The Difference Between Empathy & Projection

Projection is something that all empaths need to learn about. Many people argue all empathy is projection. Because we can never truly feel another person’s feelings, we can only feel our version of their feelings. Regardless of what we believe about empathy, understanding the role of projection is vital for every empath. 

What is psychological projection?
Psychological projection is a theory in which humans defend themselves against their own unconscious impulses or qualities by denying their existence in themselves while attributing them to others.
Basically, we unconsciously present our own image on someone else’s surface.

Example: Someone is telling us a story of great loss—they’re grieving, and we’re empathizing with them. We may think we experience their grief with them, but we are experiencing what we imagine their grief to be. So in empathizing with the person above, we generally project our version or quality of grief, onto their surface. 

How does empathy turn into projection?

Our empathy is real, our ability to feel into other people’s worlds is legitimate, but how we filter that through our minds, the conclusions we draw from that, are most likely a projection.

What are the consequences of projection?

When we project, we make assumptions about other people’s experiences that might not be true for them.  This muddies the waters in our relationships and can make things weird between us. We create stories around our projections that may not be true, then live them out with the person, and we take away the ability for the other person to work through whatever is going on for them clearly.

Using the example above, if we project own grief we project onto their situation, it comes with our baggage attached to it. Because we are all different humans with different life experience and value and belief systems, how we experience grief in our systems and how we understand it emotionally is completely different. This can sometimes cause the opposite effect we want when we’re empathizin— it can leave a person feel misunderstood.

Treating projections as reflections.

If we’re unconscious of our projections, we also lose opportunities to gain clarity on ourselves. When we slow things down in communication and become aware of our projections, we can learn to treat them as reflections. Projections about other people can tell us a lot about ourselves. 

How do we know when we’re projecting versus when we’re empathizing?

If you’ve never done any work around projection, I suggest you start with this simple practice:

For one month, assume that every time you empathize with someone, you are actually projecting your experience onto theirs, and everything you think about someone else is actually a projection of you in some way. Ask yourself what the projection is trying to tell you about yourself, and see if you can learn to distinguish between projection and empathizing.

Projection is an animal that takes a long time—and a lot of work—to tame. It’s about learning the deepest, darkest depths of our psyche, learning how we’ve organized the world intellectually, and understanding our insecurities and shadow.  

But there’s a quick and easy way to know: Just ask.

Instead of assuming we know what’s true for another person, ask them. Instead of assuming the story we’ve created in our heads about another person is true, ask them. And in the process, we also need to ask ourselves what our projections say about us.

We get ‘senses’ of things all time when we empathise, and they can be greatly insightful. But we need to ask first. My language when I’m talking to people is, “my sense of this is [insert what you think is true], is that true for you?” That way, we acknowledge that our way of filtering things might not be true, and we let the other person figure it out for themselves.

So, do you know the difference between empathy and projection?

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