Projecting -The Subtle Relationship Poison

Relationship wounds greatly impact how we view self and how we relate to others. These wounds can be large and easily recognizable or more subtle and much harder to see. Wounds that are harder to see can create large roadblocks in our ability to connect with others and may prevent us from creating the relationships that we desire.

I have noticed a large number of my friends projecting in their romantic relationships, with colleagues at work, and even with their children. Projecting is one of the subtle relationship wounds that are harder to see, as they reinforce our lack of awareness and have a huge negative impact on our connections with others.

What is projecting?

Meline Klein describes projective identification as a defense mechanism in which an individual attributes unacceptable (denied) parts of self onto another person. Projection can range from a single emotion to attributing an entire role to another individual. A common example is an individual stating that another is angry, assuming this is true and acting as if this is factual.

We do this as a defense mechanism, in order to shift focus from us and blame something else on the outside world. When we shift the focus we actually split our identity by denying self on an unconscious level. When we are in a grouchy mood, isn't it fairly easy to focus on the shortcomings of others? On an unconscious level, if we highlight what is happening with others, then we distract the focus from our ego and believe that doing this will help us feel better. “If you would stop doing _____I would not be so grouchy.” Projecting is a defense mechanism to avoid our own shame.

How do you recognize it?

Recognizing when we are projecting is extremely difficult because we do not want to identify with what we are projecting. This is our way of getting rid of unwanted experiences or emotions. Possible signs you are projection:

  • Assuming another’s feelings. “If I was him I would feel _____.” “They must be ______.”

  • Being intensely focused or dwelling on someone’s behavior or motives.

  • Being overly critical or shaming  another

  • Feeling superior to another

  • Envy or Jealousy

  • Being defensive

How it does it impact our relationships?

I was driving with a friend and she wanted some advice on how to handle her boyfriend, who was avoiding social interactions with her friends. For 10 minutes, she proceeded to identify all the ways that she thought he must be feeling, and how she needed to act differently to help him not feel that way. She continued on,  revealing  his relational history,  how she would feel if she were him, and how he must feel when facing these obstacles. Not only was she projecting her emotions,  but she was placing him in a role in their relationship.

When we project onto others we are disconnected from the relationship, and in some ways we take away the voice/experience of the other. If my friend did not share this conflict with her boyfriend and was not aware of her projecting behaviors, there would be no way that her boyfriend would be able to convince her otherwise. This comes from our  tendency to not check in or seek feedback from another when we are projecting. Although my friend had good intentions of helping her boyfriend, she was denying her own insecurities and placing them on him. Denial would have a large impact on their interactions and the stability of their relationship due to the judgement of him that her projection caused.

How much are we able to value others and see them for who they are if we are projecting? When we are projecting we are not able to see past our own nose or accept other possibilities than what we are experiencing as fact. This is true whether we are dealing with romantic partners, children, or in our professional world.

What can you do about it?

A good place to start is to examine your negative or difficult relationships. Is there a pattern to them? Is there a common feeling or judgement you have in these connections? Do you check in with others or just assume how they are feeling and experiencing things?Identifying the other ways that YOU get defensive can give you clues about what the types of behaviors or feelings that you are projecting onto others. After you identify these feelings, comes the hard part: accepting them within yourself. Exploring the “unacceptable” parts of self and gaining awareness of our fear-based emotions and self-shaming patterns will help you become aligned and accepting of self. Our negative self-talk has a tremendous impact on how we view the world and how we show up in it.

Sources: Counseling and Therapy of Couples, 2nd edition by L. Long & M. Young.