“Perception is Projection” – really?

Many NLP trainers, especially but not exclusively the ones at the ‘large event, offer a free intro, and sell like crazy to your captive audience’ end of the market, use the phrase “Perception is Projection”. Some have even elevated this equation to a place in one of the ‘presuppositions of NLP’ (think ‘guiding principles’ if you are not familiar with the NLP jargon). Making this principle part of your ‘mental map’, along with the companion idea that every quality, good or bad, that we see in another person is just a reflection of what is in ourselves, is useful in some ways but can also lead you down some problematic roads.

For example, a woman locked in an abusive relationship will find it hard to take on board the idea that the violence in her partner is just reflecting some violence in her – and if she does take this idea on, it will probably make her situation worse as she tries to project love and kindness on to the abuser rather than taking steps to escape.

Or the trainer mentioned in L Michael Hall’s article on ‘Perception is Projection’ (well worth a read if you can overlook his use of ‘meta-state’ as a verb) who says “I don’t need feedback – that’s just their projection”.

These are emotive examples, and it’s understandable that some people react vehemently against the ‘p=p’ generalisation.

The phrase ‘perception is projection’ came into NLP via an oversimplification of ideas in Gestalt Therapy, according to veteran NLP trainer Eric Robbie. The first trainer to use it in NLP, as far as I know, was Tad James. My understanding of Tad’s view of the world is that it’s at least partly informed by Indian mysticism; “perception is projection” would be entirely consistent with the concept in the Indian religious traditions of ‘Maya‘ – the idea that the ‘reality’ we perceive is an illusion and that there is no distinction between consciousness and physical reality. This is a perfectly tenable philosophical position, and not one that can be disproved by science – but do you share it? I’m pretty sure I believe that there is a physical reality out there, although my perception of it is certainly mediated by my mental filters.

My take on “perception is projection” is that like all generalisations it’s an oversimplification, implying that the equation (a ‘complex equivalence’ in the NLP jargon, where something is stated to be or mean the same as something else) is always true, all of the time – but sometimes it isn’t. Anyone who understands NLP’s Meta Model isn’t going to disagree with this (unless they are holding to the ‘Maya’ idea outlined above). I think the area of disagreement is more about how useful the generalisation “p=p” is in practice.

*Sometimes* a perception is a projection – other times, stuff just happens. Because our self-awareness is not perfect, we can’t always tell which is which. So whenever we experience something bad happening to us, it’s always worth asking ourselves ‘What do I need to learn from this?’ – even if we can’t initially see any possible way we could have contributed to the situation.

Sometimes we will get an answer, sometimes we won’t. But it’s always worth asking, because if there is something we can do about the situation, how else are we going to know?

Perception, like most things to do with human beings, is complex and thus not always easy to think or talk about. The least we can do is be careful about sweeping statements like ‘p=p’. When challenged on this point, some trainers who use it tend to say ‘Obviously it’s not supposed to be taken literally’ – but a lot of their students do, since that’s the way it is presented in the training materials.

NB if you are interested in the topic of perception and projection, you may want to read this longish and informative article by Robert Priddy that I came across while researching this posting.

© 2011, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.

1 comment

  1. Gavin Ingham


    That’s what I always love about your articles… well researched, well informed and well interesting! The concept that perception is projection can be a very powerful one for people needing to take back some responsibility for their lives and their successes (or lack of)…

    But, like any generalisation, it is unlikely to be true some of the time and holding it to be so could be damaging and counterproductive. NLP is a toolset and one which only works when treated as a flexible and changing approach for achieving success. One of the dangers with the pseudo-religious model of some NLP doctrines is their inability to employ the very flexibility they claim to hold dear.

    Love it. You’re one of the few NLP writers / speakers I read.

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