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Why What I Hate in You Also Says Something about Me

Negative projection, its source, and its solution.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In last month's post I introduced the concept of "projection," a rather amorphous psychological concept that has a lot of importance on how we see the world around us. I suggested that no two of us see the world and people in quite the same way, and that the differences in how we perceive what's out there say as much about us as they do about what we're looking at.

Why is this important? There are a huge number of ways, but let me just name a few, focusing here on the ways "negative projection" can play out. By negative projection, I mean what I don't like about you or a situation. What does this say about me?

According to psychological theory, we all have aspects of ourselves we are uncomfortable with, that we don't want to admit to ourselves or to others that exist within us. Let's say I'm stingy, or hostile, or callous, or selfish, or some other negative quality. The truth is that we all have those aspects within ourselves, but because of our social upbringing, or what we have come to believe is permissible and forbidden, we are more comfortable admitting some negative qualities than others. If, for example, I have been raised that anger is a terrible thing and one should never be angry but always be loving toward others, I will dutifully attempt to smile at the world and at people around me, and not let any negativity into my voice, my inflection, or my words.

Or so I think.

It is not possible to wish away a negative emotion, simply because I was told or came to believe that it is unacceptable. It may go underground, out of my awareness, but it shows up in my projections onto others or onto the world. Suddenly I'm surrounded by angry people, the world becomes unsafe, people are always rude, drivers are nasty, everyone around me seems to be filled with hostility. Why can't they all be peaceable and loving and accepting like me?

Well, there are at least two reasons:

1. These people and situations are not nearly as hostile as I'm perceiving. It's my projection of my own unacknowledged hostility that makes them seem so.

2. People around us pick up on what we won't acknowledge within ourselves. They can feel our hostility even when we won't let ourselves feel it, and it makes them uncomfortable or sometimes downright angry. Haven't you ever met someone who was always smiling and acting nice but whom you felt unaccountable hostility toward? Chances are this was a case of a person who was disowning their own hostility and projecting it into the world around them—in this case, you. And, in a marvelous way of how we create our reality even when we don't realize we're doing it, this person was indeed in some way making you into the hostile person they see the world as.

I know this sounds a little bit magical but these are discoveries of human psychology. This stuff actually works. Most important, when this person becomes more conscious and comfortable with her own internal hostility, the world around them becomes less dangerous and hostile to her perceptions and those who come in contact with her feel less hostile toward her as a result. So the situation just described is reversed from a negative cycle into a positive cycle.

There is a concept called "owning our projections." This simply means we become conscious of this process, and in so doing we project less onto others and understand more about ourselves. To use the above example, in recognizing that I have feelings of anger and hostility I have the possibility to do something about these feelings. I can take control of the only person or situation I possibly can control—myself.

More from Josh Gressel Ph.D.
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