Criticism is really projection, which is casting forward or outward something negative a person perceives to be within themself as a means of coping with their personal discomfort in life. It means the externalization of an inner thought or motive and its subsequent behavior, which is then attributed to someone else. Projection (in the form of negative criticism)—as a mechanism whereby a person attempts to absolve themself from personal responsibility—has been around for many centuries and has a long-recognized history:
. . .and Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, and all their sins; and he shall put them upon the head of the goat, and send him away into the wilderness. . . . The goat shall bear all their iniquities upon him to a solitary land; and he shall let the goat go in the wilderness.1
In biblical times, on Yom Kippur (the Jewish day of atonement), all the transgressions of the Jewish people were heaped (projected) onto the back of a “scapegoat,” which was then driven away into the wilderness, “taking” all the people’s transgressions with it.
PROJECTION AS A MEANS OF AVOIDING PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY
A movie projector can only cast light when there is no film inside it. The Christian and Islamic ideal of making no judgment against another human being is, in essence, to become like an empty projector. Achieving this ideal seems a virtual impossibility in life, however, because our every thought becomes the film within our own projector, which we cannot help but cast outward, project, onto the screen composed of human beings other than ourselves. In other words, a person can project onto other people only what they think about themself, because without thought, there is nothing to project. A person thus sees in others, both consciously and unconsciously, what they see in themself—nothing more, nothing less.
As such, judgment, the projection of that which a person sees in themself, is the projectile one casts outward in the word “should” (You should do this; you should do that). “You should” is thus a common attitude of the opposing sides in a conflict.
In reality, however, “should” is the stuff of someone else’s standard of operation, of someone else’s concept of right and wrong, of what a person should or should not be or do. Someone else’s “should” is only your own if you choose to accept it. On the other hand, you can choose to ignore another person’s “should,” and then it has no effect.
Leaders have probably always been the subject to such projections as criticism, especially by those who would rather blame out of fear than take responsibility for their own actions, as noted by President Theodore Roosevelt:
It’s not the critic who counts, not the . . . [person] who points out how the strong . . . [person] stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the . . . [person] who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes up short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions and spends himself [or herself] in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, if he [or she] fails, at least fails while daring greatly so that his [or her] place shall never be met with those cold and timid souls who know neither defeat nor victory.2
In effect, a person who serves the people as a leader must pass the tests described in the eulogy that Senator William Pitt Fessenden of Maine delivered on the death of Senator Foot of Vermont in 1866:
When, Mr. President, a man becomes a member of this body he cannot even dream of the ordeal to which he cannot fail to be exposed;
of how much courage he must possess to resist the temptations which daily beset him;
of that sensitive shrinking from undeserved censure which he must learn to control;
of the ever-recurring contest between a natural desire for public approbation and a sense of public duty;
the load of injustice he must be content to bear, even from those who should be his friends;
the imputations of his motives;
the sneers and sarcasms of ignorance an malice;
all the manifold injuries which partisan or private malignity, disappointed of its objects, may shower upon his unprotected head.
All this, Mr. President, if he would retain his integrity, he must learn to bear unmoved, and walk steadily onward in the path of duty, sustained only by the reflection that time may do him justice, or if not, that after all his individual hopes and aspirations, and even his name among men, should be of little account to him when weighed in the balance against the welfare of a people of whose destiny he is a constituted guardian and defender.3
Two years after Senator Fessenden delivered this eulogy, his vote to acquit Andrew Johnson brought about the fulfillment of his own prophecy. This is the test of leadership: to stand firmly by you inner convictions even when they are the cause of your being cast out of office because it was morally necessary to tell the people what they needed to know, rather than what they want to hear.
PROJECTION CAN BE EITHER NEGATIVE OR POSITIVE
The negative fears people harbor represent the human shadow into which we shove all the unwanted nefarious qualities we think we possess. These are eagerly projected onto our public servants, albeit they deserve none of them.
There is another kind of projection, however, called hero worship, which represents the positive part of ourselves that we choose to disown. Hero worship means that people project onto a another person the positive qualities (the glow) they themselves posses but are afraid to make manifest in their own lives.
Such projections place an incredible burden of unknown responsibility on a leader because they not only is seen as larger than life but also is expected to be perfect by those who project onto others their own positive qualities for safekeeping. Consider, for example, the often-impossible expectations of human perfection that we project onto clergy, teachers, elected officials, and movie stars. The illusions we create are dangerous people because we see in them no flaws.
But what happens when one of our flawless illusions turn out to be an imperfect human after all? Are we filled with mercy, compassion, and understanding? No! They are dashed to the ground, like a sculptor might in anger cast down a flawed statue, because a weakness has been found in them, which calls forth the fickle-heartedness of those who projected their positive qualities onto others rather than take personal responsibility for their own development.
These are the things a leader must be prepared to bare, the things a leader must learn not to take personally. A leader, to be effective, must learn to remain grounded in their own spiritual center while all about rage the storms of fear in the material world, which means a leader must learn to handle projection in the form of criticism.
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Text © by Chris Maser, 2010. All rights reserved.
This article is excerpted from my 1998 book, Vision and Leadership in Sustainable Development. Lewis Publishers, Boca Raton, FL. 235 pp. It is updated in my 2012 book, Decision Making For A Sustainable Environment: A Systemic Approach. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. If you want more information about this book, want to purchase it, or want to contact me—visit my website.