the screen, but it actually originates out of a machine several feet away. Yet, you can only see it while projected through the lens. Thus, people have images, feelings, and ideas about themselves. When these aspects are not known to the conscious mind, they are put on or projected onto another person or people. For example, a person may feel quite critical of her language skills. While she is speaking, she notices that her friend has a strange look on her face. That reaction is immediately interpreted as a criticism for her speaking skills. The speaker, without knowing why her friend is looking a bit strange, projects her own inner critic onto her friend. Her friend may actually be reacting to the content of what she is hearing, a memory that it triggers, or just a pain in her jaw. The speaker may even get hurt or angry at her friend for the strange look. You can see how this process could lead to misunderstanding and fights.

We need the mirror of another person to see ourselves. Students often project onto the professor as the bright and knowledgeable person. Over time, through the mentorship, the student begins to learn the material and recognizes his or her own intelligence and abilities in that area. Lovers often project certain qualities onto their partners. As each matures in the relationship, he or she begins to embody those projected qualities. When we have a strong emotional charge, positive or negative, about another person’s quality, we are most likely projecting. This is a good time to look inward and notice what in us is needing to be recognized.

Q: My boss is promoting me to a higher-level position that I don’t feel ready for. I have told her so, yet she is confident I can do it. I feel excited about it, but am terrified that I will fail. Although I can always return to my current position, I can’t seem to take the leap. How do I get out of this dilemma?

A: First, you want to make sure it’s a position that you want. Give yourself the freedom to choose, so you don’t feel pressured by your boss. If you still want to take the new job, then take a look at why you think you’ll fail. Would your boss actually promote you if she thought you would fail? Do you have a history of not performing well? If not, then where is your fear arising from? If there are particular issues you’ll be challenged by, identify them. Then assess whether you can and want to learn to overcome the obstacles. When we are asked to expand beyond our usual abilities and responsibilities, we naturally encounter resistance. Ask yourself if taking the extra steps in your work would lead to your growth. Then decide.

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