The Psychology of Projection in Conflict


Human Wrongs Watch

By Robert J. Burrowes*

26 August 2015

Understanding human conflict requires us to understand human psychology. And it is only when we understand the psychology that drives conflict that we can take intelligent steps to address it.

Robert J. Burrowes

Robert J. Burrowes

Unfortunately, understanding the psychology of conflict is not easy and I would like to illustrate one significant problem in this regard and explain what we can do about it.

That problem is what is often called ‘projection’ or ‘transference’ and it illustrates the importance of emotional, as distinct from intellectual, content in any conflict.

Let me start by quoting a few carefully selected words from a lengthy dialogue recently published. http://peacefromharmony.org/?cat=en_c&key=628

The dialogue took place between two Israelis, two Palestinians and several individuals from other countries and was focused on the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

It was concluded by the moderator’s observation that ‘our discussion has reached an impasse’.
I would like to emphasise that I have chosen and quoted words to illustrate my discussion about the significance of projection and the importance of unconscious emotional content in any conflict.

Israeli 1: ‘But what shall we do that they don’t recognize us, among so many countries of Islam and I’ve nothing against Islamic persons, I wish them all the best, provided they do not harm us and recognize our existence. What shall we do if we have terror, terrible terror, and missiles sent into our civil population for so many years… armed by Iran…. We are a small nation, fighting rightfully, or wrongfully, for our existence…. We are all the time suffering from terror and nowadays surrounded by terrible terror…. And still I and Israelis want peace…’

Russian: ‘I understand you; you live in constant fear of rocket attacks, their threats, terror, etc. Of course, this is a terrible situation and it seems to never end…. No emotions do not solve the problem. The emotional solutions do not exist, there is no emotional work. There are only reasonable, theoretical solutions, and work on the basis of reason and theory….’

Palestinian 1: ‘Sorry to disagree with you that the violent conflict between Israel and Occupied Palestine will never end as I’m sure that there are 2 steps that should be taken to achieve that:

1) ending the Israeli Occupation to the Palestinian lands & People very quickly

2) investing intensively in the role of informal education targeting children from both sides….’

Israeli 2: ‘Attached is an important article about the Israeli Palestinian war written by an Arab Palestinian Journalist…. It was Palestinians who hurt themselves: When Israelis were not able to hire Palestinian workers, they simply turned to foreign workers, prefabricated construction and other industrial innovations….’

Palestinian 2: ‘It is far better if you can share your own writings (links) instead of posting Zionist tired propaganda (hasbara) that is tagged with false names to give it credibility…. But instead of useless emails and impersonal exchanges, I sincerely invite you and all people who can potentially open their minds to come visit us anytime…. The truth, like the sun, is healthy and cannot be hidden for long from those out from their caves. But those who choose to remain in their self-constructed caves of ignorance will always stay pale and unhappy and fearful and paranoid.’

Israeli 1: ‘PALESTINIANS, ESPECIALLY HAMAS GROUPS, [SHOULD] RECOGNIZE ISRAEL’S EXISTENCE AND STOP SENDING MISSILES TOWARDS ISRAELI POPULATION, AS THEY HAVE DONE FOR THE LAST 11 YEARS, ALTHOUGH WE HAVE LEFT GAZA IN 2005….’

Palestinian 1: ‘Sorry to tell you cousin that your allegations do not fit at all with the reality as Gaza is under siege for more than 7 years. Israel did not leave Gaza….’

American: ‘Unfortunately, as a psychologist with over 30 years of experience with sociopaths, I must conclude that a number of people currently in power in Israel (and some from Palestine) appear to very likely fall into the category of sociopath and/or psychopath. These types of personalities lack a normal conscience and are unlikely to change…. Because of such personality characteristics, changing the attitudes or values of these “shot-callers” by means of peace education or psychotherapy is highly unlikely, although not impossible….’

Palestinian 2 (to Israeli 1): ‘First, please do not use all capital letters. In emails this is “shouting” and reveals anger most people do not read it or may get irritated by it. Second, your note about “undermining our demographic situation” is sadly racist. You are talking about fellow human beings who are legally entitled by International law to return to their homes and lands. I suggest you get educated. You can start here…. I will pray for you.’

