Projection and Empathy

It’s easy to get the two mixed up.

Probably the first time I was formally introduced to the idea of empathy was in my 9th grade English class when we were reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The famous line from Atticus Finch goes:

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

I remember at the time so much emphasis was put on this line, as if it was this revolutionary new way of trying to understand people. I certainly thought it was. And based on the context of the book and the history, it very possibly was. Looking back though, I think in many ways it sets us up for developing a misguided form of empathy that is more similar projection.

When we “put ourselves in another person shoes” we tend to take everything with us, our perspective, our worldview, our experiences. We project ourselves into another person’s situation. We simply think, If I were in their shoes, I would do “x,” and then we get surprised when they decide to go down a different path (insert surprised Pikachu face here). True empathy on the other hand requires us to forget ourselves for a bit. We need to abandon our own way of thinking and try to see the world through a set of completely different lived experiences.

I’m confident that intention of phrases like these is to elicit true empathy, and maybe for most people it does and I’m just a sociopath. I just think we need to be careful about using catchy phrases to explain or describe emotional processes and reflective practices because, for example, engaging in projection instead of empathy creates an illusion of understanding, while at the same time giving the person a false sense of moral security that they have done their due diligence to “see the world through another person’s eyes.”


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