How Can We Understand Projection Without Going Overboard?

by Robert Perry

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!

4 Comments

  1. Michael
    Posted June 11, 2012 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    Robert,

    I liked your level headed approach to interpreting a fundamental Course concept. Well done! I found it a helpful and fitting commentary.

    Your article brought to mind something which I feel is of importance. It seems whenever the subject of learning is spirituality, we a forced to approach it in a somewhat unique manner; we have to constantly walk the bridge between two worlds. The Course itself, among other spiritual literature adopts this approach. It, I believe, is an adoption of necessity. For we have to speak within the world system and then we have to speak apart from it. We have to constantly switch back and forth between the two perspectives, in order to form a coherent message and offer a completed picture. In your article, I've notice that you've adopted this approach in your own writings, interpretations and handling of the teachings. I in no way disparage you for doing so; as I've said, it is but a matter of necessity.

    On the contrary, it is my position that we fall into error when we do not adequately address both worlds! Perhaps, as an example, we could say that Kenneth Wapnick has fallen into the error of refusing to address an understanding that is functional within the world. On the contrary, we could point to perhaps the Bible as a work that errors by having it's perspective often times rooted in a separatist thought system. Neither one of these, can offer the help, perspective and most of all understanding that is needed for us to advance. But, by bridging the two, we find balance. And in balance we find comfort and understanding that supports our present needs.

    In light of this…I agree with what you've written. It's spot on and it's helpful. But also, in light of this, I must say that all those things which you say are not projection, but simple observation, can be reinterpreted in light of a higher truth to themselves be projections of our mind as well. The underlying reasoning for this statement, as you well know, is that all appearances in our phenomenal world, all perception, is ultimately a dream that is occurring solely within the mind of the dreamer. God created it not, so in an ultimate sense, it does not exist. But I've just switched worlds, haven't I? Yet, in so doing, I've filled in all the gaps and left no part of understanding untouched.

    Michael

  2. Julie
    Posted June 11, 2012 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    Robert,

    I am new to Circle of Atonement, but thrilled to find it. I just read your article on projection and was blown away by it. You raised the exact two issues I have always had with projection. While your answer partially addresses my issues, I would love your thoughts on the following…

    While I can accept that perhaps the reason we are so triggered by a trait in another that we do not seem to possess (e.g., physical weakness) is that we do have it at a deeper, hidden level. However, what feels more true for me personally as to why I am so triggered by it is not because I have it at a deeper level and need to deny it; but rather, that I believe that this trait, possessed by another and directed toward me, can harm me. Take cruelty or meanness, for example. I accept that I have those traits. However, I think that what I find more disturbing (than the idea I have them in me and they can destroy me) is the belief that, in the hands of another, these traits will destroy me. Judging it in the other (and even in myself if I see it in myself) is my attempt to control it, to separate myself from it, so it can’t harm me–as if I can judge it out of existence.

    The crux of this, I think, is about the idea of another person ever being able to really hurt me. If you’re willing, I’d love to hear your thoughts about this.

    Thank you again for your wonderful article.

    Warmly,

    Julia

    • Posted June 12, 2012 at 7:58 am | Permalink

      Thank you for your question. I know exactly what you mean, which is what I’ve been wrestling with. As you can see from the article, I’m struggling myself to try to understand all this. What complicates it is that the Course, as is typical for it to do, tends to treat this topic from multiple angles, which are hard to reduce to just one idea.

      Given that, however, I think the Course would want to burrow deeper into your belief that someone’s cruelty can harm you. My understanding of its teaching is that we only feel vulnerable to the cruelty of others because we unconsciously see them as delivering to us our just deserts. If we didn’t feel, somewhere inside, that we deserved cruel treatment, then we would see their cruelty as not making any real or valid statement about us, not fitting us, which would essentially make us invulnerable to it. So what we are doing is projecting onto them our belief in our own guilt, and thus secretly imagining them as our just executioner.

      Here is a slightly different angle. In personal guidance to one of its co-scribes, the author of the Course said that his vulnerability to his parents low opinion of his worth looked like humility—in that he was willing to bow to their debased view of him—but it was actually “simple spite” and “punitive.” In other words, he was giving them power over his self-image so they would use it to hang themselves. By supposedly exercising cruel power over him, they would then be worthy of his condemnation, which is what he wanted in the first place. The Course later says, “Death seems an easy price, if they can say, ‘Behold me, brother, at your hand I die.’”

      I’m not saying that I have all this figured out, but my main point is that I don’t think the Course would ever see our being triggered by the traits of others as a purely objective response to something harmful in them. In each case, it would say, we are electing to put something on them that in actuality isn’t there, something from inside of us that we are in essence projecting onto them. (Although the kind of projection employed seems able to differ from case to case.)

      Anyway, I hope that helps with your question. Thank you for writing.

    • Robert
      Posted June 12, 2012 at 10:10 am | Permalink

      Julia,

      Thank you for your question. I know exactly what you mean, which is what I’ve been wrestling with. As you can see from the article, I’m struggling myself to try to understand all this. What complicates it is that the Course, as is typical for it to do, tends to treat this topic from multiple angles, which are hard to reduce to just one idea.

      Given that, however, I think the Course would want to burrow deeper into your belief that someone’s cruelty can harm you. My understanding of its teaching is that we only feel vulnerable to the cruelty of others because we unconsciously see them as delivering to us our just deserts. If we didn’t feel, somewhere inside, that we deserved cruel treatment, then we would see their cruelty as not making any real or valid statement about us, not fitting us, which would essentially make us invulnerable to it. So what we are doing is projecting onto them our belief in our own guilt, and thus secretly imagining them as our just executioner.

      Here is a slightly different angle. In personal guidance to one of its co-scribes, the author of the Course said that his vulnerability to his parents low opinion of his worth looked like humility—in that he was willing to bow to their debased view of him—but it was actually “simple spite” and “punitive.” In other words, he was giving them power over his self-image so they would use it to hang themselves. By supposedly exercising cruel power over him, they would then be worthy of his condemnation, which is what he wanted in the first place. The Course later says, “Death seems an easy price, if they can say, ‘Behold me, brother, at your hand I die.’”

      I’m not saying that I have all this figured out, but my main point is that I don’t think the Course would ever see our being triggered by the traits of others as a purely objective response to something harmful in them. In each case, it would say, we are electing to put something on them that in actuality isn’t there, something from inside of us that we are in essence projecting onto them. (Although the kind of projection employed seems able to differ from case to case.)

      Anyway, I hope that helps with your question. Thank you for writing.

      In peace,
      Robert

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