We are living in a time when a lot of our public, and thus our private, language projects the image of “enemy” onto other people. This is happening on all sides of the political aisle. Projecting an enemy image onto another human is the act of making them not only an other, but also bad and a threat.
An “enemy image” is when we see our co-worker as “lazy” or “a jerk.” When we see people of a different political persuasion from our own as “selfish,” “ignorant,” or “out to ruin our country/democracy.” Or when we see people of a different race or religion as “bad” or “potential terrorists.” These are all enemy images.
Projecting an enemy image onto another human immediately shuts down relationship and connection. That enemy image in our head makes us scared of the other, or angry at the other, and we lose touch with our natural desire for relationship. Instead we desire them to just be gone. This breakdown in relationship can do real harm.
Perhaps the most damaging thing about viewing others as enemies is that it cuts you off from your own capacity for compassion. If we view others as enemies, then when those same habits and flaws appear in ourselves, or a loved one, we are likely to see ourselves or those closest to us as enemies as well. Turning off compassion in one part of your life affects all the other parts of your life too.
So let me talk about four ways we fall into the trap of projecting an enemy image onto the other, and ways to get out of those traps.
First, we generalize and universalize. “My husband never thinks about anyone but himself.” “My co-worker has never finishes a project on time.” “Donald Trump has absolutely no empathy.” These generalizations help us turn the person into a static object which we can hate. The remedy to this is to think of and talk about a specific, concrete instance. “When I got home my husband hadn’t cleaned the kitchen, and I found him in the back watching a movie.” “Last week, my co-worker finished a project two weeks after I was expecting it to be finished.” “Donald Trump signed an executive order banning citizens of seven countries from entering the U.S.”
Second, we avoid our feelings and fixate on our thinking. Our thoughts are constantly constructing a narrative of meaning around those specific, concrete instances. And we are likely to project an enemy image onto the other when we buy into those narratives rather than paying attention to our feelings and needs. So we need to redirect our attention to our emotional experience. “I felt really angry, hurt, and sad when I came home to the messy kitchen because I really just want some support and partnership.” “I felt really anxious because I wanted to be efficient at work.” “I feel really angry and scared because I want to live in a nation where there is acceptance and understanding.”
Third, we label what the other person has done as bad rather than seeking out what good value was driving their behavior. It is easy to see someone make a mistake and sit back as an armchair coach pointing out their flaws and how wrongheaded they were. It takes real work to try and understand what good value is motivating the others’ behavior. “I know my husband experiences a lot of stress at work, and when he gets home he really is looking for rest and relaxation.” “My co-worker maybe feeling anxious because she really wants my approval for her work and that’s why she spends so much time working on it.” “Donald Trump maybe feels proud and glad because in his mind he thinks he is helping people feel safer.”
Finally, we make it a precondition that the other must change before we can work with them. But if we refuse to engage with the other until they have changed, then instead of having rich relationships we’ll have disconnection and isolation. We need to start with working with others just as they are with the needs and values they already have. “I want to spend some time relaxing with my husband, and then we can clean up the kitchen together.” “I want to tell my co-worker how much I appreciate their work, and see if there is a way we can get the work done sooner.” “I want to create a space where people of different races and religions can meet and talk to one another, so people can feel safe without having to exclude the other.”