To complement “Projection & Shadow: Rewrite the Movie of Your Life” in the October 2015 issue of MASSAGE Magazine. Summary: The psychological phenomenon of projection can have a serious effect on interpersonal relationships—especially when there is a power differential inherent in a relationship, such as the one between a massage therapist and client. Therapists must learn to recognize projection and neutralize its effects to avoid damaging the therapeutic dynamic.
As a massage therapist, you must be able to hold a healing, nurturing presence for your clients. However, the power differential inherent in the therapist-client relationship can open the door to problems if you project your thoughts and ideas onto the other person.
Projecting occurs when you externalize, or send out, unconscious aspects of yourself, such as positive or negative needs, feelings, ideas or judgments you are not aware of having. In order to best serve your clients, you must learn to identify when you are projecting, and consciously make an effort to neutralize your projections.
The power differential
You can inflict damage unknowingly in a therapeutic situation, or in any life interaction in which there is a power differential between you and another person, such as in the relationship between health care practitioner and patient; minister and parishioner; mentor and student; or parent and child. Issues arise when the other person believes your projection, or perceptual lens through which you see her, without recognizing that the projection may not be the truth about who she is in that moment.
This is particularly true if you tend to make your projections into pronouncements. If you are too directive and make a pronouncement—of your truth, not the client’s, therefore a projection—about your intuitive hits regarding the truth of the client’s healing process, several things can occur. The client might reject the pronouncement and leave; you might increase the power differential between you by robbing the client of the opportunity to find her own answers; or the client may believe your projection and begin living out of your reality rather than her own.
Our job when holding a good therapeutic presence for someone else’s healing is to be present and help that person access his own wisdom from his own internal landscape and resources, not to project our version of reality onto him.
How do we know?
What are cues we can watch for to know if we are projecting in a way that might lessen our own power or interfere with our therapeutic presence? One big cue: Projection gives us a sensory-based feeling that can be described as a charge or a hot button. This is almost always accompanied by a limiting thought or judgment.
Another colleague has a great example of discovering one of these. On a recent trip, waiting in line for a shuttle bus, my colleague observed a petite woman with long black hair, who was nicely dressed and wearing lots of diamonds. When they got on the bus, the woman sat directly across from my colleague, who had an instantaneous feeling of not liking this woman very much. She described feeling a subtle tension in her body, mostly around her heart, as soon as she sat across from her.
Rationally, my colleague knew she had no reason to either like or dislike the woman—she didn’t know her. Due to the irrational nature of her feelings, she began to suspect that this might be an example of projection, so she began to ask herself what this feeling of tightness in her chest might be about. As she did, she paid attention to how the charged sensation, the tightness, responded. As she tells it:
“The first answer that popped into my head was that I thought she was judging me because she looked wealthier than I was. I sat with this, but the feeling inside me didn’t change, so I knew that wasn’t it. I asked deeper, what it might be. It came in a flash. I thought that she was thinking she was better than me. Bingo; I started to relax as I realized that this was old, not current, and it came from a girlfriend experience around age 10.
“My projection about this woman had nothing to do with her. It was about how I felt judged by my peers as a child. And I realized that even if she did think she was better than I was, I didn’t care. As an adult, I have enough power to not be influenced by what a passing stranger thinks of me on a shuttle bus.”
How projection feels
Let’s look at how you might know a projection is causing trouble in your life. When you suspect you may be projecting, check into the sensations in your body, your internal landscape. Is there a charged sensation? What does the area of charge look like or feel like? What is your sense of it?
This area may be small or large. It might involve minor feelings of discomfort, as in my colleague’s example above. Or it might be a huge fight-or-flight sensation throughout your whole system in response to a past trauma. In a situation of severe trauma where a person has been hurt or overpowered, that person could then project that she might hurt others, or that others in the world around her are going to hurt her again.
What kinds of sensations can show up in response to a projection?
- Pressure: something pushing inward, trying to push out
- Numb or tingly places that call your attention
- Pain, all kinds: sharp, dull ache, bruised sensation
- Sense of urgency and agitation
- Any feeling that demands attention; a hot button, like an electrical current without a ground
When anything we have a projection about gets close to us; for instance, critical people, it sets off that charge, that hot button about feeling criticized or being critical back in defense.
For example, if you were born into a family that was highly critical of people and things, you might choose a life partner who is also critical, or you might interpret most situations you encounter as though you were being criticized. You also might behave in a way that elicits criticism from others, because that fits your self-image.
Identify your hot buttons
Remember, the point of looking at all of this is to help us be more conscious of how this normal response to life operates in relationship to our own healing, and very importantly, how it affects us when we are in positions that create power differentials between people. Another way to observe projection-and-shadow material within yourself is to look at what you envy and what you despise.
Around what you envy in others, you may want to finish the sentences:
“I’ll never be as ____________ as she is” or “I wish I could be as ____________ as he is.” (Some common words to complete these sentences might include: beautiful, smart, clever or intelligent.)
Around what you despise, you may try finishing the sentence:
“I’ll never be that__________” or “How awful it would be if I were that ___________” (stupid, ugly or fat, for example).
Envy robs us of our own power and separates us from others. The second one, despising judgment, gives us a false, inflated sense of power and also separates us. If we actually believe either of these is true, we are less able to hold a wide and loving presence for ourselves or others.
About the Author
Suzanne Scurlock-Durana, C.M.T., C.S.T.-D., author of Full Body Presence: Learning to Listen to Your Body’s Wisdom, is also the creator of the training and audio series, Healing From the Core: A Journey Home to Ourselves. She has taught CranioSacral Therapy and SomatoEmotional Release for the Upledger Institute since 1986, and for the past 20 years has been on faculty at the Esalen Institute. She wrote “Projection & Shadow: Rewrite the Movie of Your Life” for the October 2015 issue of MASSAGE Magazine.