Much like Buddhism, two things that draw psychologists to their work are suffering, and the end of suffering. One of the toughest parts of being a psychologist is observing suffering that is unwittingly maximized instead of diminished by certain actions.
Projection is one of these actions, and for those affected it occurs unconsciously. Projection takes place when someone has a childhood, adolescence, or perhaps even adulthood in which certain emotions, thoughts, or bodily sensations are forbidden. Perhaps, they had a history of being abandoned, were abused, bullied, had controlling parents, or simply had parents that were too self-conscious about their own experience and passed on this self-consciousness to their child. The important thing is that this experience was seen as unacceptable and thus denied compassion. When this experience is particularly painful, it leads to a feeling of powerlessness. Projection often tries to counteract this powerlessness unconsciously with aggression.
Simply put, the person who has suffered unwittingly directs the disappointment, frustration, and anger they felt at an individual or more likely an organization that was not directly connected to their past suffering. Common examples of projection would be people who spend their time devaluing and aggressively criticizing the government, religions, actors, reality stars, wealthy people, and specific genders or sexualities. For those familiar with projection, this is far from an exhaustive list. As noted above, projection only increases suffering. It takes those who have suffered far from bringing compassion to their own suffering, and practices aggression towards others, which in its own way silently communicates to the person projecting that compassion is not really a viable option for anybody.
Kevin is an example of how projection plays out in real time. At five years old, Kevin was abandoned by his mother, who struggled with alcoholism and an addiction to pain medication. Kevin was a sensitive five year old, and was deeply injured by this experience. At the time, Kevin had only his father, who gave him two pieces of advice: never marry an alcoholic, and never let anybody see where it hurts.
Kevin is now twenty-five years old, and buries the feeling of being abandoned (and other feelings that make him feel vulnerable to loss) under layers of clever conversation, aggression, and a sarcastic, embittered way of describing the day-to-day life of individuals he refers to as normal losers. This group seems to include most people who do not identify with a fringe subculture.
Four years ago, Kevin joined a gym for people who work on Olympic lifting, a hobby that grew from lifting weights in his basement as a teenager. Kevin has a Youtube channel, which he uses as a platform to point out the flaws in the lifting skills and general intelligence of fellow Youtubers. He mocks and shames them. In a short time, Kevin has yielded several followers who religiously watch his videos that while crass and mean are also cleverly matched with audio from funny movies that most people have seen.
Kevin’s Youtube followers are poisoned by the malicious attacks he makes on these amateur filmmakers. It is clear from their comments that they have not yet developed an identity or are similarly emotionally stunted, and find some relief or at least company in taking out their perturbations on the people in Kevin’s videos. Not only does Kevin continue to suffer, but he has also provided a forum to increase the suffering of others.
Kevin’s own suffering is made worse by his actions. Every time he perpetrates on the vulnerability of one of these innocent Youtubers, he judges and condemns his vulnerable, five year old self. Ironically, like his mother, his addiction (making critical Youtube videos) is feeding a need to feel better but slowly killing him inside. He makes a video and feels powerful, but these feelings give way to paranoia and conflict once other Youtubers criticize his videos and his perspective. Not wanting to feel like the bad guy, Kevin becomes more entrenched in and vigilant about his ideas.
It’s not always the contrary Youtubers that stress Kevin. Sometimes Kevin just wants to relax and have a good time with friends without being so angry. Unfortunately, his friends have come to identify him with his angst, since he uses this defense so frequently. Being angry on its own all the time takes a toll on your nervous system. It affects the primary functioning of your immune system and all things related to homeostasis or a state of calm (ie: sleep, digestion, muscle relaxation).
Being angry and aggressive has been especially taxing for Kevin because it requires him to be angry, and hypervigilant about potential retribution. Kevin does not possess self-compassion tools. Rather than notice his suffering and take care of himself, his physical state simply makes him angrier, which leads him to make even more aggressive Youtube videos. He finally offends the wrong person, and his Youtube channel is shutdown. Kevin becomes severely depressed.
Causes of Projection and Compassion for Kevin
Kevin’s narrative is not unique. Many people face immeasurable suffering, and are afforded no outlet. Without an opportunity for compassion and processing, the experience of suffering becomes stuck and grows with time. The greater the experience of suffering, the more powerless you will feel. The less power you have, the more you feel you need. The subtle part is that when our suffering is not met with compassion, we feel that is not allowed.
There are few worse feelings than suffering in silence. In fact, the body and mind know this and rebel. In the case of projection, people who have suffered find other rebels and a cause to at last have their opportunity to target people or organizations with their disenfranchised angst and get their just due. Unfortunately, their just due is compassion for the suffering that they have already experienced, which cannot be gotten by projecting their frustrations onto individuals or groups that were not part of their original experience. In Kevin’s case, he targets normal people because deep down inside he believes they hoard the compassion and well being he so deeply desires.
