The power of projection

Funny thing, projection. The American Heritage Medical Dictionary defines it as

  1.  The attribution of one’s own attitudes, feelings, or suppositions to others.
  2.  The attribution of one’s own attitudes, feelings, or desires to someone or something as a naive or unconscious defense against anxiety or guilt.

Whilst I’m sure there are many more reasons for projection, as I thought today, I was astonished how entrenched in my life it is. And quite possibly in society as a whole.

My niece fell asleep on the way to the playpark, so my sister took my nephew to play while I stayed in the car with the sleeper. I was tired and it was a warm day, so I cranked my seat back and settled for a bit of shuteye myself. I dozed a little then became aware that the occupants of the car next to mine had returned. The older couple scanned and then carried on, but one of the children they were with uninhibitedly gawked at me napping. Then a couple walked past with a dog and both of them gave me a kind of funny look.

I began to wonder what they were thinking of me – a grown adult napping right near the kids’ playpark – was I some kind of sicko? Was I properly caring for the child I was with – was I negligent? What had I been up to that meant I was so tired I’d fall asleep in public? The more I thought about this (in between dozing – it wasn’t that offputting) the more I realised that I was perhaps being a little paranoid. Why should they think anything of me, if they were to think, why should it be negative, and in any case why should it matter?

If I’m honest it probably trails back through history to that very basic instinct we humans have to fit in; to be part of the gang. Wherever you fall on the design/evolution argument, with very few exceptions, we are a social species – we need other people – and the possibility of being outside the line of social acceptability taps into a very deep-seated fear, probably a relic from the days when isolation almost certainly meant death. Projection could be one of the ways we’ve developed to assess our own behaviour through the anticipated expectations of others and ensure that we’re still part of the gang and not acting out in a manner likely to jeopardise our continued belonging.

And yet it’s so culturally based. As humans moved to populate the surface of the Earth and developed cliques, it became important to fit in with the locals and micro-culturess became important. It seems that much of the time it’s no longer enough to simply be human – to be part of the in-crowd you have to speak their language, understand their heritage and (to an extent) bow to the existant peer pressures. This perhaps developed from the feudal manner in which humans have developed, using force to gain land and goods, and has left us with a residual unease of strangers, or those who seem strange to us, because they could mean danger.

Growing up my parents denied us a television in the house until my late teens. This worked really well in primary school years because it really didn’t matter. I learned to entertain myself and how to manage boredom. I had little concept of instant gratification and yet it was a draw, for when in a place where a television was playing, I tended to develop tunnel vision and be very difficult to remove.

At secondary school, though, this became more of a problem. Perhaps a result of the burgeoning hormones experienced at that age, everyone’s desire was to be accepted by a group somewhere. Being (I think) the only kid in school not to have a tv at home drew hugely negative reactions. I became the common object of fun, further reinforcing the bonds between those in the tellyfied majority. I remember one child even asking me whether we had a computer at home (we did) and an indoor toilet (of course…) but it struck me then, once I got over my shock, that there was some kind of feeling abroad that without a telly a person must clearly be some kind of backwards cave-dweller.

Raising children these days, much more focus seems to be on inclusion, equality and diversity, personal and social development, developing an understanding of communities and the place of the individual within them; all positive measures to counteract the expectation that ‘if someone is not like me, they do not belong and they may be dangerous’.

When people look, speak or act in manners outside our experience, it gives us pause. This isn’t to justify any kind of -ism based on differences between people, merely an acknowledgement that this may be a failing on our part to undo the ancient yoke of projection and to suggest it might be time to realise that hey, we’re all people here.


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