Susan is a college freshman. During a recent Economics multiple-choice test, she glanced at her neighbor’s answer sheet and copied some of his answers. When she returned to her dorm room, her roommate asked, “How was the econ test?” Susan replied it was pretty tough and added, “I can’t believe how many kids were cheating. Unreal.”
John, 42, is plagued by low self-esteem and lack of confidence. He refuses to face these self-doubts, but is quick to see them in others. Just the other day at work, his project team was discussing ways to improve a production plan. At one point, John said, “I hate to say this, but the problem is that you people are not willing to take some risks and test out the plan on a pilot basis. Why can’t you get some confidence here and trust in the team and get off the dime?”
Roger, 28, is depressed and angry that his bride of two months, Kasey, was killed by a drunk driver while he and Kasey were riding their bikes. Roger doesn’t see that deep inside he blames himself for what happened. He doesn’t reach out to his or Kasey’s family because he feels they are all angry at him and blame him for what happened. “They act like they want to help me,” Roger says, “but I can see that they hate me for what happened.”
Susan, John, and Roger are all using the ego-defense of Projection. They have some unpleasant emotions in themselves that they just can’t face, so they project these undesirable qualities onto other people. Susan is upset with herself about cheating, but she soothes her guilt by believing other students also cheated. John, of course, projects his own shortcomings onto the others so he can blame them – not himself – for problems with the production plan. Roger blames himself for his wife’s accident, but says that others blame him. Thus, he can criticize them, not himself.
In each case, note how the use of projection is a form of anxiety avoidance. They don’t want to face unwanted traits in themselves, so they see those traits in others. What a great way to avoid the stress of self-examination!
Unfortunately, like all forms of stress avoidance, projection prevents psychological growth, self-awareness, and development of self-empowerment to face life challenges. It also prevents being vigilant for signs that – like Susan, John, and Roger – you are using projection to hide what you can’t face in yourself. Such signs would be failure to hold yourself accountable, being excessive and repetitive in your criticism of others, and disengaging from social interactions.
Projection is also a close cousin of hypocrisy. From a coping perspective, it pays to heed comments from friends and acquaintances that you are criticizing others for actions you yourself have taken in the past. For instance, Bruce points out to a co-worker, Adam, that he is insensitive to the needs of Sharon – a co-worker – who has a disability that confines her to a wheelchair. “Uh, Bruce,” says Adam, “I remember just last week when you told me that Sharon uses her disability to make us feel sorry for her so we’ll do her job for her. Remember how you said, ‘Sharon really plays the disability card’? That was kind of insensitive, don’t you think?” Adam’s comments should be a warning to Bruce that he is projecting his own insensitivity toward Sharon onto Adam.
Let’s note that projection need not be bad, and can be used as part of healthy coping. Jennifer’s best friend, Alyson, is grief-stricken because her dad, 55, just died of cancer. Jennifer is trying to console Alyson, and at one point she says, “I know how you feel, Aly. I remember how I felt when my dad died two years ago. My world ended, and I saw no hope. If you want to talk it’s OK because I’ve been there. I understand.”
Note how Jennifer is able to project herself and her emotions into Alyson because she has been down the same road. In this case, projection has become empathy, literally feeling how another person is feeling. Jennifer takes herself out of the equation, projects her own experience and memories into Alyson, and thereby is able to help her through the grief as if they were one. Jennifer understands that it’s not all about “me,” and she is willing to allow Alyson to unload on her, even though that interaction risks reawakening painful memories for Jennifer. That, my friends, is the essence – and beauty – of effective coping.