Projections are all the rage in human interaction. Yet most of us rarely even realize we’re projecting.
Before we dig into this hidden piece of psychology, let’s give some context to what a projection is.
According to Karen R. Koenig, M. Ed, LCSW, projection refers to: unconsciously taking unwanted emotions or traits you don’t like about yourself and attributing them to someone else.
While I understand this definition, it’s focused on “negative” perceptions of projecting. I’d like to revise the definition in my own terminology to be more neutral and accepting.
Here’s my definition of projecting:
Unconsciously attributing your own emotions onto someone else.
From my perspective, this is neither good or bad. It’s not a positive or negative thing. It’s simply projecting your emotions.
Let’s look at a few examples of projections:
1. You yell at your kids for making a mess.
They destroyed the living room in acts of absolute chaos. You get triggered and your reaction is to yell and scold them for making such a mess.
This is a form of projecting. You’re projecting your subconscious ANGER onto them, as if you are the one who has to clean up the mess. The act of cleaning up messes has likely caused lots of frustration in your own life, which is why it creates anger for you.
It’s not your mess, it’s their mess.
2. You tell your sibling they need to grow up and get a job.
They’ve lived a fairly nomadic lifestyle, much different from yours. They don’t worry about money and seem to get by with odd jobs. You lecture them on why it’s important that they find a real job and build a career.
This is also a form of projecting. You’re projecting your subconscious FEAR onto them, as if you are the one without a steady job and paycheck. That possibility scares you because you value the certainty and stability you’ve achieved in your own life.
It’s not your life, it’s their life.
3. You tell your parents they need to lose weight.
They’ve put on a bit of weight as they’ve gotten older and it’s become noticeable. Their diet is not great and they rarely exercise, so you decide to lecture them on how they should change things.
Another solid projection here. It’s easy to think you want to help but under the hood you’re projecting your subconscious ANGER and FEAR onto them. You may be angry that your parents aren’t valuing your advice. You’ve lived a healthy lifestyle and don’t like the thought of them not being able to realize similar results. You may also be scared that your parents’ health will decline quickly if they take no action. It scares you to think about your life without your parents.
It’s not your health, it’s theirs.
See how all of these examples have nothing to do with you, yet you make them about you by projecting?
Anger and Fear are powerful emotions that fuel most of our projections. It’s also completely natural to project from these emotions. While it’s easy to perceive these as “negative” interactions, as stated earlier, I think they’re simply a reflection of being human. It’s a form of attempted empathy. We want to sit in someone’s scenario and then give them our take. Virtually all of us have instances of anger and fear in our lives.
Projecting from Ego
In addition, we can also project from a place of pride or ego. These projections come in the form of mentorship, advice and general counsel from our own experiences.
Let’s look at a quick example:
You give a friend business advice.
Your friend is having challenges with their business. They know you’ve grown a successful business so they ask you for advice, which you share willingly.
There’s no anger or fear here, but rather a desire to serve. You’re projecting how you would handle the situation from realized experience in your own life.
It’s not your business, it’s theirs.
How to avoid projections?
Avoiding projections is actually quite difficult. Many of us project every day in our interactions with others, and it’s simply a part of how we communicate. Avoiding it all together is unlikely for most of us. However, there is a way to decrease how much we project.
The way to avoid projecting is to ask questions and hold space.
In other words, replace your thoughts and feelings with a question. Any of the examples I shared above could be reversed into questions.
- Instead of giving your friend business advice, ask them where they think their business is most challenged?
- Instead of telling your parents to lose weight, ask them if they feel healthy right now?
Asking questions is a form of holding space. It’s easy to share our thoughts and feeling around a topic (projecting), but it’s more challenging to hold space for it (questioning).
Why hold space?
Most of us already have the answers to our questions and problems. We simply need someone to hold space for us to find them. Finding our own answers and truth is more effective than following someone’s projection. Why? Because following someone else’s projection is not living authentically, but rather living vicariously through them.
I believe this is one of the biggest human issues. We spend so much energy trying to be like other people, emulating their lives, and striving for their status. Then years later we do some soul searching to realize we never truly wanted their life. We just want to show up as ourselves.
We are also more receptive to finding our own solutions than hearing them projected from someone else. Most of us would rather feel empowered to solve our own problems versus relying on someone else. This is why we’re resistant to coaching and therapy. It’s not in our nature to rely on someone else. It’s in our nature to find our own way. A great coach or therapist helps us find our way.
So when possible, think about how you might hold space next time you’re about to project.
Ali is a creator who's passionate about coaching people through desired self transformation. That's a fancy way of saying he wants to help people do their inner work. He's a father, husband, podcaster, blogger, technologist and many other things that inspire him to stay curious and learn. He's also a huge advocate for nature, hiking, adventure, testing physical limits and experiencing the natural world.