Projection has many definitions, so to make sure we are all on the same page, I want to start by quoting one of the definitions by Merriam-Webster: “The attribution of one’s own ideas, feelings, or attitudes to other people or to objects.” I’m going to discuss this more in my own words, but a simple way to look at this is projection is when someone assumes that another person’s experience, beliefs, etc. are the same as their own.
Every person perceives and experiences the world in at least slightly different ways and sometimes in ways that are so different, they can be almost impossible to relate to. It can be challenging to understand why another person had such a different reaction from you to something that happened.
For example, let’s consider a comedian telling jokes. A person can tell a joke to a large audience and get a wide variety of responses, especially if the comedian is telling jokes about sensitive or taboo topics. One person might think a joke is hilarious, while another person might find it highly offensive, and another person might not have much of any reaction at all. Any number of other reactions are possible too.
The joke is the same, so obviously the difference is in the people hearing it and how they perceive the joke and what they make it mean. Each person applies their own assumptions, implications, and judgments.. Often not just about the joke they heard, but they make about the person telling the joke as well.
A person who thinks the joke is funny might believe that the comedian is a nice guy who would be fun to be around, while the person who was offended by the joke might perceive the comedian as a horrible person with poor morals and values. Of course, their responses are all projections, based on their own personalities and life experiences.
Each person perceives the world based on so many different factors, that the easiest thing to say is simply that each person experiences things that happen in a different way. It’s easy to assume that the other person feels exactly the same about something that happened as you do, especially if you are close friends, but the reality is not that simple.
In truth, every time we think we know what someone else thinks, experiences, etc. we are projecting. We are taking our experience of a situation and placing it onto someone else, calling it the same. This is what we do, because it’s what we have to do. As much as we try, it isn’t possible to completely experience the world in any way other than our own, so we do the best we can, we project.
Projection in itself isn’t inherently good or bad, it’s a fact of reality. It’s how we use it and what our intentions are with our projections that really matter. This is the real difference between good (healthy) and bad (unhealthy) projections. Spoiler alert, we all do both, depending on the situation and how we are feeling at the time.
Let’s start by looking at healthy projections. I think of good projections as assumptions we make in order to learn more about another person and their experience. Instead of simply assuming we know exactly how another person feels about something, we talk to them about it from a place of curiosity. Knowing that our assumption could be very wrong or at least not completely accurate and we avoid looking for confirmation of what we already believe.
To make this more clear, I’ll give an example from a recent experience I had. I was part of a group conversation with five or so other people. One person being one of my closest friends and the other people I didn’t really know (they were friends of my friend). When one of the people was talking about a particular subject, I started feeling uncomfortable with how she was speaking. I had no idea if anyone else was feeling the same way as none of us responded negatively. That said, I had a feeling that my friend might be having a similar response.
Later that evening, I spoke to my friend and asked her about her experience during the conversation and if she was feeling something similar to what I was. I did not know if it was just me and there was something about the way she spoke that triggered an unexpected response or something else. Additionally, since my friend knew her, I wondered if she would have a different perspective from which I could view the conversation than I had, which wouldn’t have led to my negative response. In short, I was open to learning other perspectives from my experience at the time..
As it turned out, she was also feeling uncomfortable during that particular portion of the conversation. Then we spoke a little about why we each felt what we did. In the end, be both learned a tiny bit more about each other and ourselves. I received confirmation of our similar experiences and my projection became more of a truth, with some minor modifications, based on the conversation. But what happens when that’s not the case?
Sticking with this same situation, let’s look at what happens if I already believe and feel that we had a similar experience. Instead of asking a question about her experience, I might have said something like, “Can you believe what ______ said? That was a terrible way to discuss that topic.”
A best case scenario would be a response like “I know, the way she spoke really bothered me.” This would sort of be an indirect validation that my projection was correct, although that’s not necessarily even true. What if she only agreed with my comment because she wanted to avoid any potential conflict?
Her actual experience could have been that she had no problem with what the other person said and didn’t understand why I did. Since the start of this conversation assumes she feels the same as I do, it doesn’t leave as much space for discussion, learning, or understanding.
Let’s take this one step further, what if after I said, “Can you believe what ______ said? That made me really uncomfortable.” and the response was, “What do you mean, I didn’t think she said anything wrong.” The dynamics of the conversation then become very different.
After that exchange, I would instantly realize my friend and I did not have the same experience and my projection was wrong. Also, since there is more of a confrontational dynamic, one or both of us might feel like we have to defend ourselves or our individual experiences. Then things become more personal, which leads to the ugly side of projections. But that will have to wait until part 2.
I ended up writing a lot more about this topic than I expected to, mostly because I wanted to look at the concrete example and discuss some of the many ways projections can affect conversations and relationships. Part 2 will go more into the relationship dynamics and I’ll share a personal story about the incredible impact projections had on my most important relationship at the time.