How many times have we found ourselves judging or blaming others? And how often do we find ourselves in fear of being judged and blamed? Nobody ever taught us that judging and blaming are two ways of rejecting responsibility and that being judged and blamed is a consequence of our own judgement and blame too, towards ourselves first and then others. It is then when we project out onto others.
In this article we will overview and elaborate the meaning of projections in relationships. It is in front of this defence mechanism that we all possess and unconsciously use, that we have to build the ‘confidence’ to be who we really are, whether that’s in front of our peers, spouses, friends, bosses and… children. I strongly believe that in order to build authentic confidence and to respect our families and those who are in relationships with us, our major responsibility is to educate ourselves around the topic of projections.
What does it mean to project in a relationship?
When we hurt in our relationships, and we are convinced our partner is the one to blame, it is often likely that our partner has nothing to do with what we feel and how deeply we hurt. When we are the hurt ones and we are strongly convinced that our partner is the cause of our pain, we can almost be sure we are projecting. Basically, we say: “It’s not me, it’s you!”.
When we project, we are defending ourselves against unconscious impulses or traits, either positive or negative, that we’ve denied in ourselves, that we are blind about. Instead, we push them out, often under the shape of judgement or blame. Our thoughts or feelings about someone or something are too uncomfortable to acknowledge. In our mind, we believe that the thought or emotion originates from that other person. When we project, we deeply believe our problem is one thing, but it actually has another origin.
How do I know that? From having listened the stories of many clients, individually and couples. And from having been myself the persecutor and the victim through the use of projections in my own relationships as a wife, mum and daughter.
Why do we project in relationships?
Projections are a sort of defense mechanism that causes us to attribute characteristics we find unacceptable in ourselves to someone else. At the same time, there are also instances where a person might project their own positive qualities onto another person. They happen when we blame people for old or recent hurts we hide inside. We don’t do that consciously. Our daily conflicts at home or at work often trigger unresolved issues from our past, including childhood wounds and disappointments from previous relationships. It feels as if the person is the reason of our upset! After all they are right there with us. They must be the problem. The ongoing projection keeps us from understanding the true source of our pain.
When we strongly believe that our partner or our colleague or friend or child or friend is the one to be blamed, we are unable to see how our past has contributed and still does to what we feel in the present moment. We might imagine “She hates me, she doesn’t like me, she doesn’t love me”, when we actually hate her, don’t like or even love her. We might think someone else is angry or judgmental, yet are unaware that we are.
Similar to projection is externalization, when we blame others for our problems rather than taking responsibility for our part in causing them. It makes us feel like a victim. Addicts often blame their drinking or drug use on their spouse or boss.
What are the consequences of projecting in relationships?
Projections prevent us from resolving those fundamental and underlying issues which are triggering us right now, thus leading us to the same toxic pattern again and again. Unless we recognise and address the projection, we will keep repeating the same patterns in this relationship or from partner to partner, from colleague to colleague, from boss to boss, from friend to friend. And what’s worse, with our children. We will be prevented from moving from fights and conflicts and authentically connecting with those we care about and deeply love. Projections can play a sneaky role in all our relationships. They can sabotage them. They can distance us from them. For example, they might cause us to dislike a co-worker who has negative characteristics similar to our ones we try to disown in ourselves. They might cause to idealise a romantic partner, creating unchecked or even dangerous infatuations. From a parent’s point of view, projections can be especially harmful, because they can cause children to adopt beliefs and behaviours in an attempt to ‘live up’ or ‘live down’ to a projected identity.
Projecting in marriage or in couples
How dangerous or damaging can projections be in our marriage or couple? Let’s start saying that relationships are a dynamic. Often people who are involved in marriage are bringing complimentary wounds to the table that cause them repeat a negative pattern and project past pains and hurts onto the other. Because their dynamic is hidden in our unconscious, the pain and hurts we would need to recognise and process remain caught in the present battle between the two sides and we can’t recognise the way out. What happens then? We are unable to get over what our partner in relationship has said or hasn’t say, has done, or hasn’t done. We ended up not feeling heard, seen and finally loved. That hurts. Often we are not ready to let go and forgive. Let’s be aware that projections are a defense mechanism commonly used by abusers, including people with narcissistic or borderline personality disorder and addicts.
Projecting as a parent
Since they are usually unconscious impulses, it is not uncommon for parents to make projections that thrust their own unresolved issues onto their children. Even in the best of circumstances this can effect childhood development, causing kids to adopt identities that might not actually be their own.
