Projection and Transference
"Whenever we seek to avoid the responsibility for our own behavior, we do so by attempting to give that responsibility to some other individual, organization or entity " (1)Truly courageous people must continually push themselves to be as honest as possible in the moment. (2) Increasing our consciousness about how we are interpreting the world and our interactions with others informs us about not only who we are trying to be, but also who we are trying to hide and who we truly are. When we understand the concepts of projection and transference we can begin to accept personal responsibility for our language, actions and responses to life. We learn how easily we project opinions and criticisms onto others rather than own our behaviors and we begin to learn how readily we transfer our past experiences onto the present. Spiritual development includes the work of bringing the concept we have of ourselves into greater congruence with reality. (3)
We interface with the world through our senses. We make meaning of the world by what we see, smell, hear, taste, sense and intuit.(4) This personalizes the world and makes it unique unto each of us. No one else experiences the world in quite the same fashion; I can only have my version of reality. I don't really ever know your reality. How I interact with the world is based on my perception as well as my previous experience.
ProjectionsI was recently in a new group where there was one woman who really got my attention. Every time she talked, I would cringe with judgments, silent opinions and feelings of not liking her. I thought she was rude, loud, obnoxious, self-absorbed and not really paying attention to the flow of the group. Wow, was I putting a lot of projection onto her! At the time, I wanted it to be all about her. But, as the week went on, I began to see how this woman represented the parts of myself that I am uncomfortable with; she was reflecting my poor esteem and some less evolved areas in my life. I knew I was projecting onto her because my reaction was out of proportion to her behavior. My reaction caught my attention; I continued to observe her and have my judgments and feelings about her in order to use these projections to see myself. It took me the whole week to see my own vulnerability in the woman I was so re-stimulated by. Even though I knew I was projecting a part of myself on to her, until I understood what part of me she was mirroring, I continued to have big, negative feelings about her. Ultimately, these feelings weren't about the other woman, they were about me. When I fully accepted that, my reaction to her changed. I was seeing reality more clearly. This is a case of negative projection.
If I react strongly to another person's quality of voice, her mannerisms, speech or body movements I can expect that I am projecting onto her some aspect of myself. When I hear myself silently saying "I don't like the way she talks (or walks, or dresses, or looks, or expresses herself) I can expect that there is some way she is reminding me of a part of myself that I might not want to accept. It tends to be easier to let her carry the brunt of disappointment, criticism or sarcasm than to realize what I am feeling about myself. We are strive for survival and avoidance from pain, and therefore don't fully accept responsibility for ourselves. We think our personal preservation is based on displacing our perceptions onto others. However, the discomfort of accepting responsibility for ourselves decreases as we recognize that by doing so, we are ultimately more authentically who we truly are, and in less pain. Once we accept how we project aspects of ourselves onto others, we can grow our self-compassion and esteem for others as well as ourselves. Our ability to communicate, to be less violent and to maintain honest relationship are other benefits of owning our projections.
Positive ProjectionWhen I project onto another, I can begin to recognize myself in the projection. If I see a woman I think is exceptionally beautiful, I am seeing in her what I have be the beautiful part of myself. If I question my own beauty, I may idealize others who I think are beautiful. This would be a positive projection. I am not necessarily seeing the other for who she is (an object of beauty) but who I want or need her to be in order for me to have a chance at understanding myself. If I am having trouble liking another woman because I think she is beautiful, this is a reflection of myself that informs me that I might be having trouble accepting or liking the beautiful part of myself. It may be that I can't accept my own beauty, but I can see it in her. (5)
Stages of ProjectionOften, we may begin to see the other is not really who we originally thought. We may not want to accept that this was a projection, so we might find another perception of this person to find either contentious or idealized. (6) When the projection starts to slip, we are quick to adjust it. There is a part of me that wants to keep the other as the problem so will quickly find a different person to project my perceptions onto. I will find different people to carry the parts of me that I don't want to face. If I don't want to own my anger, I will (repeatedly) find other people to carry the anger for me. I may judge them for their anger, silently or outwardly. I may ignore the angry person out there, I may argue with them, irritate them or just quietly hold judgment over them. I blame them, and with that extension of blame, there can be shame But, underneath, what is seething is my own anger. Remember, I only have my perception of the world, not the other person's. If I am seeing the other as angry, it is not about their anger, but my own.
