Finding fault in all the wrong places

I recently had a close encounter (of the obnoxious kind) in a local grocery store. My regular readers know that these little adventures of mine frequently end up as columns, and this one’s no exception.

A woman who showed no visible evidence of disability or mental distress was going about her shopping in the produce section, rudely brushing past people and running into them (including me) as if they weren’t even there. From my vantage point behind the rutabagas, I watched for any reactions from her, but she was oblivious and unmoved. She wasn’t looking at anything other than what happened to be important to her at the moment. A very courteous and alert worker who was slowly moving his cart through the aisle stopped abruptly when he encountered her. When she saw the cart in front of her, instead of saying, ‘Oh excuse me,’ like most people would, she made kind of a face. (This proves she could see and hear just fine, and knew what she was doing.) The employee could not have been more polite, and said, ‘Oh, excuse me ma’am, that was very stupid of me.’ He had done nothing stupid, of course, and he knew it — but he was being polite around the customers (even this particular one who was so blatantly wrong). ‘Me, me, me, it’s all about me!’ she carped condescendingly. She said it just loud enough that people could hear it, but not so loud that she seemed intent on standing by it.

A mental health professional would call her reaction a classic example of ‘projection.’ Projection is when you attribute to another person a quality you (subconsciously or otherwise) consider undesirable about yourself. Being quick to accuse the employee of being self-centered (in so many words), suggests that she saw herself in that way, but would never admit to it. The produce clerk was certainly not the one with the ‘me, me, me’ attitude, and it was clear to everyone within earshot that she was in the wrong. This is how projection works, no matter what the circumstances. The accuser sees ‘faults’ in another that she cannot or will not see in herself.

Projection is almost always misplaced. In other words, the clerk was not, in fact, rude, but the truculent brat of a customer who accused him of it obviously was. Projection often serves as a “defense mechanism” in the sense that the person doing it is trying to evade seeing him- or herself as possibly flawed. It’s not healthy, not necessary and is in no way excusable. A psychologically healthy person has an obligation to be self-aware, objective and honest.

Projection is usually not a conscious error. It is the inadvertent consequence of failing to be aware of reality and to be straightforward with oneself. The antidote to projecting your flaws onto others is a willingness to see yourself as you are and to change what you don’t like. For example, if you watched a video recording of yourself, would you like what you saw? If you read a transcript of something you said in a conversation, would you see the ‘projection’ of you for what it is — good, bad or indifferent — and resolve to change it if you wanted to?

Projection serves no rational purpose. On an emotional level, however, some people like to feel superior. Accusing someone else of having what you consider a negative personality trait can help you feel less anxious about having that trait yourself. Life can be stressful at times, and people sometimes need to find ways to cope with anxiety. Some will turn to drugs or alcohol. Others might shop compulsively or gamble. Some, however, may turn to more subtle habits such as being critical of everyone else. Like the drug or alcohol addict, or the compulsive shopper or gambler, the person who projects actually ‘needs’ to criticize in order to lower anxiety about his own real or alleged flaws.

It’s too bad that our bad-tempered customer couldn’t have uttered her ‘me, me, me’ comment within the context of her own self-esteem and rational self-interest. People with true self-esteem are aware and care for their own needs. They don’t feel the need to hurt and unfairly criticize others. In the process, they make their own lives better.

There’s a world going on around us. Others, just like ourselves, have their own interests. We tend to look down on people who think of themselves as the ‘center of the universe.’ It is, however, psychologically healthy for us to strive to be the centers of our own universes while at the same time recognizing that others can and will do the same. Now there’s a fair and realistic approach! Our ill-mannered shopper, or an angry tailgating driver, or an unreasonable restaurant patron who goes through life pursuing his or her own interests without recognizing anyone else’s shouldn’t be criticized for having their own interests. Instead, they should be criticized for failing to recognize that others have interests too. Sadly, because of the obvious constraints of his job, the gracious clerk at the grocery store was unable to let the shopper know that — in no uncertain terms.