The Dangers of Psychological Projection

I recently had a close encounter (of the obnoxious kind) in a local grocery store. Regular readers know that these little adventures of mine often end up as columns, so here goes.

A woman who showed no evidence of disability was shopping in the produce section, rudely brushing past people and running into them (including me) as if they weren’t even there. I established an observation post behind the grape tomatoes and waited for any reactions from her. She was oblivious to everything, other than what happened to be important to her at the moment. Several feet away, a courteous and alert produce clerk was slowly moving his cart through the aisle. He stopped abruptly when he encountered her. When she saw the cart in her path, she made kind of a face (proving she could see and hear, 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. Then it happened: “Me, me, me, it’s all about me!” she carped condescendingly – just loud enough that people could hear it, but not so loud that she seemed intent on standing by it.

In the mental health profession we call that “projection”: Attributing to another person a quality you (subconsciously or otherwise) consider undesirable about yourself. Accusing the employee of being self-centered suggests that she saw herself that way, but would never admit to it. And it was clear to everyone within earshot that she was in the wrong. This is how projection works: The accuser sees faults in another that she will not see in herself.

Projection can also serve as a “defense mechanism” where the accuser is trying to evade seeing herself as possibly flawed. It’s not healthy and is in no way excusable. Projection is the consequence of the refusal 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. 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 this “projection” of you for what it is?

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, and people find ways to cope with anxiety. Some turn to drugs or alcohol. Others eat or gamble compulsively. Some may adopt more subtle habits such as being critical. Like the drug or alcohol addict or the compulsive eater or gambler, the person who projects actually NEEDS to criticize in order to lower anxiety about her own 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. People with true self-esteem are aware and care for their own desires. They don’t feel the need to unfairly criticize others. In the process, they make their own lives better.

There’s a world going on around us. We all have our interests. We tend to look down on people who think of themselves as the “center of the universe,” but it’s psychologically healthy to be the centers of our own universes, while recognizing that others have the right to do the same.

Our ill-mannered shopper shouldn’t be criticized for having her own interests. She should be criticized for ignoring the fact 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 her know that – in words that I would have happily provided to him!