I once coached a man who was, in most areas, a competent entrepreneur. He knew his business very well, he was dedicated and ambitious, and he was an effective leader for his team. But he had one sticking point. He knew others in his field owed much of their success to promoting their businesses at social events. However, he told me, he didn’t feel comfortable doing this. When he thought about talking up his company in a social setting, he worried that he would irritate his prospective customers.
“What makes you think people won’t like hearing about your business?” I asked.
“Well, I know I get annoyed when I go to an event just to relax, and people start pushing their companies on me.”
“So you figure other people are going to feel the same way you do?”
At first, he looked exasperated, and I thought he was going to snap “of course they will.” But suddenly his expression became more thoughtful, and he said “yeah, I guess that’s what I’ve been assuming.”
We talked a little about the possibility that some people might appreciate, or at least be interested in, learning more about others’ businesses at a social event. As the conversation went on, my client became more and more able to accept the idea that people could actually want to find out more about his services, so long as he wasn’t too aggressive or insistent. Finally, he resolved to bring some business cards to his next cocktail party and give it a try.
How Projection Holds Us Back
The mindset my client came to me with is similar to the way many of us see the world. We tend to assume others think, feel and react to the world the way we do. Psychologists call this tendency “projection”—we “project” our ideas and emotions onto others when we act as if others share them. My client was having trouble introducing his business to others because he was projecting his irritation with people who promote themselves at social events, assuming other people experienced it too.
This habit shows up in every area of our lives. For instance, some people are afraid to approach others they’re attracted to because they fear that others have the same social anxiety, or desire to be left alone, that they do. Others have difficulty contacting others about business possibilities, because they assume others share their cynicism about entrepreneurial ideas. And so on.
Sometimes we don’t even recognize it’s our own feelings we’re projecting onto others. We deny that we have the emotion we’re projecting, and assume it’s only other people who feel that way. People who tend to assume others are angry at them, when in fact they’re the ones who are angry; or people who believe others are harshly judging them when they themselves are judgmental; are common examples.
Unconsciously, we do this because we don’t feel safe having or expressing the feelings we’re attributing to others, and feel more comfortable believing only other people experience them. As psychologist Lorne Ladner says in The Lost Art of Compassion, “what we project is always part of ourselves. Usually, it’s a part of ourselves that we have a hard time dealing with and therefore have repressed, split off, or otherwise pushed out of awareness.”
Recognizing And Transcending Our Projections
How can we overcome the limitations our projections place on our perspectives and our fulfillment in life? I find this simple exercise useful: if you find yourself afraid of doing something because you worry that others will react negatively to it, ask yourself how you’d react in their place.
For example, if you’re considering asking your employer for some time off, and you’re worrying about how he’ll react, ask yourself how you’d respond if your employee made the same request. You may find you were basing your expectation of how others will respond on what you would feel and think. If you’re assuming your employer would refuse your request, for instance, it may be because you’d do the same if you were in your employer’s shoes.
This exercise helps us see the areas of ourselves where we have opportunities to grow. When we recognize that the qualities, thoughts or feelings we’ve been attributing to others—whether we see others as cold, judgmental, dishonest, or something else—are actually our own, we get a sense of the qualities we’d like to cultivate within ourselves.
If we see others as stingy, for example, it’s likely because we see ourselves the same way and we have a desire to develop more generosity. If we perceive others as unloving, that probably stems from a desire to work on our own capacity to love. As spiritual teacher Bikshu Sangharakshita puts this point in Essence of Zen, “try to discover what it is you most dislike in others, what you most often criticize and condemn them for. A little elementary self-analysis may reveal that those qualities are hidden in the depths of your own mind and that in criticizing others in this way you are, in fact, unconsciously criticizing yourself.”
When we recognize the places where we have a desire to develop, and begin to grow in those areas, an incredible thing happens: the world seems to grow with us. Others appear to take on the qualities we cultivate in ourselves. For example, when I began to meditate and take up other practices to find inner peace, I was surprised at how peaceful everyone around me started to seem. As I went through my own personal transformation, I remember asking a few friends “why are you suddenly so relaxed? Have you been meditating or something?” In reality, I was projecting my newfound peace onto the world, where before I’d projected my inner conflict and anxiety.
Getting Comfortable With “Not Knowing”
This exercise also illustrates that, much of the time, you can’t rely on your own expectations about how other people will think and feel. Those expectations are likely based—consciously or otherwise—on your own experience of the world, and others may have different perspectives and behavior patterns. The truth, I think, is that we can never be completely sure how others will react to what we say and do. The best we can do is clearly state what we want, and be willing to accept either a positive or negative response. The best my client could do in his situation, for example, was to simply get out there, start promoting himself, and develop the composure to handle potential rejection.
Some people find the idea that we can’t predict how others will respond uncomfortable. “If I don’t know how people are going to react to me,” they think, “how will I know what I can and can’t do?” If we don’t know whether others will get annoyed when we try to promote our businesses, for instance, how can we know whether it’s a good idea to try?
When we find ourselves needing to know how others will respond to what we say and do, and unwilling to accept our uncertainty, it’s often because we’re afraid of getting a certain reaction. If we feel a strong need to predict how prospective customers will react to our sales pitches, for example, it’s likely because the possibility of hearing “no” makes us uncomfortable. Our obsession over what others might think and do arises from our need to avoid a response we don’t think we can handle.
Recognizing we have this kind of fear affords us a great opportunity to understand ourselves better, and to ultimately overcome the mental obstacles we’re facing. When we realize we’re worried about how others might react to us, we can dig deeper into what we’re really afraid of. What’s the worst thing that could happen, we might ask ourselves, if a potential customer didn’t want to hear about our business? What’s the worst that might happen if someone we were attracted to didn’t want to date us? And so on.
When we sincerely ask ourselves this type of question, we not only develop an understanding of what’s holding us back in life, but we often come to understand that our fears have no basis in our current reality, and begin to transcend them. When we become strong enough to accept and live with any response we might get from people, our need to know how others will react to us, and our tendency to project our thoughts and feelings onto them, naturally begin fading away.
Christopher R. Edgar is an author and success coach certified in hypnotherapy and NLP. He helps professionals transition to careers aligned with their true callings. He may be reached at http://www.purposepowercoaching.com.
Thanks Chris for this lovely guest article. I’m writing again, so the next article will be mine!