Thursday, June 14, 2007


In psychology, projection is when one attributes one's own thoughts or feelings, generally anxious or uncomfortable ones, to another party. Projection is one of the few things that Freud got right about psychology and behavior. For instance, if your boss is insecure about the quality of his work, rather than recognize his own insecurity, he may project it on to you and accuse you of not respecting or recognizing the quality and/or quantity of his efforts.

Throughout my life, I've both been the target of and purveyor of a great deal of projection. It'd be surprising if there were many people who weren't on both sides of the equation in this regard at one point or another in their lives. Projection seems to be especially rampant in one's younger years when insecurity tends to loudly rage on a regular basis.

In Japan, I've had two remarkable and related experiences with projection both of which involved coworkers in cross-cultural relationships. In the first case, there was a female coworker who had worked at my company for about 2 years before I came to work there and she took a rapid dislike to me after I was brought on full-time (which occurred after 3 months as a temporary worker). She was married to a Japanese man but was intensely dissatisfied living in Japan. It wasn't much of a stretch to say that she hated life in Tokyo. It was clear that she felt trapped though because her husband couldn't possibly have supported her if they went back to the U.S. and she didn't have the skills to get a job to support them both back home.

While this co-worker never came right out and said why she disliked me, a number of things became clear by the type of hostile comments she made on occasion. One of the things I did which irritated her the most was speak in any fashion whatsoever about my husband or the time we spent together. While I may speak glowingly of my husband in my blog (and all that glow is sincere and well-deserved), I didn't behave in such a fashion in the workplace as it would have been inappropriate. All it tended to take to irritate this coworker was answering a question from another coworker about my plans for the weekend or for dinner or whatnot and for me to mention my husband would be meeting me or we'd be spending all weekend relaxing at home together. The hostile coworker would make some snotty remark about how everyone didn't have to spend all their time with their husbands or some such thing which made it clear she felt I was pointing out how inadequate her relationship with her husband was compared to mine.

The thing is that I had no idea what sort of relationship she had with her husband as she almost never spoke of him or anything they did together. I never said a word about her relationship, and, in fact, I tried hard to refrain from saying anything at all beyond what was required for peaceful co-existence at work. Eventually, this coworker decided she detested me so much that she simply stopped speaking to me altogether. I can't stress enough that I never implied anything about her relationship with her husband nor did I put her down in any way but she projected her insecurities about her relationship and her general dissatisfaction with her life in Japan onto me.

Ironically, the second remarkable instance occurred as a result of my boss and I discussing this hostile co-worker's situation in the presence of a male coworker who came along several years later. My boss got along better with the hostile woman than I and knew a bit more than I did about her life and we were discussing some of the things she had done and how unhappy she was in Japan. He and I both said that we felt it must be very difficult to be in a cross-cultural relationship, particularly when both parties weren't fluent in either language and both had limited experience with the cultural preconceptions and communication styles of the other. At one point, we both remarked that neither of us had what it would take to deal with all the challenges such a relationship would present, particularly in terms of the indirect communication and reliance on inference which is so common in Japan.

After we made a statement about how we felt cross-cultural relationships were immensely challenging, this male coworker, who was a goofy fellow but not the least bit prone to angry outbursts said loudly and with a great deal of concealed frustration bursting forth, "now that's enough!" This co-worker was in a relationship with a Chinese woman working in Tokyo and he thought we were staging this conversation as a onion-skin-thin reference to his relationship with his girlfriend. The absolute truth was that neither my boss nor I had the slightest thought about his relationship with his girlfriend but clearly there were difficulties he was having so he projected his anxiety about those problems onto us.

In the case of this co-worker, he did talk about his girlfriend but he never mentioned any problems. There was no reason for him to think we were talking about him other than his nagging unspoken concerns about their relationship.

Both of these cases really stick out in my memory because they were the most baseless experiences I've had with people projecting their anxieties onto me and they both involved cross-cultural relationships. To this day, these experiences serve as a reminder to me that, though it may seem crystal clear that someone is talking about you in a veiled attempt to criticize you or make you feel bad about your life, they actually may not be thinking of you at all and it's important to keep your psychological "projector" under control.


tornados28 said...

Their reactions do pretty munch indicate that they are having problems in their relationships or at least som difficulty dealing with the cross-cultural issue.

If they were not having problems, they probably would only have calmy mentioned that their relationships are very well so that it does not apply everyone.

It definately would seem your female co-worker actually resented your relationship becuase hers was not well.

Shari said...

I think she also may have resented that I was happy living in Japan (particularly so at that time as I was new to my job and it was challenging and interesting). If she hadn't regarded me with such contempt, I would have had nothing but sympathy for her.

Thanks for your comment. :-)