Sara is a person who pretends to have compassion for other people. Yet, her expression of compassion is merely a reflection of how she would respond to the same situation. Sara doesn’t ask questions to discover how another person really feels; she just makes assumptions based upon her personal view of the world. Other people are only mirrors of her self-image. Sara is very critical of other people; but these criticisms are only projections. In essence, others are verbally attacked when she sees her own weaknesses reflected in them; and often, the “accused” doesn’t possess the negative character trait. Sara’s behavior is similar to the old adage, “we don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are.”
Projection is dangerous because it is difficult to recognize. Criticisms do not necessarily apply to other people; they may just be reflected weaknesses of the person who is doing the criticizing. If the criticizers can find fault with others, then they assume that they do not possess the fault themselves; but the opposite is usually true. It’s hard to notice a fault in someone else if you have not first noticed it in yourself. For example, a person who is untrustworthy may continually criticize others for devious intentions, even if those intentions are not actually present. People who criticize others need to take a hard look at themselves. The attributes that are the most upsetting are the usually the ones that they are trying to avoid or attributes that they find most objectionable about themselves. As Confucius said, “When you see someone of worth, think of how you may emulate. When you see someone unworthy, examine your own character.” Similarly, Carl Jung said, “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”
Why is it so easy to be judgmental? What purpose does it serve? Usually, people who are judgmental find that their judgments make them feel better about themselves, at least temporarily. Since we are all are haunted by insecurities, many of us need to continually rationalize our behavior, attitudes, and belief systems. External judgments create a false sense of self-validation by believing that others possess a negative attribute that we do not share. When we judge others, we are openly saying that the attribute is negative and erroneously, it makes us feel that we do not possess the same characteristic. For example, it’s easy to pass judgment against materialism by saying that someone else is “inferior” because he or she is materialistic. It’s harder to admit that someone else’s materialism is uncomfortable because we possess the same materialistic tendencies. In essence, the judgment is not about the other person’s behavior; instead, we are indirectly saying that we are disappointed in ourselves because we have been unable to overcome the same negative temptation. According to Brian Weiss, MD, “Projection is the psychological action of denying your fear and unconscious motivations and then giving these fears and motives to others. Be careful not to project your hidden feelings onto another or to ascribe motives and intent when there are none. This distortion of reality harms both you and the other.”
A famous Kabbalistic truth is: ”That which our eyes witness out in the external world, all the evil, all the wickedness, is but a mirror image reflecting the remains of evil that lay hidden and undetected in our hearts.” Michael Berg, famous teacher of the Kabbalah says, “The Baal Shem Tov teaches… that being as there are no coincidences, if we happen to see something negative by another person we can be certain that we ourselves have that same problem. As a matter of fact, being as we are extremely blind to our own failings but acutely aware of the failings of others, the Creator uses other people as a mirror for our own correction. This then is the only way that we should react when we see others doing something wrong, we should immediately realize that the reason why the Creator has shown us this is to alert us to our own wrongdoing in that regard… Being as everything we see in others is a mirror to our own wrongdoings, then we can be sure that if we judge another person we are judging ourselves for negative actions that we have already committed.”
Typically there is a correlation between a lack of self-esteem and the need to judge. Deepak Chopra says, “to make ourselves feel safer from being judged, we look for faults in others first... When you blame and criticize others, you are avoiding some truth about yourself.” Chopra further states, “You will never feel better about yourself by making others look worse. Engaging in the habit of criticism only postpones the day when your own secret judgments come to light…Projection always hides a feeling you don’t want to look at. If you examine any negative trait you insist is present in another person, you will find the same trait hiding in yourself. The more you deny this trait, the more strongly you will have to project it. Thus if you habitually defend yourself before being accused, you feel guilty. That guilt needs to be faced in order to stop the projection. If you feel that the man or woman you love is constantly looking at others with sexual interest, you are the one who cannot be trusted.” In the same vein, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Nothing that we despise in the other man is entirely absent from ourselves. We often expect from others more than we are willing to do ourselves.”
Some people may simply criticize the opposite characteristic of what they possess as a form of self-rationalization. For example, a person who continually confronts problems may criticize someone who avoids confrontation. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the characteristic is negative, it only means that the person criticizing has developed the opposite character trait. Another reason for projection is a person’s inability to acquire a particular attribute. For example, people without money may judge others who spend frequently only because they are unable to purchase the luxury items that they secretly desire. Yet, when two avid shoppers get together, they would never think about calling the other person materialistic.
Fear is another motivation for projection. If someone is afraid of their weakness for smoking, they may criticize smokers harsher than people who never smoked. Constructive criticism comes from love, not judgment. Judgment comes from a need to feel superior to whatever is being judged. It is often difficult to tell the difference.