Instead of compassion, people who project often get aggression instead, which is a really crappy trade. Compassion is a hug that takes your problems and weaves them into a comforting blanket you can warm yourself with when suffering comes back. Aggression is an attack on the self like a mattress with exposed springs that says we are not worthy of compassion, and when suffering comes back again we won’t be worthy of it then either.
Kevin’s actions are heinous, but they are also there to protect his five-year-old self from ever having to experience the pain of being rejected again. They don’t work and they hurt people, but they mean well. Imagine the space a departing mom would leave. In keeping with such excessive pain, Kevin has developed an equally excessive form of distraction and revenge, revenge on all those normal people who have moms. What’s more is that Kevin has never been afforded compassion, let alone an entire modality of self-compassion. Let’s see what we can do for all the Kevin’s out there that need to move from projection to self-compassion to enjoy the well-being and acceptance they so deeply crave.
Transitioning from Projection to Self-Compassion
Get the History and Locate the Suffering
The first step in helping people using projection to manage past suffering is to get a thorough history, and locate the suffering. It is unlikely that they will connect their current projection to a specific past experience of suffering, although they might. Understandably, your job is to inquire about past sufferings and identify the unsupported ones to hone in on likely places from which projection might have been born. Hint: notice painful memories that are related without matching affect/emotion (ie: a sad experience with flat affect or a scary experience with humorous affect). Also notice when emotions seem to be missing completely from the history that you gather (ie: no reference to anxiety or anger or claims that they never get anxious or never get angry).
The suffering does not need to come from a painful experience. It can also come from the shame of hiding an emotion or emotional pattern. Anger and Anxiety are two common examples of emotions that people feel they need to hide because they are not accepted in their families or out in the world. If the person in question has a tendency toward one of those emotions (read: they experience them often), then their pattern of suffering is even clearer. This pattern of suffering often comes from the modeling of rejecting or hiding these emotions by the parents of the person who is projecting. The parents might even be outwardly critical of these emotions, especially if they are in possession of these emotions and self-critical or if these emotions belong to a spouse or an ex-spouse with whom they are at odds. As all living beings, we only know what we know, and we tend to take the most knowledge from our initial and most consistent teachers: our parents.
Discover How This Projection Has Helped Coping and How It Has Made Suffering Worse
For your part, you must approach this work by acknowledging the necessity and usefulness of the projection. A compassionate approach requires you to understand their logic in terms of self-protection. Helping them continue to protect themselves will eventually be your inroad. I once had a supervisee who asked me why he couldn’t just ask one of his patients to stop a projecting behavior. He was surprised when I asked him what protective behavior he planned to offer in its place. You also want to track how using projection has made their suffering worse.
Bring Compassion To This Person’s Experience in Your Thinking and Tread Lightly
To open the door to compassionate practice, you must first model compassion yourself. Think about this person’s experience, and the adversity they have faced. Think about how terrifyingly difficult it must have been to endure so much suffering that they had to come up with a projection that hurts themselves and others. Tread lightly with how you introduce these insights into your meetings with people. People who have lived a life without compassion may have an adverse reaction to it, such as surprise or fear. Knowing this, choose a delivery that focuses on logical understanding of a challenging situation over a warm, empathic tone and language.
Think Through the Benefits and the Risks of Using the Projected Behavior
Objectively and rationally think through all the ways that this projecting behavior has served to help the person feel empowered and safe. Try to cite specific examples of its functioning as adaptive. Then, notice the risks involved with this behavior and perhaps times in which this behavior failed to keep the person safe and empowered. Try to cite examples. Do not lean one way or the other way. You are merely trying to make room for an examination of the helpful and not so helpful attributes of the projection. Growth will take place in the space created by the examination. Let it do the work. Too much guiding will inhibit self-agency and trust.
Think with Them About How Great It Would Be to Have a Similar Functioning Behavior Without Drawbacks. Acknowledge How Hard It Would Be to Know About Such a Skill Without the Proper Modeling or Opportunities.
Observe how frustrating it is to have a behavior that seems to have as many risks as it does benefits in keeping you safe and empowered. Then, think aloud about how nice it would be to have a behavior that served the needs in the same way without all the drawbacks. Take the time to acknowledge how frustrating it is to not have such a skill available to you without the proper modeling or opportunities to learn.
Suggest for the Purposes of Science that You Think About Other Possible Behaviors That Might Have Worked Anyway. Bring Compassion Into the Room By Noticing How Hard It Is to Come Up With a Suitable Behavior.