When I have a big reaction to another person - whether is positive or negative, and realize that there is a projection going on and that I am really seeing a part of myself reflected in them, I can begin to heal by owning a part of me that I may have been ignoring or unwilling to recognize. With this raising of consciousness, there is more wholeness; there is the possibility of resolving my own issue rather than allowing others to carry the disgruntlement. Once I have integrated the projection as a part of myself, there will be less charge about others' behaviors and more acceptance of who I am.
TransferencePart of the way we perceive the world is in relation to our past, our childhood and our early life relationships. The worldview that we adopt from conception onward follows us through our lifetimes. "Transference is that set of ways of perceiving and responding to the world which is developed in childhood and which is usually entirely appropriate to the childhood environment (indeed, often life-saving) but which is inappropriately transferred into the adult environment." (7) Transference can be positive or negative. Neither is necessarily good or bad, it is simply something to be aware of.
When a situation in life or a relationship with another evokes an emotional reaction that is out of proportion to the incidence, we are reacting with transference. We frequently transfer our past onto the present. Rather than responding to the situation from the present, we react with unresolved emotions from the past. When I have a big emotional reaction there is a likelihood that I am reacting the same way I may have reacted to my mother, sisters or father when I was a child. So, transference is a projected experience. This reaction can happen physically, emotionally or mentally.
Say I am having tea with a small group of friends. A couple of the women start talking about a mutual friend of ours. My impression is that the conversation escalates to gossip and bad mouthing. I begin to notice that my posture has changed, I am tense and I am feeling uneasy in my chest. I feel my anger mounting inside. I feel like leaving the room. My reaction is out of proportion to the conversation. As I bring my physical and emotional reaction to consciousness, it becomes evident that I am transferring unresolved feelings from my past onto the present. As a young person, I was very sensitive to being talked about, being the brunt of gossip and would feel confused, angry and sad when I felt that way. The current situation reminded me of those early feelings; my body and heart unconsciously reacted to the present by referring to the past.
When I am in transference, I am not being present but am stuck in the past. Therefore, I am not in my authenticity, I am in reactivity. By bringing conscious awareness to when I am in transference and what the current issue is related to from my past, I am bringing compassion to the younger part of me and thereby healing the past and transcending the power of the past to have control over the present. With this awareness I increase my choices in how to respond to the present, from the present. When I am more present, I deepen my contact with myself and promote communication with others.
ConclusionUsually, people believe their emotional reactions are an accurate portrayal of the situation at hand and are not able to see how their past or their internal state is influencing their present behavior or reactions. Healthy introspection is a spiritual practice that is like a muscle that needs to be regularly exercised. Asking ourselves "What is going on now?", "Am I in transference?", or "Am I projecting?" are valid tools to check on the level of contact you are having with yourself at any given moment. When you are experiencing a physical sensation, an emotional reaction or a mental overture that is clearly out of proportion to what is currently happening, just notice that this is happening. Witness yourself in order to get familiar with your style of reacting, and then ask the above questions. It isn't necessary to find an answer with your intellect. The awareness itself will interrupt the reaction and rouse information that may help you understand. With practice, insight will come.
"I must be sufficiently aware of my perceived ideas and characteristic emotional distortions to bracket them long enough to welcome strangeness and novelty into my physical world." (8)
ReferencesBly, R. The Five Stages of Projection. (1996). In The Four Fold Way, Angela Arrien. ITP. 21-22
Brennan, B. (1996). Student Workbook. Ak Skill #9 - Transference. (pp. 173-176) New York, Barbara Brennan School of Healing,
Peck, M. S. (1978). The Road Less Travelled. New York: Simon & Schuster,Inc.
Voss, Nancy. The You in Me: A Look at Perception and Projection. In Leading from inner authority: Transforming Women's Leadership
1. Peck. p42
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