“Whenever you are are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: what fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?” — Marcus Aurelius.
You’ve probably heard the expression “you spot it, you got it.” It means the qualities you consistently notice in other people — the good and bad — also exist in you.
It’s called psychological projection. It’s our tendency to attribute our disowned feelings, impulses, and characteristics onto other people.
In other words, the way we judge others is the way we judge ourselves.
Once you embrace this concept, the world becomes a mirror, reflecting you back to you. It’s a powerful tool for self-discovery — if you’re willing to get uncomfortably honest with yourself.
I used to hate people who seemed to be having fun all the time — going to parties every weekend, regular vacations, socializing with big groups of friends. I told myself they were shallow, lazy, and secretly miserable. They were avoiding the hard work and toil that life demands. I, on the other hand, was taking life seriously, working hard, and paying the price for success.
Then one day, venting about my frustrations with work, a friend asked, “Are you making room for fun in your life?” It stopped me. I could feel the answer was no. I thought about it and realized what I ostensibly did for fun, like playing hockey or going to a dinner party, was consumed by competition or annoyance with what or who I didn’t like. I struggled to relax and enjoy. I could not — would not — allow myself to just have fun.
I dug deeper in therapy and realized there was a part of me that didn’t feel worthy of feeling good. I’d unconsciously internalized (likely though the trauma of my parents divorce) that I was bad, deficient, undeserving. I compensated by obsessing over achievement and feeling superior about it; but secretly I was resentful and jealous of people who seemed able to simply enjoy life.
I was judging them for something I wouldn’t allow in myself.
I’ve since shifted that paradigm, but it wasn’t easy. I had to own my arrogance and face the pain and insecurity underneath. Slowly I began to believe and trust that while hard work is important, life is meant is to be enjoyed, and I had every right to enjoy it. I’ve since made having fun a priority, a value. It’s brought balance to my life and more flow to my work.
Owning your projections is challenging work. It requires letting go of an idea you have of yourself and embracing the truth of what you actually think and feel.
Notice when you’re particularly critical of others who seem lazy, intolerant, or righteous, and consider if these characteristics also live in you — then ask yourself why.
Also look at the people you admire. What is it you appreciate? Chances are you have that same quality, you just don’t own it, haven’t developed it, or are too afraid to express it.
Taking back our projections is about taking responsibility for how and what we think and feel, and facing the truth that there is nothing you see in others— love, hate, anger, cruelty, pain, compassion, brilliance — that is also not in you.