Projection in Partnership
Have you ever felt like other people don’t like you? Or maybe everyone is judging your appearance, your weight, your intelligence or your competence? Perhaps you’ve found yourself judging the sexual practices or interests of others. Or maybe someone liked something you didn’t, and you found yourself criticizing them for their poor taste or lack of discrimination.
Projection is when you believe something about yourself and/or the world around you and see your beliefs reflected in the actions, behaviors or communications of other people. It’s a common human tendency to perceive not only our negative beliefs and insecurities in others, but also our strengths, capacities and attributes outside ourselves. Instead of seeing others for who they are, we see them through filters that have been developed over a lifetime of repeating conditions and experiences. We are literally conditioned to “see” life as we have experienced it. The filters or lens’ through which we meet one another are constructed piece by piece throughout our lives by our traumas, pains, achievements, and life events.
There’s no one to blame, especially not yourself, if you find that you’re projecting your deepest fears of humiliation or pain or your strict standards of perfection or righteousness onto other people. It’s a natural defense mechanism, designed to protect us from feeling the dejection, depression, isolation and hopelessness that might ensue from rejection or abandonment by others. If we reject or abandon first, judge or critique, diminish or dismiss before we are belittled or denied, we can keep a safe arm’s distance from being overcome by our own deeply seated sense of inadequacy and insecurity.
But when our projections begin to interfere with our lives and relationships, it’s worth considering that this tendency to disown the qualities we don’t like about ourselves and see them in others is likely the single most derailing and destructive phenomenon in intimate relationships. The devastating power of projection lies in the fact that we are unaware we are doing it!
We are mostly blind to the fact that we are projecting, believing instead that we have clarity about how and who the other person is, and how they need to change. We have certainty about our worldview and KNOW the fault lies within our partner, friend, colleague, boss or the stranger driving the car in front of us! We fail to see the part we play.
Without personal responsibility, projection becomes blame and victimization, a deadly undertow in most relationship communications. Partners, especially, waste a great deal of time focusing on the wrong things, defending their filters and doubling down on how the other person is wrong. We fail to perceive what is really happening in the moment. Projection of our disowned self-hatred and insecurity onto our partners or colleagues puts them in a false role, and eliminates the possibility of authentic communication.
Maybe you are asking yourself, “Is it me? or is it them?” Good sign!! . . . Curiosity and personal inquiry can lead to self-awareness! If you are toying with this question in your head, then yes, projection is in play.
Your partner may have accused you of something for which you perceive them to be an example of the exact same thing. Or, perhaps the reverse is also occurring . . . Maybe your partner is noticing that you are guilty of the behavior or attitude for which you blame them.
A common example could be that you are attracted to someone outside of your relationship. If you have not fully admitted this to yourself, you may accuse your partner of being unfaithful. In reality, the desire to be unfaithful lives within you, but you see it in your partner.
Another example might be your partner accusing you of being selfish. You take time for yourself away from family responsibilities. In fact, your partner has a deep wish for self-care and wants desperately to escape their responsibilities. They believe that having such desires is selfish. They resent you for taking time for yourself, because they don’t.
Let’s say you have an interaction with a work colleague, and you leave that interaction believing they thought your ideas for the meeting were dumb. In fact, you actually believe that they think you’re dumb in general. If you’re aware that one of your fears is being perceived as dumb and that your interaction left you feeling like your intelligence came into question, you’ll start to be able to see how those two are connected. That perhaps, your own belief about how smart you are influenced how you perceived your co-worker’s reactions.
Anytime we disown parts of ourselves, we are at high risk for projection.
The thing to remember is: Projection is human and serves as a defense against perceived threats to the ego. As long as you are aware that neither you nor your partner is immune to it, you can use projection as an opportunity for self-awareness, emotional connection, and growth. You can definitely expect that projection will crop up regularly. Notice if you tend to beat yourself up about it (or your partner), and start there . . . what is with this perfection projection?
As noted previously, you will generally find yourself in either the role of projector or projected upon. You will either be the one projecting, or your partner will be projecting onto you.
If you try to blame your partner for what you are feeling, thinking, saying or doing, then you are likely projecting your issues. One defining characteristic of projection is the degree of intensity and focus you feel. You will have a very strong inclination to blame and shame the other.
When you are triggered take a moment to reflect on the possibility that a part of you may be just like them. If you’re annoyed because you perceive your partner to be lazy, perhaps lying on the couch and doing nothing is something you long for yourself but are ashamed to admit. If you can be truthful, you will probably see some part you’re playing and almost instantly, the intensity of your judgment will start to fade.
Staying with feelings, staying connected to the sensations in your body without taking any action or even speaking, is the best and fastest way to make contact with what is really true for you. Not acting will bring you into immediacy with the feelings you would prefer to project onto your partner. You will be in mild to severe discomfort. Remember, the more intense your urge is to change or blame your partner, the more pain you have around an emotional wound you have denied. So stay present with your emotions and bodily sensations such as heat, pressure, pounding pain, and observe your judging thoughts of the other as a reflection of your disowned material.
During times of stress, we are generally more likely to project. Notice when you are under stress, when you have limited bandwidth or low tolerance. These are times to be extra careful and attentive to your embodied experience, taking responsibility for the choices that have brought you to this moment in your life and purposefully choosing to exercise more, or go to sleep earlier or alone, to spend time away from technology, to seek out some time in nature; to be mindful of proactively reducing your stress. This will set you up for success in your relationship.
When your partner is projecting onto you, it can feel like you’re going crazy. You may be accused of the very things you know are true about your partner. It feels like a complete reversal of the truth, and you may be shocked. You may feel tempted to defend yourself and prove your innocence. There are a couple of things to do in this situation.
One is to respectfully disengage. Sometimes, you might be able to say something like, “I don’t think this is about me,” or, “I need to think about what you are saying,” and then lovingly extract yourself and avoid getting sucked in.
It can feel like a betrayal when you are accused of being or doing something that isn’t resonant with how you know yourself in the moment. Watch for the tendency to want to explain, defend, argue, teach, analyze, criticize or counter-attack. The only way to avoid getting tangled up in something that is not about you (and become implicated) is to keep it about them. You can express empathy for their distress and ask questions or make statements that create greater awareness . . . “Have you felt this way in the past?” or . . . “Wow babe, I can see something is really triggered in you.” If there is an element of truth in your partner's assertions own your piece, but don’t take on what isn’t yours.
Projection can be used to expand self-awareness and intimacy in any relationship when partners share a willingness to self-reflect. Two people can become ever closer by embracing the phenomenon of projection as a means for mutual awareness.