Phillip K. Dick
My husband talks to the television. He goes point-for-point with the pundits. He roots for the good guys with gusto and rails at injustice with rowdy, heart-felt outrage. It sounds a little psychotic, to be honest, but it is just an expression of his full, unself-conscious engagement with whatever has his attention at any given moment. It would be crazy if he believed his noisy protests had some influence on the story playing out on the screen, which he does not. And it would also be crazy if I believed I could – or should – oppress, restrict or in any other way attempt to control his television-watching behavior, which I did, for awhile, out of an irrational and unfounded fear about what the neighbors might think. Two things changed that: I got over myself and we got central air conditioning (windows stay closed, problem solved, if this can actually be considered a problem).
At a training seminar for staff of an important cultural institution in New York City, this story is a launch-point for a discussion about participants' difficulty coping with the heightened negativity and blame heaped upon them by confused and upset patrons. System-wide, very disruptive changes in the organization afflict both staff and public, but it is staff who are targeted with patrons' unfair criticism and resentments while making do with fewer resources. I share the story about my husband and link it to a larger narrative – one that describes the situation and attempts to open up new thinking about what it means:
“These people project their frustration on you because they have attached it to you. They point and yell as if you have injured them in a very personal way but any reality check shows that your role is professional, not personal on any level. They yell at you the way my husband yells at the television, which is a projection, an image, not really happening in our living room where he might actually have some control over events. They have projected their story onto you but unlike my husband, they are not aware that what they perceive is a projection.” The group is not exactly sold on this explanation, but we now have a different road to go down and they are receptive.
The phenomenon of projection - our mental capacity to impose our story, emotions, expectations, and agendas on others the way a movie projector throws an image up on a blank screen - is an undeniable but poorly-understood human dynamic at the root of many emotional conflicts in every type of relationship. The fact that it is largely unconscious makes it an enormous source of stress. Clearing out our projections is the fast track to recognizing when someone else is projecting onto us - especially a stranger in a public place but this holds true equally as much in personal relationships. The most common signal of a mutually-communicated projection is a high emotional charge that seems out of proportion to the actual event or is not appropriate to the role, as in a professional situation. Just being aware of our own emotional temperature can lead us out of the hopeless, overwhelming tension of the projection-dominated interaction.
Nearly every day, we all face the question of how much we will allow circumstances to determine our attitude and direct our attention. Unexpected traffic on the way to an important meeting. A frustratingly self-destructive loved one who rejects our well-intentioned – but unsolicited - advice. Economic unpredictability. Incompetence that costs us time and money. A sick child on a day full of appointments. “If the stress at work would just ease up, if people in our lives would simply take responsibility for their own problems so we could cease-and-desist in our rescue-and-repair efforts, if only the world would straighten itself out,” we rail against all those situations and people beyond our control. But the way out begins with one simple principle: take full responsibility for our own story, attitudes, emotions, agendas, disappointments and achievements. Take full responsibility for our own growth and especially for our own gifts. This one commitment, if carried out, is the single most important thing we can do for ourselves. Dealing with our own pain and realizing our own potential is a full-time job. From the psychological standpoint of healthy detachment from others' projections and from responsibility for their choices, daily situations that are beyond our control become avenues of understanding. Our attitudes toward ongoing hassles, disappointments, and challenges are creative choices.
Projection is nearly impossible to avoid and part of so many interactions that learning about this phenomenon should be integrated into all workplace training. If we were issued a Manual for Healthy Relationships With Fellow Humans, this would be included as an Central Operating Principle. Understanding what triggers our defensive reactions can prevent useless conflict in the short term, and in the long-term the challenge is to replace the deeply-ingrained negative images of ourselves we carry around from past experiences. The effect of shifting our attention inward to get ahead of all the unconscious projections we have absorbed and those we put out onto the world is a subtle but powerful heightening of creative energy that is then available for developing our strengths, aspirations, and gifts.
Jude Treder-Wolff runs groups, training seminars and classes for personal and professional development.