Empathy, or projection?


One reader writes, after reading my recent post Empathy:
That’s helpful.  I never saw the connection between listening to me  and being sensitive to others.
But I’m still confused about something.  What’s the difference between empathy and projection?  And how can I tell if I’m doing one or the other?
Good question.
Empathy and projection are often confused.
But there are three big differences.
~ Awareness.  Projection tends to be unconscious, an automatic reaction.  We don’t even know we’re doing it.  But empathy takes some conscious effort.
~ Focus.  My projecting is really about me.  My empathizing is really about you.
When I project I confuse what’s happening in my head with what’s happening in yours.  I project my own thoughts and feelings (usually stuff I’m not acknowledging) onto you, just as a movie projector throws images on a screen.
But when I empathize I’m trying to imagine my way into your shoes, and to answer the question How would I feel if I were you? Not always easy.  Scared or self-preoccupied people often find it impossible.
~ Motive.  Projection comes from anxiety and is essentially defensive, where empathy is a sort of emotional gift.
When I project I’m usually trying to stay out of trouble.  Boy, she looks pissed.  What did I do?  Was it what I said about her hair?  I project my own feeling (anxiety) onto you, as if what’s happening in my head is happening in yours (anger).  I try to read your mind in order to protect myself.  What can I say to calm her down?    
But it’s when I feel strong and safe enough to shift my attention from me to you – from my feelings and needs to yours – that I can be genuinely empathic.  Thus empathy’s a mental expression, not of fear, but of sensitivity and caring.
Bottom line?
When I project, I confuse you with me.
When I empathize, I use me to understand you.

16 responses to “Empathy, or projection?

  • Simona

    Enjoyed the explanation between the two!

  • Richard Szymanski LMSW

    I think you expained empathy better than Carl Rogers who did a pretty good job of it.

  • C.T.

    Thank you for this…I recently debated this very thing with a friend who accused me of projecting,(but I know I was empathizing) lololol This helped me re-solidify my conviction 🙂
    Thank you

  • Alan Klement (@alanklement)

    I would encourage you to write more on this. It’s very rare that people empathize. It’s almost always projection. You make the correct point that projection is subconscious. This is what makes empathy dangerous to use. You think you’re empathizing, but you’re really projecting.

    Heinz Kohut spent much of his life studying this phenomena.

    • Steve Hauptman

      I have actually, a little. Chapter 33 of my book Monkeytraps: Why Everybody Tries to Control Everything and How We Can Stop is titled “Superpowers,” and begins:

      No, I can’t read your mind.
      No, I can’t predict the future.
      No, that doesn’t stop me from trying.
      Welcome to the wonderful world of projection.

  • P.J.G

    Even after his explanation, I still think empathy is a form of projection, maybe even the same. Im thinking how someoneelse would think in his position based on the experience and the emotions i am able to bring up myself. That is in fact a projection!

    “Awareness. Projection tends to be unconscious, an automatic reaction. We don’t even know we’re doing it. But empathy takes some conscious effort.” – So compassion and pitifulness is no empathy?

    “Focus. My projecting is really about me. My empathizing is really about you.” – So when i try to feel how someone else feels, im not projecting my own experiences and emotions of what i think of how he feels on him? Seems absurd to me.

    “How would I feel if I were you?” – That is literally projecting the own experience and basis of emotions on how i think that another beeing feels.

    I think the problem of rejecting the idead that both is the same arises by the one-sided use of the word “projection” as a negative connotated term, and the will to have a positive connotated counterpart. This would also explain why this differentiation is often done in only english language. I cant see a logical difference between projection and empathy.

    • Steve Hauptman

      I agree that the underlying mechanisms of projection and empathy are similar.

      But I think we distinguish them in English with two words for a reason, and the reason is motive.

      Again, I see projection (and this includes not just the sort we do with other people, but with an uncertain future — as in “I worry that X will happen tomorrow”) as essentially defensive. We project in order to guess what bad thing may hurt us, in order to avoid or eliminate that danger.

      Empathy comes from a stronger, less frightened place. Yes, when I try to empathize with your feelings I’m essentially projecting my own experience. But I do this not to defend against pain, but to take a step closer to understanding you. Where projection tries to defend, empathy tries to connect.

      In therapy my work with people who project a lot tends to be very different from my work with the strongly empathic. The former usually need help with anxiety, and in distinguishing here/now from events and people that wounded them in the past. Empathic people generally feel safe enough in their own skins to see here/now clearly, and so are less paranoid and more generous in relationships.

      I’m certainly grateful I don’t have to use the same word to describe both sorts of projection.

  • Teresa Madison

    Is it possible to be able to project exact emotions and be an empath?

    • Steve Hauptman

      No idea. I’ve never met an empath, outside of science fiction. But my understanding is that empaths have a psychic ability to read the feelings of other people, not project their own.

  • PONY

    Not sure if my other comment worked, sorry if I’m posting twice… but I really enjoyed this article! What would your thoughts be on children and projection? Do children project? I was an extremely empathetic child and often reflect back wondering if I was sometimes projecting instead.

    • Steve Hauptman

      Sure, kids project all the time. How else can they navigate their way through a world in which they have so little control and power? Inevitably they try to guess what’s going to happen to them in the future (in my book I call this fortunetelling) and how other people will see them or feel about them or treat them (I call this mindreading). Every kid does this.

      The more anxious the kid, though, the more projections. Kids abused at home, for example, carry a higher level of anxiety, so when they go out into the world they can’t help projecting that anxiety onto people they meet — anyone who reminds them in some way of the abuser. (If Dad beats me, I’m likely to be uneasy around all male authority figures. If Mom criticizes and humiliates me, it will be hard to feel safe around women. And so on.)

      Many of these kids grow into adults who continue to project their anxieties, often to a degree that causes them problems.

      Actually I tend to believe that whenever anyone projects it’s a sign that his or her Inner Kid has been triggered into trying to protect itself.

  • PONY

    Thank you for your response. I used to think I was an extremely empathetic child, like being able to feel my mother’s feelings and aches and pains etc, or cry for my brother when maybe he should have been crying instead, if he injured himself or something… I’m curious if I was projecting -my- pain instead due to being a super sensitive kid. I find the difference between empathy and projection so fascinating yet still difficult to differentiate the 2 sometimes (less as an adult maybe?)… even though you’ve explained it all so well 🙂

  • Amat

    How do we tell the difference between a healthy and a non-healthy projection. Since our projection is our reality what is obvious to some may not be for others. If we have faulty projections how do we modify them to navigate the world more successfully.

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