Suggest that even though it is so hard to think of an ideal behavior for safety and empowerment that for the purposes of science that you come up with some hypothetical behaviors anyway. Notice with this person how difficult it is to come up with these types of behaviors, and how much sense it makes that they had not discovered such a behavior in the past.
Acknowledge How Hard It Would be to Trust Another Person to Help Them Feel Safe and Empowered Given Their Experience, and Offer Self-Compassion as One Method that Allows Them to Get These Things From Themselves.
At this point, you have established a history that includes suffering, disappointment in terms of support for this suffering, and a lack of available behaviors, tools, or skills that might address this issue without the kind of drawbacks their projection behavior offers. Looking at this history with them, you acknowledge how hard it would be for them to trust another person to meet their needs of feeling safe and empowered. Suggest that it might be easier to work on a skill in which they could provide these things to themselves. You offer one skill that you know of, which is self-compassion. You note that it is backed by science, can be practiced alone, and has historically been used by warriors and courageous monks.
In Offering Self-Compassion as a Tool, Be Sure to Define It as Courageous Action as Soon as Possible.
People who project are using a behavior to safely guard their vulnerabilities, the word compassion can be triggering because to receive compassion you must have vulnerabilities. It is for this reason that self-compassion is often mistakenly understood as a practice for weak-minded, frail individuals. Consequently, you must address this issue with compassion for worries associated with weakness by emphasizing that it was originally designed for monks and warriors who had to face dangerous animals and people on their way to work. Because it serves the purpose of restoring energy and building courage, it is at its heart a warrior’s practice. Although some time has passed since we have had to draw swords to protect our villages, perhaps life is tough enough for us to assume that we are warriors for dealing with it and by extension might be suited for this warrior practice.
Give an Example of How You Practice Self-Compassion.
No good deed was done without a little modeling, especially for someone who has not had the appropriate modeling thus far. By now, you will have likely earned this person’s respect. If you expect them to be vulnerable, you need to be willing to take that step first. Of course, do not make it so personal that they are worrying about your relationship issues. Instead, pick something universal that is difficult but still appropriate like fear of public speaking or fear of flying.
Think With Them About How They Might Use This Practice for Their Own Means
Now that you have given them an example of your own self-compassion practice, give them an opportunity to think about how they might use this practice for their own means. It is perfectly acceptable for them to start smaller than a practice that would focus directly on their projection. Everyone needs to work at their own pace to achieve self-confidence and self-agency in finding safety and empowerment.
Have Them Try A Self-Compassion Practice And Notice Their Response To It.
Have them try a self-compassion practice by themselves wherever they can find the fewest distractions, and simply notice how it affects their feelings, thoughts, and bodies.
When They Report Back, See if This Practice Was An Improvement over Past Endeavors
Speak honestly about the effects of their self-compassion practice. Was it helpful? Does it seem like an improved way to feel safe and empowered? How well did it address their needs? What, if any, were the drawbacks of using this practice? Everyone is ambivalent when they start a new practice, even if they are already skilled and the practice is obviously useful. Give this person the opportunity to be ambivalent about the practice. Measure the helpfulness and the drawbacks of practicing self-compassion. Compare it to prior skills and see if it is worth continuing. See if it is an improvement over prior behaviors with fewer drawbacks.
This is the Most Difficult Part. You Must Let Them Choose
The only path to self-agency and confidence is the path we choose for ourselves. If they do not choose the self-compassion practices for themselves, the practices will not work, they will not use them, and they will not have the kind of safety and empowerment they need in the relationship they have with you. This last part is the most important. Experiencing safety and empowerment in a relationship is a prerequisite for finding it for yourself. No practice is worth sacrificing that. Besides, as much as it is in our nature to seek out suffering given the right circumstances, it is also in our nature to seek out well-being given the right circumstances. Have some faith that no matter the practice they choose to adopt that they will choose to seek out well being, and that will be enough.
No matter how engulfed we are in actions that are detrimental to our well being and the well being of others, with opportunity there is always hope. Sometimes people need to engage in a behavior until it simply stops working for them to have the space to consider something more adaptive. We all take on behaviors that are ill suited for our needs.
Power up your compassion for others by practicing self-compassion for yourself. Look at how much you have grown over the years, and with this growth how much your ideas have changed. Notice all of the behaviors you replaced with more effective ones because the old ones just weren’t doing the job. Strain a little bit to even notice the behaviors you used to engage in that were hurting others or yourself from which you have since moved on. Celebrate those victories, and remind yourself that the path to well being is a long and foreign one, when you don’t know where you are going.
People who use projection are simply lost. Have faith that they will find their way, and if you are meant to, you may even have the good fortune of being their guide. Wishing you much safety, empowerment, compassion, patience, self-acceptance, and ease.
365 Days of Kindness. Self-Compassion. Day 50. In the Books.