Perception and Projection



I incorporate in my presentations teaching stories from the different religious traditions. They have the ability to bypass the figuring mind and get to the heart of things. This is one of my favorite stories I use to illustrate projection, something that can block our perceptions about what is really happening in any given circumstance. In our world today there are many projections on other people and religions. It causes a lot of problems.

The Gift

Mullah Nasrudin’s wife became suspicious of his ecstatic ways and constant laughter. Lately his eyes were soft, he seemed lost in some recollection like a man in love thinking of his beloved. Having decided that the source of this joy needed to be found out, she followed him, spying on him in the marketplace.

It was just as she suspected. As he was walking a woman approached him and he greeted her with a wide smile. She could not see the woman’s face but she saw the woman give him a gift that he readily accepted. She returned home angry and hurt, feeling a certainty that her husband was having an affair.

The Mullah, himself, strolling the market was surprised by a woman who gave him a gift wrapped in a cloth, as she thanked the merciful and compassionate One for sending the Mullah to the world as a supreme teacher. He received the gift, and pondered as he made his way home how God could manifest teachings even in him.

Wondering what she had given he stopped by the side of the road and opened the package. In it was a mirror, but the Mullah had never seen a mirror before. Seeing his own reflection so clearly he saw an old man and assumed the gift was a picture of the woman’s father or grandfather. He brought the gift home and put it away.

His grieving wife saw this, and when he was out she went to his hiding place to see this secret lover’s gift he had put away. She found the picture. Looking in the mirror her worst suspicions were confirmed. “It’s true. He is cheating on me, and to make it even worse, she is such an old hag.”


We can only guess at the interior source of the Mullah’s wife’s jealousy and the thought processes that led her on – perhaps it has some history in her own life, or her own insecurity or feelings of unlovability, or her hesitance to ask the Mullah about his ecstatic ways and clarify her concerns. We don’t know, but we can laugh at this tale because many of us have experienced intense inner emotions, fears and thoughts that had no basis in outer reality. These perceptual distortions are internal blocks to accurate emotional perception and understanding in the here and now where we are actually living.


Projection is the act of clothing someone with attributes that are our own unconscious attributes or emotions. Like a movie projector sends an image out to the screen to be seen, we project out unconscious elements of the ourself upon another. These elements may be attractive or unattractive. Although the other may have a hook to hang the projection on, our projection is not the other; it is a cognitive/emotional dressing of the other in clothes we have made. The other becomes a mirror of ourselves. It is an opportunity for self reflections and awareness.

That other must have a hook to hang our projection on. A hook can be very small or large. It’s something that has enough of a resemblance to the projected material and makes the act of projection possible. A man can be reading the Bible on the subway. The woman across the way begins an internal process of identifying him as a Christian. Her inner narrative continues, “He’s probably one of those evangelicals who try to convert everyone,” when actually he is an atheist student studying ancient architectural design of public spaces, and is looking at the description of the temple. The Bible is the hook for the woman’s  projection.

There is energy in a projection, a passion of opinion or emotion that can be felt by the person projecting and can often be felt or observed by others. A pretty student and a teacher are talking and laughing with each other. The teacher was her older brother’s best friend and they we sharing stories from the past. One person notices it and thinks this teacher has a great rapport with his students. Another person just walks by. A third person who likes this teacher believes they are flirting and begins an inner narrative about the possibility of an affair, violations of ethical boundaries, etc., flirtatious women trying to get good grades. She shares this story with someone, “No student ever talks that way with a teacher. Look how she is dressed. When women dress like that they always have an ulterior motive.” Her tone is intense, her manner somewhat aggressive. She speaks as if she were a mind reader (mind reading is a form of thought distortion), as she implies slanderous things. There is an energy to the projection, hidden emotions and thoughts generate each other, and generate behavior.

A public example of projection occurred in Texas in 2016 when an armed group protested outside a mosque. Interviews revealed that the protestors were there because Muslims were “terrorists”, “violent”, and “threatening the American way of life.”  These generalized thoughts are the cognitive generators that charge the emotions. Generalization, a cognitive distortion, in thought or in language is a key factor in projection, even personal projections.  When we hear overt or implied generalized language coming out of our mouths or in our writing, or when we hear it coming from someone else we are in the territory of projection.  That language has sweeping and broad statements containing the logical fallacy of all or nothing, and often is accompanied by these words below.

