Perception & Projection

August 5th, 2011 by ian

When you study the Torah, you inevitably find sources for insightful ideas or studies that have been gathered by human investigation and research. This is most notably true of psychological concepts. In this week’s Torah portion, Moshe (Moses) brings such a concept; it is a psychological mechanism that is very, very powerful.

In Moshe’s recounting of the tragic story of Israel’s sending of a reconnaissance mission to the Land of Israel (Deut. 1), the great sage quotes Israel as saying, “In G-d’s hatred of us did he take us out of the Land of Egypt, to put us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us!” Any rational person knows that G-d does not do anything out of hatred. Rashi comments that the opposite is actually true: “He actually loved you; but you hated Him.” Because Israel listens to slander and succumbs to believing negative perceptions of G-d, the nation begins to hate G-d. Instead of admitting to developing this flawed perception, Israel denies the error and puts the hatred onto G-d and His perceived actions.

This comment by Rashi brings us the well-known psychological defense mechanism of projection. Instead of seeing our flaws inside of us, we often see them in other people, or as the case may be, G-d!

As a teacher, I have heard this exact line about hatred many times by young students, as well as sophisticated variations of it by adults. There is not doubt that you have and will hear it at work or any other place you spend time. It doesn’t matter the age, the subtext is the same: “I am upset with myself, but you are the target.” The person is upset with herself and places the source of the anger on the teacher; he is frustrated with his own failure and clearly sees the cause of that failure emanating from a boss or other parent-type figure.

The child or adult who says this inevitably learned in their formative years to despise themselves in some way and usually had at least one parent or sibling who was very emotionally rough with them. Either they were taught that nothing they do is ‘good enough’ or that they are not worthy of being proud of themselves. Some people who express these types of comments did not have such parents, but do not have a healthy self-image or self-concept. In all of these people, there is a deep, tragic hatred of the self that is slung onto others.

There are several ways to assist such a person, though often they do not want to be assisted nor it is not our place to assist (often being kind to them but avoiding them when they are in this state is optimal, as it is usually not our job or requirement to try to change them). One option is to give them a job to do that they can succeed at. This may help them grow in their weak spot, healing the bad self-image and building a healthy one in its place. However, they may not be able to be proud of themselves yet as they are not used to the idea.

Another option is to give them a custodianship. This works extremely well with certain students who express such comments about hatred, especially unhealthy gevurah types. They need a specific task and direction to get them to buckle down and stay in line. The fact that the teacher trusts them means the world to them and makes them realize in an unconscious and non-confrontational way that the teacher or mentor really does like them.

When it comes to our own perceptions, it is extremely difficult to take an honest look at ourselves from an outside “bird’s eye” perspective. However, once we know the ways by which our minds play tricks on us, the challenge becomes easier.

May we all view ourselves as refined, respectable people, acting upright and properly because of it.

Rabbi B

Leave a Reply