Take for instance the harsh example of a mother who grew up feeling as though she could never reach her goals or establish herself alongside peers. This mother might tell her daughter that life is unfair and she should not expect to amount too much. This is nothing but an obvious projection, since it is the mother and not the child, who feels like a failure. Unable to cope with her feelings, the mother unconsciously hands them off to her daughter. After hearing this sort of negative projections for years, the daughter may begin acting on it as if it precisely describes her which can rob the child of her own identity and potential future. This is what happened to me in the relationship with my mother and I describe in the true story book Stella’s Mum Gets Her Groove Back ( 2008 – Singapore ).
Unfortunately as children we cannot recognise that the words of our parents are merely a reflection of their own experience and we end up incorporating these projections, at least in some way, into out own identities. Even when as children we are able to reject negative projections, the issue tends to cause conflict between us children and our parents. In many cases, resentment takes root, and we may grow up with a strong desire to leave home and severe relationships with parents, like it happened in my story.
The importance of being confident inside and out
Our coping strategies reflect our emotional maturity. Projection is considered a primitive defense because it distorts or ignores reality in order for us to function and preserve our ego. It’s reactive, without forethought, and is a defense that children use. When used by adults, it reveals less emotional maturity and indicates impaired emotional development. A projector can exert enormous pressure on you to accept the projection. If you’re an empathic being you are more open, therefore less psychologically protected. If you are also unable to set clear boundaries in your relationships, you may absorb a projection more easily and identify with it as your own trait.
When we have low self-esteem or are sensitive about a specific issue, such as our looks or intelligence, we are susceptible to believing a projection as a fact. It is when we introject the projection. This is because internally we agree with it. It sticks like a magnet, and we believe it’s true. Then we react to the shaming and compound our relationship problems. Doing so validates the abusers’ ideas about us and gives them authority and control. We’re sending the message that they have power over our self-esteem and that we need their approval. When we have a strong sense of self and a solid self-esteem, we are confident. This results in healthy boundaries with ourselves and others. When someone projects something onto us, it bounces off. We don’t take it personally, because we realise it’s untrue or merely a statement about the speaker.
How to cope and respond to projections in relationships
Understanding how projective identification works is crucial for self-protection.Recognizing the defense can be a valuable tool, for it’s a window into the unconscious mind of an abuser. We can actually experience what they are feeling and thinking. Armed with this knowledge, if someone shames us, we realize that they are projecting and reacting to their own shame. It can give us empathy, which is helpful, provided we have good self-esteem and empathy for ourselves too! Building authentic confidence in 4 dimensions ( physical, intellectual, emotional and relational) by disarming our inner critic is our first defence and prior responsibility in face of projections.
Still, we may feel baffled about what to do. When someone projects onto us, we simply need to estsablish our ‘stop’ force field which will create an invisible wall, sending the projection back to the speaker. We’re establishing a force field – an invisible wall.
We can say something as follows:
“You know, I don’t see it your way.”
“I understand and I don’t agree with you.”
“Sure. And I am aware I don’t own responsibility for that.”
“I respect your opinion of course. And it is yours, not mine.”
It’s important not to argue or defend ourselves, because that gives credence to the projector’s false reality. If the abuser persists, we can say, “I see that we simply disagree,” and gracefully leave the conversation. The projector will have to stew in their own negative feelings. Of course for this to happening, we can’t react personally to the projection. If this is something you continually find yourself doing, then I advise that it is time to look inside and ask for help to a counselor or coach. I’m currently offering 50% off across my services until July 31st 2020.
What can you do as a parent to combat projections?
Even as loving parents, we can project fear, prejudices, beliefs, disappointments and expectations onto our kids without even knowing it. We can make projections that thrust our own unresolved issues onto their children. Even in the best of circumstances, this is damaging to our children.
If and when we suspect we may be projecting our own unresolved issues onto our children, we must take a step back and honestly evaluate our words and behaviours. Let’s look back to our childhood and try and see if we recognise our parents’ projections in our own identity.
Finally if we have unresolved baggage from our childhood, let’s embrace our courage and consider seeing a counsellor and / or a coach specialised in relationships and /or confidence to help us work through them.
This choice helped me 20 years ago to stop the toxic cycle of projections and achieve a deep state of well-being and confidence for myself as a parent and human being. It will do with you too!