A few years ago, I was expressing to a friend how much I admired her compassion, empathy, and enthusiasm for life. She responded by saying, “I think you’re projecting!” And perhaps I was.
There is a formal definition of projection, as suggested by Freud, which is “a defense mechanism in which one attributes to others one’s own unacceptable or unwanted attributes, thoughts, or emotions.”
My concern is neither formal nor Freudian. Instead, I am using “positive projection” to suggest that we can wrap up attributes we admire and want to embody, and we cast them on others.
For example, when I was in elementary school, I read a biography of Lou Gehrig, the great New York Yankees first baseman, over and over. He was portrayed as powerful, humble, and well-tempered. I wanted to be like him, and I collected all those desires and projected them on him.
The same happens today: I see my friends display traits that I admire, and I praise them for doing so. In this way, I affirm the best in them and acknowledge that I want to be more like them.
I know that people have flaws and defects and will sometimes disappoint. I don’t let that stop me. I look for the best in each person, those things that make someone uniquely admirable and I try to reflect those qualities back.
There is energy and happiness to be gained in affirming others. It’s almost like the cartoons, where Cupid’s arrow would land on someone and that person would be transformed. In the same way, we speak words of admiration to others and transform them.
There was a time when I would engage in negative self-talk. I was not in a good place in my life. Around that time I had a friend and she countered by saying, “You are perfect.” Though neither of us believed that to be literally true, the words washed over me like a salve, and I still remember them 40 years later.
I always tell my friends that I would rather be with them than any celebrity. Celebrities may be the object of their fans’ projections often, but they know that there is only a distant relationship between the fan and the idol. With our close friends, we know them close up. We are aware of their flaws and defects. Yet, for me, I overlook those things in the way we overlook, out of kindness, when someone trips over a curb and is embarrassed.
One of my favorite things in the world is to write a note to a friend, recounting for him or her how their list of admirable qualities. In a few sentences, I launch my arrow, hoping it will land and overwhelm any doubts she or he might have about their worth. In doing so, we find what is best and we both celebrate.