How to Respond to Psychological Projection in Relationships That Are Strained
“Since the beginning of time, people have been trying to change the world so that they can be happy. This hasn’t ever worked, because it approaches the problem backward. What The Work gives us is a way to change the projector—mind—rather than the projected. It’s like when there’s a piece of lint on a projector’s lens. We think there’s a flaw on the screen, and we try to change this person and that person, whomever the flaw appears on next. But it’s futile to try to change the projected images. Once we realize where the lint is, we can clear the lens itself. This is the end of suffering, and the beginning of a little joy in paradise.” ~ Byron Katie
Have you ever noticed how people hate or get irritated by the qualities in others that they themselves unknowingly possess? Take for example, Don, the husband of a close friend. He’s always making comments like, “I can’t stand people who are so controlling,” or “That woman has a control issue, for sure!” He adamantly proclaims that he hates men who control women, but those around him glance at each other with knowing looks, because we see him trying to control his wife and kids in little ways all the time.
The good news is that our friend has learned to recognize her husband’s psychological projections and his insecurities that cause them. She’s developed some great coping skills and knows how to respond to psychological projection in relationships. I’m happy to see that she’s also respectfully teaching her children to do the same.
Psychological projection not only involves attributing the feelings and thoughts we don’t like in ourselves to those around us. It rears its head in many other ways, especially at times of conflict. We create negative “stories” about others to make ourselves feel better — a coworker is quiet and reserved, so you think she doesn’t like you because she’s stuck-up and snobbish. Or we put someone on a pedestal projecting positive qualities we want them to have — the man you fell in love with was perfectly honest, supportive, and trustworthy until he failed to stand up for you when you were RIGHT! We often use psychological projection to make up for where we feel inadequate.
As humans we are self-referential. We interpret the world around us from our perspective and our filters. As the center of our world, life is always about us. When we aren’t projecting onto another, we are projecting onto ourselves. The question is: Are your filters enhancing your ability to see yourself and others wholly, clearly and accurately?
A major problem with projections is that they keep you from fully experiencing the moment. Your Shadow Self or unintegrated Parts aren’t allowing you to experience and acknowledge your deepest feelings and why you have them. This may result in you passing them onto another as a projection. You might even sum up the entire essence of a person under one label (She’s a liar. He’s a hypocrite.), which keeps you from seeing the entirety of another’s personality and worth.
And when people project their issues onto us, they act as if their projection is our true identity. If you’re highly sensitive or vulnerable, you might believe their projection is true. After all, they think it and say it, so it must be so. For example, if a parent feels like a failure and they tell their child, “you’ll never amount to anything,” the child thinks, “I must be a failure,” and that thought forms his subsequent choices.
Developing greater mindfulness and self-awareness are key to knowing how to respond to psychological projections — whether you’re the one doing the projecting or someone is projecting onto you. Self-awareness, without judgment, will lead you to self-acceptance, self-love and self-forgiveness. These are skills you can also extend toward others as you accept, love and forgive them. Ultimately, you will learn to be responsible for how you’re contributing to a situation, instead of pushing the responsibility solely onto others.
When you learn to deeply communicate with yourself and others, you’ll avoid a lot of problems caused by projection. The next time you assume someone feels or thinks something, stop yourself and assess your projections by asking these questions:
- Did they really say or do what I’m assuming or am I exaggerating or jumping to conclusions?
- Why did I decide that’s how they feel? Am I reading more into their silence or body language than there is?
- How are my own emotions clouding the situation?
- Have my own emotions intensified a situation unnecessarily?
- What can I do to step back and see the other person wholly and clearly?
And remember you can’t go wrong by asking the other person questions such as, “Am I correct in thinking you said this or you meant that?”
If you’re serious about going deeper into what’s behind your present behavior, we invite you to join our 3rd annual Bring Forth the Leader Within Retreat. You’ll find a peaceful, supportive group of women who are growing into the best versions of themselves. We’ll help you recognize your patterns and find your authentic self as you refine the best way for you to show up in your relationships and life. And there’s still time to get in on the Early Bird Pricing!