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The power of projection

A very wise friend of mine once taught me that there are 2 ways to communicate:

1.  To reflect on what is going on in reality.

2.  To project what is going on within them as a result of that reality.

As a master instructor in Taekwondo, I support my students by volunteering my time as a referee at inter-club tournaments. This gives the kids the opportunity to try their skills and strategies and build confidence in their abilities.

The majority of people respect the nature of this work.  Referees and umpires are not perfect, but they sure try their best.

It was with a clinician’s eye that I watched as one of the coaches at a recent competition completely ‘lost it’ over a match between two fourteen year olds.  He stormed the mat (a flagrant violation), abused the referee and incited parents to join him in protesting and booing the result.  The referee managed a challenging contest well, and made no technical errors.  The referee did not respond to the personal attack but calmly continued his work.

The interesting thing for me was to ponder ‘what was the coach projecting that he needed to get so upset over two 14 year old boys competing?’

The 14 year old competitors participated in good spirits, tried their best  and followed the referee’s instructions – they had no problem with what was occurring in the match. 

The coach was not reacting to the reality of what was occurring, but instead projecting something about himself through his entirely inappropriate behaviours.   I wonder if it was his need to win?  A sense of injustice?  A fear of looking incompetent?  A need to be significant?  Without spending more time with this individual, it would not be possible to know.

However, what was clear was that his projection created an unpleasant situation way beyond the scope of a development competition for children.  It set a really bad example for the kids and parents as to what acceptable behaviour should be.

It reminds me that we will always face individuals that will say or do things which we may accept as a ‘reflection’ on us, or what we do, rather than recognise them as ‘projections’ of their own insecurities and world views.  The referee did not take the things he was being called to heart, and recognised them for what they were.  However, if he was a client with an issue around self-worth or self-belief, these ‘projections’ can be accepted as harsh realities.

Often my clients have a frame of thinking which allows such projections to become powerful and painful blows – because they take things said or done as ‘reflections’ and truths.

A simple question we should always ask ourselves stems from the lesson from my wise friend:  Is what was said a reflection on reality or a projection from their necessity?  It is in our nature to listen to negative comments and to ‘try them on’.  However, the simple step of asking the question: Reflection or Projection? Allows us the space to understand the interaction and separate ourselves from its impact.  It allows us to see what is said or done to us as valuable feedback – either about ourselves, or the other person.

Exercise:  When you hear criticism or commentary from someone, imagine:

What is going on for them that what they are saying makes sense?

Is it a projection, a reflection (or sometimes a mix of both).

Is there something valuable in what is being said?

What happened?  I would love to hear your feedback.

Live Well,


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2 Responses to "The power of projection"

  • Phil Owens
    May 21, 2013 - 10:46 pm

    Thanks for your thoughtful additions to this topic. The ability to dissociate from the situation and evaluate the value of your response is a powerful skill. Often, it is one of the skills that is missing and can be hypnotically trained in people who struggle to separate out the personalisation from the objective nature of the situation.

    Rage and anger are ‘pure’ emotions. They are generated in response to a particular circumstance – and often have to do with a feeling of loss of control over a boundary (real or imagined) being breached. I dont get annoyed when I see it or it is directed at me – until I have treated it as information. My biggest concern is the way that this ‘respected’ member of a group chose to behave – and what that teaches others.

    I love the idea of ‘projected authentic happiness’. When you are living your purpose and ‘shining’, isnt it great to project that out so that others can be lifted up by it?

    Thanks again for stopping by, and making some great comments.

    Live well (and keep projecting happiness!)

  • TF
    May 21, 2013 - 4:39 pm

    Hi Phil, I stumbled upon this article when searching out info on projection and have to say that it feels like you have hit it right on the button. When I became aware of projection sometime ago it changed my perspective on the world drastically and quite quickly. I noticed that I and others would in effect be projecting almost all of the time based upon the feelings of the moment. For example, if I was feeling resentment, or anger or happiness or whatever emotion I would almost certainly communicate this without knowing in a projection. So this taught me to look at situations and myself in a different light and start noticing pain when it came up. When people are projecting anger, sadness or whatever pain related emotion it is theirs to own and their projection is simply an expression of that feeling. So if somebody is having a go at me about something I can separate their pain (emotional reaction) with the message rather than getting drawn into an emotional battle. If what is being communicated is pure pain without any obvious basis or message then again this is noticed but without any form of engagement. Its a really handy technique, not always easy to remember but something that I have used to good effect many times. Likewise, If I am angry about something I too can look at the pain as a separate entity and then not engage with it therefore not project it. This also lead me to start looking at the other side, happiness and all that as people and myself project this too. Obviously much more enjoyable I looked at the general results of projecting that. It sounds obvious but when we are projecting “genuine” happiness (not happy clappy happiness) but genuine happiness then the reflection of others back is equally as affirming. So I thought, well how to be more happy or less sad in each moment, catching the pain and only projecting happy vibes will lead to a much better all round life experience for yourself and those around. I don’t want to suggest that pain and anger is bottled up in any way but just that its not allowed to “take over” and ruin the point you are trying to make. If its seen as separate you can generally be much clearer and discerning. In the situation you mentioned in your article about the guy that was angry at the match I suspect if you spent some time with him you would find that he was obviously upset about something but definitely consumed by his own rage which he identified with directly and expressed on the pitch. Its easy to get all pissed off at him and judgmental about how he acted was wrong etc but the truth is that we all get enraged sometimes but I think the point is to choose our moments with clarity. Sometimes we engage with pain too readily which can leave people wondering what is wrong but with a little more discernment, an understanding that we project the emotion that we identify with we are left with some space to be a little more discerning and a lot happier in general I would guess.