Projection Detection

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    “Whoever invalidates a person (in the context of marriage) is himself invalidated” Shmuel says, whoever invalidates does so though the faults with which he has himself.

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”

“He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”

“I know you are, but what am I?”

    – Anonymous / Pee Wee Herman

Long before Freud gave it a spiffy name, many cultures and people have addressed or acknowledged the concept of Psychological Projection. The basic theory is that instead of dealing with your own faults, you “project” them on to other people by holding them accountable for your own shortcomings or by screwing around with their heads such that they’re as messed up as you are. Though not always intentional, projection can still be harmful. Not only does it make insecure people feel even worse, it may also make satisfied people start to question themselves.
We’ve all had such experiences, and for me this has been an especially busy week.

Case 1: Preceptor
Those with whom I’m in contact know that I don’t talk about my thesis much; in fact, the topic is forbidden. Basically it hadn’t been going well for some time now, despite hours of reading and research. I finally met with my thesis adviser who was not only helpful in providing guidance, he also helped me understand why things went so difficult.
One of the features of the MAPPS program is that students get assigned a preceptor who is typically a PhD student and operates like a “big-brother.” The preceptor is supposed to guide his or her students through the program, and especially help them formulate and produce a thesis. In fact, the program is structured such that all of your thesis work must go through your preceptor for discussion and approval. Like a PhD adviser, A good preceptor can make your life easier, but a bad one can drive you insane.
Guess which type I had?
While trying to pick a thesis topic, my preceptor was obsessed with finding a “new and origional idea” which would in some way address an existing social question, and ideally positing a new theory. In case you forgot how our conversations went, when he would suggest a topic which would fit his criteria, I was forced to respond that there isn’t enough existing data to support such a theory.
It turns out that it’s taking my preceptor 10 years to finish his own work and according to my faculty adviser, and he was obsessed from the time he came to U of C to always come up with a meaningful hiddush. This tidbit of information certainly explains much of our conversations.
I wish I had known this earlier – might have made things simpler…1
Case 2: NYT Article
The next one is much easier to spot. A friend sent me an e-mail titled “Oh, Fine, You’re Right. I’m Passive-Aggressive” with a link to this NYTimes article, because “certain aspects” of my personality fit the pattern.
This is too obvious to warrant an explanation, so I’ll just move on.
Case 3: Frumster Person
I had been in e-mail contact with someone I found on Frumster. We sent relatively long and articulate e-mails and finally made the jump to speaking on the phone and we had really nice 1:30 conversation. I called her again after a few days, but she said she was too tired from a busy day to talk. Having felt the same way on numerous occasions, I thought nothing of it. The next day, I get an e-mail saying that there are too many “differences” which would “prevent a close relationship.” I had no problem with the rejection, but being curious, I responded asking her to elaborate as to what those differences are. The response was somewhat puzzling:

    Basically, the problem I saw was that you do not seem like the kind of person who enjoys the intricacies of social niceties, and while there’s nothing wrong with that at all, in the academic world that I’m going into it’s quite important to be able to survive an environment in which people are judged rather harshly based on their negotiation of these things. Unfortunately academia is a world in which people can be cruel about failure to observe these very superficial customs, and it doesn’t seem like you would have a lot of patience for that (either the customs themselves or the importance that’s placed on them). Also for myself, I tend to experience a lack of willingness to observe certain polite fictions as a lack of respect, though I know intellectually it isn’t always meant that way. I’m sure you have only the best of intentions, but both personally, and in terms of the world I see myself going into, more of a concern for social form is really necessary.

I needed help in understanding this one since it seemed like an odd reason to be turned down. Ignoring for a moment if it’s a legitimate reason to reject someone, I’d think that one 1:30 phone conversation probably wouldn’t be enough of an interaction to determine if someone would be an appropriate trophy husband.
So, I IM-ed a few friends of mine with social intelligence for their take. Despite their different personalities and backgrounds, every one independently said that the girl had her own issues, and was imposing them on me. Two quotes which make this point explicitly: One wrote back, “Like she’s worked up over something, maybe someone accused her of being uncouth and now she ultra sensitive or something,” and another said, “well, maybe she just felt insecure about whatever else is in her life and projected it onto you.”
I have no idea if it’s true since there could be any number of reasons why she’d feel the way she did, but when several (yes, more than the two I quoted) people have the same read, I start taking it a little more seriously. I didn’t think of this as a possibility, nor could I have since then I’d just be projecting my own insecurities back on her.2
Case 4: Dani
I got an IM from Dani who also seems to have a recent experience with projection. Apparently, people with too much time on their hands are still puzzled at how two nice people like Avraham and Dani could get married. I mean, Avraham is a nice frum boy, and Dani has more personality than a ball of twine. How can they possibly have a functional marriage?
My sense is that with these people, it’s much harder to reevaluate what they have internatlized as a good or appropriate marriage than it is to assume the worst about a relationship which doesn’t match their assumptions. Meaning, instead of looking at what makes a good marriage work in reality, people focus on the stupid superficialities which mess up the dating world to begin with. Since Avraham and Dani don’t fit into a typical “frum” marriage, people just assume that they must be having problems.
The irony of all this projection is that it helped me understand something about myself and what my own insecurities really are. I have a better idea of my own insecurities in the academic world, which explain why the preceptor and Frumster person were able to strike sensitive nerves. The passive-aggressive article didn’t bother me as much because I didn’t think that it was relevant or applicable. As you’ll see from Dani’s blog, the gossip about her prompted her to watch an hour of TV, and she’s back to mocking the idiots.
The point is that as uncomfortable as it is to be the recipient of projection, it may help a person deal with issues that they otherwise would rather avoid and/or project on to other people.

1. Incidentally, it’s not just me. We had to fill out end-of-the-year evaluations. I was “polite yet firm” in my criticisms of the preceptor, but many other were, shall we say, a little less cordial.
2. There are times when I personally have a bad feeling about where something will go after one conversation. To her credit, she not only identified what was bothering her, but she was able to honestly and articulate her feelings. Few people are able to do that.


  1. Rabbi Alan Yuter
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