Have you ever gone outside wearing something you’re not 100% sure about, you meet a colleague at work, notice the facial expression change in what seems to you a critical way, and you think: “He noticed!”
You feel embarrassed and maybe even ashamed. You’re convinced about the validity of your thought. You may be right. Or, you may be having a “Projection”.
What is a projection in psychology?
A psychological projection is when a person attributes to someone else a characteristic that they themselves possess. For example, if you are highly critical of yourself you will assume that others are also critical of you.
In some cases, a projection can be very harmful to my relationship with others. A person with a strong urge to cheat, for example, may accuse a coworker or family member of trying to cheat them.
Often, we project onto others thoughts that we know are not acceptable. A narcissist, for example, might complain that another person is a show-off and needs to be the center of attention.
Projection in Jewish sources
Sigmund Freud was not the first Jewish person to describe the phenomenon of projection.
In the Bablyonian Talmud (Bava Metzia, 59b): ❝Rabbi Natan says: A defect that is in you, do not mention it in another.❞
In Kiddushin 70a, the Talmud is even more explicit: ❝And Shmuel says: If one habitually claims that others are flawed, he disqualifies himself with his own flaw. The flaw he accuses them of having is in fact the one that he has.❞
Rabbi Isaiah Halevi Horowitz (d. 1630) took this a step farther, attributing the idea of “the flaw he accuses them of having is in fact the one that he has” to a verse in the Book of Leviticus (13, 45): ❝he shall call out, “Unclean! Unclean!❞ That is, the unclean person calls his friend unclean.
Understanding projection can help us understand ourselves
About 150 years before Freud first reported on projection in an 1895 letter, students of the Baal Shem Tov record the following teaching: “When one sees a defect in another, this is proof that that very same defect exists inside yourself.” (Maor Ainaim, beginning of Parshat Chukat, see also Toldos Yakov Yosef end of Parshat Trumah)
The teaching of the Baal Shem Tov is not just an insight. It is an opening to a corrective process.
When you look in the mirror and see a clean face, you know that your face is clean. If you see a dirty face, you know that your face is dirty. Similarly, if you see defects in your friends, family, and colleagues, you are being invited to examine yourself and discover what you need to fix internally.
Shouldn’t there a simpler way to gain self understanding?
The Lubavitcher Rebbe suggests that we need a roundabout way to gain self-awareness. We need to rely on another person to see a reflection of ourselves. The simpler, more direct way is just impassable because we are just too close to ourselves. (Lekutai Sichos Volume 10 Parshat Noach B. Ch. 3)
We all have “blindspots” where our deficiencies are hidden. So through divine providence, I meet someone who reflects back to me what I need to fix in myself.
Every opportunity where I impute problematic attitudes or actions to another person can become an opportunity for my own growth. When I am at a social event, at home with family, or just walking down the street, and assume that someone is thinking critically about me, I am really being invited to look inside myself and notice any insecure parts that may need attention and care.
We live in divisive times – with many opportunities for growth
While we might have hoped that difficult times would have created solidarity, this has not been the case. The pandemic has created splits between groups where each attributes the worst qualities to the other. Venomous politics in the United States and Israel have divided friends and families.
When we catch ourselves thinking about just how bad the other group is, we should pause. How much are we in fact attributing to this or that bystander based on what we know, and how much are we projecting our own feelings onto the other?
You can grow by leveraging understanding of your projection
The talmudic dictum of Shmuel, “the flaw he accuses them of having is in fact the one that he has” is so much more than an insight. It is a call to action.
In therapy, you can identify the parts of yourself that you are surfacing through projection and start to address those internal flaws. As you gain self-awareness you can grow and rebuild your relationship with yourself and with others.
Hopefully, the gains that each of us make individually will contribute to our ability to get along with each other as well as improve ourselves.
Shlomo Kabakov, MSW provides online treatment for anxiety, OCD, trauma, depression, and more. Shlomo can be reached at authentictherapyonline.com