We need to recognize that any judgment makes us feel more alone. When we recognize that we don’t like a particular character trait, we create a barrier to connecting with a person who possesses that trait. The more we judge someone, the more distant we become. Eventually, we may decide that a certain person has too many “negative” attributes, which can cause us to exclude this person from our lives. Or we may find that too many of our own weaknesses are overtly expressed by another person and it then becomes too uncomfortable to continue a relationship with that person. In either case, our judgments drive a wedge into the relationship and eventually, we find ourselves alone. Is it better to judge others and remain alone or should we be more accepting of weaknesses (including our own) in order to allow more people into our lives?
In the fairytale, the mirror always tells us what we want to hear. If we see beauty in others, we see it in ourselves. If we see something disagreeable, then we are convinced that it is not our reflection; but mirrors reflect ourselves, both the positive as well as the negative. True empathy must shatter the mirror. We cannot see ourselves in others and we cannot use our own experiences as a judgment of appropriate behavior for others. We have to change the mirror to glass. We need to be able to peer through the glass and see the reality of the image behind the glass instead of peering through the glass and seeing ourselves.
Projection is damaging and hurtful and can convince others of possessing attributes that they do not own. There are subjective perceptions and objective perceptions. Subjective perceptions are how other people see us. Objective perceptions are how we really are. They are both valid, but which one is real? Some actors have difficulty with personal relationships because others think they are similar to the characters they have played. They become the product of other people’s perceptions before they have the opportunity to reveal their true character. It takes great effort to overcome a preconceived impression. Yet, aren’t we all actors playing different roles? Do people see the roles we play or can they see behind the mask that is disguising our true character? Some people are cruel even if others perceive them to be kind.
Many people simply do not know themselves very well. These people have no choice except to see themselves as others see them because they can’t tell the difference. Subjective perceptions are valid only if people allow others to define them. Their innate character is hidden even from themselves. Their self-perceptions change as the critic changes. Conflicting self-images are accepted and these individuals become comfortable portraying different characters when a new script calls for a different role.
Projection is painful because we hear statements that may conflict with our own internal image. We are left wondering whether we are unable to see ourselves clearly. Sometimes after we hear painful comments, we need to step back and ask, “Are they talking about me or themselves?” We are the only ones who can answer that question and only if significant time has been invested in discovering our true identity. The challenge in life is how to balance other people’s perceptions with reality. If self-knowledge is acquired and if we can avoid the temptation of surrendering to others’ opinions, another human being can never define our character.
Someone may recognize something that we have buried below the surface, but on some level we know that it exists. We may not want to accept it, but a part of us knows whether it is true. We need to have the strength to separate fact from fantasy. The challenge is to turn the projection around. Instead of allowing others to see us through their own reflection, the mirror needs to be our own.
How many people can truly separate themselves from someone else in order to see others’ problems objectively? How many people can put aside their own needs in order to understand what other people want? For example, some people want advice; others want compassion; and some people just want someone to listen. As a generalization, men want to offer advice because they are problem solvers. Yet, women often just want someone to listen because sharing emotion relieves the pain. To get beyond the gender differences, we have to see people as individuals, rather than as reflections of ourselves. Listening requires understanding and it is not about understanding the problem, it is about understanding the wants and needs of the other person.
A frustrated colleague confessed, “Every time I discuss a problem with one of my friends, she immediately tells me about one of her own experiences. Sometimes the story is completely unrelated to what I just said or the connection is so distant that it takes another 15 minutes to get back to the original point. She may have heard my words but she wasn’t listening. She was just waiting to see how she could make my words relate to her own life. She had no idea that I wanted compassion instead of a recognition that she had similar experiences. She could never understand that her own experiences were completely unrelated to my needs.”
Compassion, pity and empathy are entirely different emotions but the nuances are subtle. Compassion is the statement, “I care.” Pity is the statement, “I feel sorry for you.” Empathy is the statement, “I share your pain.” Deepak Chopra says, “To be compassionate is not to take pity; it is to extend care to others simply because you see their need.” Compassion comes from the heart and is an expression of equality. Pity is condescending and comes from a position of perceived superiority. Empathy comes from the soul. Compassion and pity result from being separate from the person in pain. Empathy creates a bond that brings two people together as one.
Words appear backwards in a mirror because a mirror distorts reality. A mirror shows an image that only appears to be similar to the truth. The truth never reveals itself transparently. Underneath all the layers of misconception and distortion, visionaries can see beyond an image’s reflection. They hear words in silence and beauty in pain; and they recognize that the opposite of “reality” may actually be the truth.