This type of ‘dialogue’ is very common. And it cannot achieve anything for one simple reason: no one is listening to the unconscious terror and other feelings that are driving the behaviour of several participants. Let me explain what I mean by this, starting with the first Israeli.

This person is clearly terrified, not just badly frightened. This is obvious from her perception and representation of some events and her belief in some demonstrably false claims. However, her perceptions, representations and beliefs must be put aside if we want this dialogue to make progress. Why?

When she was a child, this woman was not allowed to feel and act on her terror about the person or persons who terrorised her. The person or persons who terrorised her must be one or both parents and/or others with whom she lived very closely, such as one or more relatives, teachers and/or religious figures.

Because she was terrorised out of feeling her terror consciously (which would have released it but also given her the power to hold the perpetrator(s) accountable), she was compelled to suppress her awareness of how terrified she was and to unconsciously project it onto a ‘legitimised victim’ group which, in this case, is a target used by many Israelis: the Palestinians (although the Iranians are often used as well).

The key point about ‘legitimised victims’ is that they are unconsciously ‘chosen’ because they are no real threat: people who are terrified do not project onto powerful opponents. See ‘Why Violence?‘  and ‘Fearless Psychology and Fearful Psychology: Principles and Practice‘.  They must project onto ‘legitimised victims’ who they feel able to control.

The only way in which this woman can now be freed of her projection is by feeling her terror consciously. And the only thing that anyone can do to assist this process is to listen, deeply, to her. See ‘Nisteling: The Art of Deep Listening‘.  

If she feels her terror consciously, she will both be freed of it and identify the perpetrator(s) who actually terrorised her as a child. Moreover, she will acquire the power to defend herself against these perpetrators (and, hence, no longer need the projection).

Interestingly, in this dialogue, the Russian usefully did a partial reflection but then went on to say that ’emotional solutions do not exist’. In fact, if this Israeli woman does not consciously feel her terror, she will remain stuck in her projection for the rest of her life.

The fact is that emotional factors underpin all conflicts and if we do not take emotions into account and give conflict participants the chance to feel their terror, fear, anger, sadness and other feelings then we undermine (often fatally) any attempt at conflict resolution (as our deeper and more protracted conflicts in the world clearly demonstrate).

Unfortunately, in this dialogue, no one ventured to reflect to the first Israeli something like this: ‘You sound utterly terrified that Palestinians and their Islamic and Iranian allies are going to destroy Israel’.

And then listen to her feel, and talk about, her terror (which might include denying she is terrified because, to her, it simply feels as if she is ‘right’) for as long as she needed in this context: that is, to consciously feel how terrified she feels until it has been felt long enough to be reduced significantly and the true culprits who terrorised her are exposed.

Usually, this would take a very long time over very many sessions but until this woman feels listened to so that she can feel the fear and other feelings she so desperately needs to feel, she cannot change. Her projection is not something over which she has any conscious control. It was a childhood ‘defence’ against knowing a terrifying truth but it cannot be abandoned without consciously focusing on feeling the terror that holds it in place.

Obviously, in a better world, this woman would have plenty of friends who could listen, deeply, to her while she focused on feeling just how terrified she really feels.

My own experience suggests that, in this particular context, it should not be Palestinians who should have to do this listening: it is a role that allies of Palestinians, whether Israeli or otherwise, could usefully perform to allow some terrified Israelis, at least, the chance to perceive more accurately what is taking place.

It is obvious from the response of the first Palestinian in this dialogue, who ignored the Israeli woman’s feelings, that he lacked the knowledge and patience to listen (because he failed to notice the Israeli’s terror and went straight to suggesting an intellectual ‘solution’).

The second Israeli’s part in the dialogue revealed that his projection works slightly differently from that of the first Israeli: his fear still makes him blame the Palestinians but for different reasons.

But the second Palestinian is frustrated by this tired repetition of what he sees as some old propaganda and he simply abuses the Israeli. It is appropriate and useful that the Palestinian expresses his frustration (and someone might have usefully reflected it to him) but, in this context, it would have been better for him to do so elsewhere: in this context, it will not help the second Israeli to feel the fear that holds his belief in place.

