How Can We Understand Projection Without Going Overboard?

For years now I have been trying to get a handle on the concept of projection, the idea that I see and judge in you what is really in me. I have had two main problems with the idea. The first is that, quite often, what I see in you is, in fact, in you. If I actually see you steal money from my wallet, we don’t have to invoke “You spot it, you got it” to explain my strange perception of you as a thief. The second is that, in my experience, we usually judge traits in others that go against our own dominant traits. For example, if I place a high value on neatness, I am likely to judge others who are messy, simply because their messiness undermines the value I place on neatness. The Course talks about this, saying that we make our own value system true by “attack on what another values. And this is justified because the values differ, and those who hold them seem to be unlike, and therefore enemies” (T-23.II.2:4-5). In other words, according to this passage, I attack your value system because it is different than mine, not because it is the same.

Recently, I studied a passage that explains projection in a way that ties all this together. Found in the Urtext, it is guidance that Jesus gave to Bill Thetford that was the context for the famous “truly helpful” prayer. Bill was going to attend a conference on rehabilitation, which Jesus says he had actually “arranged for Bill to attend.” The reason, apparently, was that Bill needed to face his withdrawal from those who need rehabilitation and replace that withdrawal with true helpfulness.

This guidance repeatedly characterizes Bill as having an emotional and physical recoil from two kinds of people. The first are those whose bodies are “broken” and “damaged.” The second are those whose egos are “weakened” and “dependent.” Those in this second group do not have enough ego-strength to meet the demands of life and take care of their own needs. They thus need not physical, but vocational rehabilitation. Jesus comments on both kinds here:

You have a fear of broken bodies, because your ego cannot tolerate them. You ego cannot tolerate ego-weakness, either, without ambivalence, because it is afraid of its own weakness and the weakness of its chosen home. (Urtext)

In other words, when Bill looks on those with broken bodies, he is reminded of how vulnerable his own body is. Similarly, when he looks on those with weak egos, he is reminded of how weak his own ego is. These people, then, remind him of traits he is afraid of in himself. The more contact he has with them, the more he is reminded of that which he fears within himself. And so he recoils from them. He withdraws, to keep his peace of mind intact, to keep from being paralyzed by the awareness of his own vulnerability and weakness.

The word “projection” is not used here, but the concept is clearly present. Bill is seeing in others what is really in himself. In those with broken bodies, he sees his own body’s vulnerability to being broken. In those with dependent egos, he sees his own ego’s vulnerability to being dependent.

What I like about this example is that it suggests a solution to the two problems I mentioned earlier—that sometimes I see it in you because it is in you, and that sometimes I judge it in you because it goes against my dominant traits. Let’s take these one at a time.

When Bill is looking on someone with a broken body, this is certainly not a case of “If you spot it, you got it.” Bill is not seeing this person’s body as broken because Bill’s own body is broken. This person’s body is broken; Bill’s body is not. There is no projection going on at that level.

The projection has to do with how Bill feels about their ego-weakness and physical brokenness. And this leads us to the resolution of my second problem. We need to start by observing that Bill is not dependent or physically broken on the surface. Rather than being dependent, he has a high-status, presumably well-paying job. No one would nominate Bill for vocational rehabilitation. Neither would anyone nominate him for physical therapy. As far as we know, he is quite healthy.

So what we have, then, is a dichotomy between his surface health and independence, and his underlying sense of vulnerability and weakness. He presumably has built up and maintains the surface with great care. But then he fears that hidden within himself lie the seeds of its destruction. Deep down inside, there is a secret pit of weakness and vulnerability, and he fears that his healthy, independent life could one day collapse into that pit. This is why Bill recoils from those who need rehabilitation. They are constant reminders of the precariousness of his life. Their very presence says, “Don’t you dare think that pit isn’t in there. Don’t you dare think you couldn’t fall into it. Here but for whims of chance go you.”

I see this as a way to harmonize projection with my second problem—the fact that we often judge people because they violate our traits, rather than have our traits. The harmonization is that these people violate our surface traits but remind us of our hidden traits. Deep inside, we violate our own surface traits, and that terrifies us. It threatens to undermine everything we have so carefully built on those traits. We don’t want to see this violation within ourselves, and so when we see it in others, we judge them, in an effort to convince ourselves that the violation is out there, not in here.

Let’s make this more personal. Pick a trait you feel is a special strength of yours, one you are particularly proud of, rely on, and have built your life around. Take a few seconds now and give it a brief name or title. Now notice that you do have a tendency to judge others who violate this trait, who manifest its opposite. Give a name to their violation, to the trait they are manifesting instead of the one you prize, a name that captures what you so frequently judge.

Notice that their violation is something others would often agree with you about. Thus, even though you may be at times projecting this trait onto them or exaggerating its presence in them—that certainly does happen—much of the time they actually are violating this core value of yours. That’s not your projection; it’s a fact.

But now realize that deep down inside, you too violate this trait you so treasure. You yourself are not completely true to it. Indeed, you have to struggle to be true to it. Why? Because there is an impulse in you that wants to go the other way. Maybe that impulse doesn’t take the exact form it takes in others. Maybe it wants to violate your prized trait in ways that are different from how others do so. Yet even though your version is different in form, its essence is still the same.

Can you identify this hidden trait in you, the one that goes against the trait you consciously identify with? Can you see how it leads you to take essentially the same luxuries that you judge in others, though perhaps in a slightly different form? This may take a great deal of thought and honest searching. Indeed, it may not come to you now, but rather days or even years from now. But trust me; it is in there.

If you can get in touch with this hidden trait, give it a name. This name may be surprisingly similar to, or even the same as, the name of what you judge in others.

Then try to get in touch with your fear of this trait in you. See how it undermines everything you have built atop the trait you identify with. See how it makes a joke out of the virtue you so proudly wear. See how it destabilizes the self-esteem you have rested on that virtue. See how it terrifies you with the thought that one day it could rise up and pull you down into itself.

All of this leads to one thing: You don’t want this trait to be in you. You don’t want to see it there. You don’t want to be the one who is crippled by this trait threading through your nature like a cancer. Rather, you want to be the one standing outside this trait, pointing at it from afar and righteously condemning it as something separate from you, something unworthy of being part of you.

Could it be that this is why you judge it so harshly when you see it in others? After all, why can’t you just see it in others, note it with dispassion, and desire to heal them? Why do you get so riled when you see it in them? Doesn’t your pointing at it and condemning it seem to prove that it’s something apart from you, rather than one with you? And couldn’t that be why you point and condemn so fervently, who you protest so much, to make a case to all concerned that it really is out there, that it could never be in here?

In my mind, this view of projection resolves my two problems. It says that we often see traits in others that really are there and that really do violate the traits we prize in ourselves. In these ways, then, what is occurring is not projection but simple observation. The projection lies in the fact that in these traits of others we see our own hidden traits, the ones that violate the traits we consciously rely on. And so we judge these traits in others, to make the statement that those traits are in them, not in us.

This view of projection, then, resolves my two problems. It does so by not going overboard with the concept of projection, by taking into account things that are not projection. Therefore, this is a view of projection that I can get behind without intellectual qualms. Now I just have to deal with all the other qualms it brings up!


[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]