Generalization – Projection

Cognitive Reframe – closer to truth

Always, never, ever, all, no one, everyone, they, them, those people, general groupings.

“Muslims are always violent.”

Sometimes it’s this – Sometimes it’s that.

Example Reframe: Some Muslims are violent. Other Muslims are not violent.

Always, never, ever, all, no one

“They always…”  “They never…”

Both/and vs. Either/or.

Reframe: Sometimes they are this way – Sometimes they are that way.

When we take overgeneralized language and reframe to a more logical and truthful statement we change the cognitive generator of emotion, and change the emotion that is experienced from it.

Below is a picture of two people at that event: a protestor and a woman going to prayer at the mosque. Which of them is in this photo is expressing terroristic, violent, and threatening behavior? What’s the hook in this projection?


The man in this picture has an opportunity to withdraw his projection and examine those characteristics he is accusing others of, or to look at the primary emotion within him. Perhaps it is fear or a tendency toward violence. Only he knows. It’s an opportunity to learn and transform what is within us. If the projection is not withdrawn, it functions merely as a defense mechanism.


In another instance of armed protestors outside a mosque in Arizona, the head of the Islamic center invited the protestors to come in. One of the protestors wearing a shirt covered with profanities demeaning Islam, accepted his offer.  After visiting the mosque his viewpoint changed, “I promise, the next time you see me, I won’t be wearing this shirt. I won’t wear it again.” During the interpersonal interactions in the mosque he withdrew his projections through contact with real people. Muslims were no longer generalized in a group. He told Fox 10, “Out of respect for the Islamic people, knowing what I know now, …… When I took a second to actually sit down and listen to them, and actually enter their mosque, and go in and watch some of their prayers, it is a beautiful thing, and they answered some of the questions that I had.”8  If the projection is withdrawn it can lead to personal and collective transformation.

A classic example of withdrawing a projection is found in the stories of the Christian Desert Fathers.

Some old men went to Abba Poemen and asked,
“If we see brothers sleeping during the common prayer, should we wake them?”
Abba Poemen answered,
“If I see my brother sleeping, I put his head on my knees
and let him rest.”
Then one old man spoke up,
“And how do you explain yourself before God?”
Abba Poemen replied,
“I say to God: You have said, ‘First take the beam out of your own eye and then you will be able to remove the splinter from the eye of your brother.’ “7



Author: baflaherty

My background includes work as a counselor, a chaplain, and a trainer for behavioral health clinicians. I have taught at universities. Throughout my life I have had a passion for interfaith and intercultural connections. I am the mother of two and the grandmother of two. Life is good.

One thought on “Perception and Projection”

  1. Thank you for these stories, Barbara. I remember being invited into the home of an old Mexican woman in Cuidad Palomas to whom we had just delivered a bag of groceries from the Hunger Project sponsored by Our Lady of Las Palomas Interfaith Retreat Center. Her home was small, simple, and sparcely furnished. The walls and floor were cement. There was one rather rickity chair at the small well used table. The cook stove was a hot plate on the counter. The woman spoke no English. I spoke no Spanish. She gestured for me to sit. I did. Without hesitation she turned to her “stove” and began to heat a small flour tortilla topped with a salty local white cheese in her skillet. She placed the hot tortilla in front of me then watched as I ate every bite and licked my fingers. This seemed to delight her, she smiled and nodded. I started to get up, she motioned me down again and turned back to her “stove.” This time a small flour tortilla smothered in pineapple jam was placed in front of me. Again, I ate every bite with great relish and licked my fingers. She smiled and nodded and gestured for me to sit. She heated the kettle and poured us both a cup of hot water into which she added a heaping teaspoon of coffee powder. She pushed the sugar bowl and can of condensed milk towards me as she pulled a five galleon bucket up to the table and sat down to have coffee with me. I had never experienced such generosity and hospitality TOWARDS ME before. For the first time, ever, I experienced a genuine sense of kinship with a stranger. I later heard this woman kept very little of the food we brought to her, she shared most of it with the young mother next door who had three little ones to feed. It reminded me of the widow from the Gospel of Luke (21:1-4), though poor gave everything she had to help others.

    Liked by 1 person

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