Projection and the Spiritual Director

Because good spiritual directors do a lot of listening and very little personal sharing in a session, we sometimes become a target for other people’s projections of anxious thoughts and feelings.  Projection is a psychology term for a defense mechanism people use against their anxiety.  A common example of projection is when I am internally angry at the actions of another person but instead of “owning” my anger, I accuse the other person of acting out in anger. It’s a way an anxious person relieves himself of disturbing inner thoughts by experiencing them as if the thoughts and feelings belong to the other person.

The person who is being projected onto (for the purposes of our discussion, the spiritual director) may end up feeling agitated, surprised, angry or otherwise uneasy. It’s not fun to be the receiving end of other people’s anxiety.

However—and this is really important for spiritual directors to understand—if we are able to calmly receive this projected material, we can help the person grow to a point where they can own their thoughts and feelings. If we are not able to “roll with it,” so to speak, the directee will likely withdraw and no growth will occur.

At the Hesychia School for Spiritual Direction, Psychologist Dr. Rich Muszynski teaches directors a few tips for working with projection:

  • First, know that the anxiety is not yours and it is not about you (even if the one doing the projecting insists that it is). Bracket or set aside your own unease about the situation until you have time alone to process it.
  • Think of yourself holding a large bucket or container that can hold all the anxiety the person is trying to give to you. Lovingly accept where they are and what they are (metaphorically) putting into the bucket. Your job as director is to pull some items out of the bucket and explore with them how these feelings are affecting their spirit.
  • Never get defensive. If you are caught off guard as someone is depositing their anxiety into your container, simply ask them to “say more about what they are feeling.” Keep the emphasis on them and not on you.
  • Be curious about what is going on. It may feel difficult at first, but know that with practice you will get better at being that loving container.
  • Being a loving container does NOT mean being a doormat or an emotional punching bag. If your calm, graceful curiosity and spiritual direction listening skills don’t seem to work and the directee is becoming aggressive or dangerous, you have the right to put an end to the conversation and find safety (such situations in spiritual direction are rare).

Being the container can be hard work, so be sure to take care of yourself emotionally after a session in which projection takes place.  Sessions like that need to be taken to supervision so you can learn more about yourself as a spiritual director.

Learning more about projection is a good idea. We are called to be containers but if we aren’t careful, we may find that we project our anxiety onto our directees! The way around that is the spiritual practice of radical acceptance, so that we can acknowledge and own the full range of our feelings and thoughts.

For more about spiritual direction as I practice it, check out my website. If you have questions or comments about the content of Spiritual Direction 101, please let me hear from you in the reply section below.

About Teresa Blythe