Loving Legal Life: the problem with projection

Self-awareness – that ability to know and understand how we are seen – is an important aspect of job performance, career success, wellbeing and strong leadership skills, but sadly it is in short supply in the modern day workplace. Recent research carried out over the last five years by Harvard Business Review revealed a significant gap between the 95 per cent of people who think they are self-aware and the reality of the 15 per cent who actually are.

Zita Tulyahikayo

One of the key ways a lack of self-awareness plays out in the work place is through projection. Projection is a psychological defence mechanism, which we employ to attribute the characteristics we find unacceptable within ourselves onto another person. Like other defence mechanisms projection is a subconscious process that has the power to distort reality.

An example of projection creating a distorted reality could be where a male or female worker has feelings of attraction for a co-worker and accuses the person of sexual advances; or where someone stands up to a pushy co-worker who then accuses them of bullying.  Other projected feelings include jealousy, anger and control, other times it happens because it is easy (we don’t have to think much to project) and sometimes we project because we feel challenged either because of a relationship or because of a lack of awareness around what is really going on.

What is the purpose of projection?

The purpose of projection is a way to avoid difficult or repressed feelings. Repressed feelings can be deeply entrenched in national identity, in religions or culture, or in family systems.  This is one of the reasons why the new and the different can feel like a threat to our whole way of being.

There are three main categories of feelings we project.

  • Neurotic: When we perceive others as having behaviours we find objectionable in ourselves.
  • Complementary: When we assume that others feel and think the same way we do about life
  • Complimentary: When we assume that other people have the same gifts and talents as we do

It is easier to project on to others than become self aware which is why we so often do it. Given the choice between addressing our own distortions in perception with therapy or coaching, or projecting ourselves on to others to make sense of the world, projection is by far the easiest option. However, this approach is detrimental to growth and progress.

Scroll through Twitter and you will find a chamber of millions of people guessing, predicting and projecting onto people they have never even met, everything from adoration to despair, fear and loathing. Projection touches us all. Even the judgments of the judiciary can be touched by the projection of one person, the judge.

Where does projection start?

James Pereira QC
James Pereira QC

The roots of projection can be found in shame: shame of our flaws and shame of our unique gifts.  Shame governs our need to belong, be accepted, liked, found innocent, virtuous even.

Since our subconscious mind influences 80 per cent of our thinking processes, every conscious thought we have is influenced by the information our subconscious chooses to send up as we assess each experience we face in life. The logic, reason and will of the conscious mind, that 20 per cent we depend on, mostly falls by the wayside when our subconscious mind asserts its authority over our beliefs and behaviour. Our beliefs and behaviours are learned and conditioned by experiences from birth. Rightly or wrongly everything is stored and so unless we pay attention to what is actually going on, then projection, which requires so very little of us, will be our default option when interacting with others and thinking about the world.

What are the costs of projection?

Much like driving with our eyes closed, projection is a very risky option.  Seen in the context of day-to-day life in the workplace, the price of our lack or awareness is high, so much so that according to the same research by the Harvard Business Review carried out in 2018 on self awareness most companies don’t even realise that their performance is reduced by up to 50 per cent annually because of a lack of awareness and the impact of projection.

Self-awareness requires a bit more effort than projection but the rewards are rich: better personal and professional performance, increased productivity, increased revenue and staff retention. A lack of self-awareness among colleagues, managers and leaders causes stress, decreased motivation and innovation and a poor quality of wellbeing for the individuals and the organisation.

Here are some tips for managing projection and raising self – awareness.

  • Pay attention to when you may be projecting – e.g. do you believe a work colleague does not recognise your skills and talents because of your gender?
  • What would it be like for you to let go of projection, and stop mind reading the other person’s intentions? What new action might you take instead?
  • Pay attention to when you are caught up in someone else’s projection. Are you doing something that makes you unhappy to make them happy? If so, find the courage to say “No” and mean it.
  • What beliefs and values have you taken on that you do not wholeheartedly agree with?
  • What would your job be like if you had no problems, and in the absence of problems and or problematic people what would you do differently?
  • What would you do if you had the power to change the way you work?

Tackling projection will bring you freedom

Remember you do not have to buy into your own or other people’s projections. You are always free to change your mind, make your own choice, and change what you identify with. If you struggle to do what is right for you, see a professional therapist or coach who can give you guidance. Choosing awareness is the best decision you can make for your career and for your life. If life does not bring you joy and happiness, you and only you have the power to change it.

The authors welcome feedback from anyone concerned with the issues raised in their writing, and are also interested in hearing from anyone with suggestions for future articles. You can reach them at zita@lifetherapywithzita.com and on Twitter @LifeTherapyZita and at james.pereiraQC@ftbchambers.co.uk and on Twitter @JamesPereiraQC.

The full Loving Legal Life series can be found here.

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