You’ve heard “perception is projection” – but do you know what it means?

by | Jan 3, 2024 | Blind Spots, Featured, Insights, Neuroplasticity, NLP and Somatic Coaching

First, grab a journal (it truly is more effective to do this the old-fashioned way – with paper and pen). And, this is a concept best experienced live before it’s explained… trust me!

Start by identifying a person or situation that irks, annoys or irritates you. Now write your responses to the following three questions, one at a time:

  1. What are the negative qualities and characteristics of this person or situation? What else? When you can’t think of anything more, proceed to the next question.
  2. What negative thoughts and emotions come up for you when you think about those qualities and characteristics? What else? Again, when you can’t think of anything to add, proceed to the next question.
  3. Where have you seen these same qualities and characteristics in yourself?

Keep writing until you discover where these same qualities and characteristics show up in your own life. Spoiler alert: It may take you by surprise.

Why is this important?

What we see outside of ourselves is, at some level, a direct reflection of the complex system of thoughts, emotions and decisions inside our own mind. Carl Jung said: “We can only perceive what is already in our consciousness.” Jung introduced the notion of “projection” to explain how people can feel certain they know what another person is like and what they think, then interact with the other person on the basis of those assumptions.

Imagine your eyes are the lens of an old-fashioned movie projector. And the person in front of you is essentially a movie screen. When we find ourselves annoyed, irritated, or even hurt by someone else’s words or behaviors — what we’re really reacting to is the movie of our mind playing on the screen (person) in front of us.

Here’s a recent example from my own experience

I was in a client’s reception area, chatting with a few people as they were coming and going. The conversation had something to do with my energy level (which is typically pretty high). Then, one of the individuals said: “Tracy, I’d hate to see you upset.”


My eyes widened, and I think I even stepped back an inch or two. “I don’t get upset often, and when I do, I do my best to manage my intensity,” I responded.

She looked confused. I got confused. Then I got curious: “Are you imagining that when I get upset that I get aggressive or hostile?”

She was flabbergasted — it was all over her face. That was not at all what she was thinking. She said: “You’re just so nice and lovely and I wouldn’t want anyone to upset you.”

Wow. What a miss on my part. Why? Because when I hear the words “energy” and “upset” together — my mind immediately goes back in time to my childhood and my father’s unfortunate habit of expressing his anger in a most threatening way.

That is perception is projection in action

Our negative projections (like the one I just shared) are our path to our breakthroughs: They are a big part of what holds us back. When we observe the qualities and characteristics that we deem negative inside of us, we can identify their source, and release their invisible (unconscious) clutch on our values, behaviors and worldview. It’s a lot like removing the dust from an air filter.

When you do this exercise on the regular, you’ll notice it all the time, in real time. And when you make a habit of releasing the judgments from deep inside your unconscious mind quickly, you’ll feel lighter, clearer and way more open.

This works in reverse as well: Our positive projections are our path to our genius!

Try this exercise: Identify a person or situation that evokes a positive judgment for you. Now journal your responses to these questions:

  1. What are the positive qualities and characteristics of that person / situation?
  2. What are the positive thoughts and emotions that come up for you as you consider those qualities and characteristics?
  3. Where do these qualities and characteristics exist within yourself?

Can you see now how this is the path to your genius?

The theory is that we cannot recognize outside of us a characteristic that is not within us.

By the way: I fought this idea for a long time!

  • First, I didn’t want to admit that I fully owned the qualities I judged as negative in others. How did that make sense? If I don’t like them in someone else, how in the world can I be expressing those same things in my own life? Turns out that was my Inner Ego fighting to retain its identity of special, different, “above” that kind of thing. (The first time I did this exercise in earnest, what I learned about myself and how I was projecting it onto others was simply shocking!)
  • Second, isn’t this a slippery slope that leads to the idea that everything we experience is a mirror reflection of our deepest, most unconscious thoughts? Turns out the answer is a bit more nuanced. Typically what we judge negatively about others reflects a filter that found its way into our operating system, beneath our conscious thoughts. That filter likely served us once, but not anymore. And that’s why it’s asking for our attention. Imagine an airport ground crew member waving you one way (that would be your filter, guiding you to judge something or someone in a negative light), and another ground crew member waving you in a different direction (that would be your intuition inviting you to take a closer look).

When it comes to negative judgments, consider the Perception is Projection exercise as a way of identifying outdated code for the purpose of neutralizing its damaging effects, and creating space for the filters you really want to shape your life.

And when the judgment is positive: The exercise allows us to acknowledge and build upon our inner genius.

To learn more about what’s going on “under the hood” of our mind, check out this post which explains how we get trapped in patterns we never asked for. (The good news: There is a way out!)

Schedule a Complimentary Discover Call with me to learn more. These are hour-long deep dive conversations about the future you want to create (in life, at work or both), what’s working and what’s getting in your way. At the end, if I feel you’re a good fit for this work, I’ll make you an offer.

Either way, I am 100% confident that you’ll come away with new and meaningful insights you can lean into immediately.

Tracy Benson

Tracy Benson, Founder and CEO, On the Next Page, provides executive coaching to senior leaders and their teams in Fortune 500 companies across industries, including: healthcare, pharma, energy, technology, consumer goods, manufacturing, hospitality, defense and financial.

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