This is because the second Israeli genuinely believes what he is presenting to be true and if we simply dismiss it as propaganda for the sake of propaganda, we miss the underlying emotional truth of what is happening for this individual and lose an opportunity to give him the chance to perceive things differently.

So, again, the opportunity was missed to reflect something like this: ‘It sounds like you feel that Palestinians have hurt themselves. What is it that makes you feel this way and how, exactly, does this make you feel?’ It is only if he is capable of feeling his way through his fear and other suppressed feelings that his perceptions can change. No argument can achieve this outcome because his view is held in place by (unconscious) feelings, not thoughts.

The American psychologist’s contribution, about the unlikelihood of change when badly psychologically damaged people are involved, is one with which I broadly agree. Nevertheless, deep listening remains a key option that might be tried with any individual, including those in this dialogue, if the opportunity arises. But if nisteling is rejected, doesn’t work or there is no access to political leaders responsible for key decisions, we still have a powerful option at our disposal: strategically applied nonviolent resistance.

So, in this context, if too many Israelis, particularly those in leadership positions, are badly psychologically damaged (which will leave them trapped in a series of projections distant from reality and for which even nisteling is unlikely to have an adequate impact), then we need to plan and implement a comprehensive nonviolent strategy to liberate Palestine. See ‘The Strategy of Nonviolent Defense: A Gandhian Approach‘.

Finally, the comment by the second Palestinian that the use of capital letters in emails represents ‘shouting’ that ‘reveals anger’ is incorrect. The first Israeli is (unconsciously) terrified and her ‘shouting’ is a desperate attempt to have her (unconscious) feeling of being terrified heard. Again, even she does not know this and it will not be easy to listen to her when she is in denial about the problem herself.

But, to reiterate, if we are interested in dealing with the conflict effectively then this woman needs nisteling (and someone who gets irritated by her terrified claims is not a suitable person to nistel).

Moreover, responding to her claim about ‘undermining our demographic situation’ with the observation that it is ‘sadly racist’ and offering her information about entitlements under international law while suggesting she ‘get educated’ cannot help (and again reflects the understandable but, when expressed in this context, unserviceable frustration of the second Palestinian). Moreover, his comment that ‘I will pray for you’ is most likely to sound patronizing.

In essence, an argument cannot be ‘won’ on the basis of intellectual content if one, some or all participants in a conflict hold views that are rooted in fear (which will invariably be unconscious). Until the fear is felt, the ‘view’ of a person cannot change (and then it will do so of their own volition).

So next time you observe a conflict (including a simple one), remind yourself that, fundamentally, the conflict has an (unconscious) emotional basis and the intellectual arguments being tossed back and forth are, at worst irrelevant and, at best secondary, to any resolution of it. Perhaps you could ponder what you might reflect to one or more participants if you were inclined to help them focus on the emotional underlay to what they were saying.

And if you feel able to perceive reality yourself, you might like to consider signing the online pledge of ‘The People’s Charter to Create a Nonviolent World‘.

People who are trapped in a projection (or series of projections) are victims of their own unconscious terror. I encourage you to never underestimate the capacity of someone’s terror to delude them. And to remember that the only thing that can help them is nisteling. Unfortunately, nisteling requires a person who is highly Self-aware.

*Robert J. Burrowes has a lifetime commitment to understanding and ending human violence. He has done extensive research since 1966 in an effort to understand why human beings are violent and has been a nonviolent activist since 1981. He is the author of ‘Why Violence?‘ His email address is flametree@riseup.net and his website is at http://robertjburrowes.wordpress.com

Other articles by Robert J. Burrowes published in Human Wrongs Watch:

Nobel Peace Laureates Endorse Violence

Revolting World

Most Attitudes and Beliefs are Outcomes of Fear

Comforting a Baby Is Violent

Exposing Lies, Telling the Truth

Why Elites Love Drones

Peace Lessons: How to Reduce Violence

Legacy of War

Saving Passengers of the Good Ship ‘Titan… Earth’

Violence Against Women: Why We Keep Getting it Wrong

Why Do We Fear Challenging Authority?

Vykom: Strategic Nonviolent Action Against Untouchability

2015 Human Wrongs Watch

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