“The particular egoic patterns that you react to most strongly in others and misperceive as their identity tend to be the same patterns that are also in you, but that you are unable or unwilling to detect within yourself.” ~Eckhart Tolle from A New Earth
Does this ring a bell in your relationship?
There is a human tendency to focus on certain behaviors in others (the very traits we have denied in ourselves) so that we can point at them outside ourselves. In this way we declare our (illusory) separation from—and victimhood to—the patterns we abhor.
Projection in Relationships: What is it?
This tendency to disown the qualities we don’t like about ourselves and see them in others is projection.
Projection is the single most derailing and destructive phenomenon in intimate relationships. Its power lies in our inability to see it. Because it is a subconscious defense mechanism, we are most often blind to our own projections.
We are SURE the fault lies within our partner, and fail to see the part we play.
The result is that boundaries get blurred and blame sets the tone for communications. Partners waste a great deal of time focusing on the wrong things, and fail to see what really is happening in the moment. Projection hurts our partners by casting them into a false role, and blocks authentic communication.
Projection in Relationships: How it shows up
You can tell if projection is affecting your relationship if you often struggle with questions like: “Is it me? or is it them?”
You may be accused of something by your partner who is a perfect example of the exact same thing (in spades) that they notice in you. Or, maybe your partner has said YOU are guilty of what you blame them for.
An example might be that you are attracted to another person outside of your relationship. You have not fully admitted this to yourself. Then you end up accusing your partner of being unfaithful. Really, the desire to be unfaithful lives within you, but you see it in your partner.
Another example could be that your partner accuses you of being selfish because you take time for yourself away from family responsibilities. But your partner has a deep wish for self care and “escaping” responsibilities. They believe these desires are selfish. Thus they resent you for taking time for yourself, because they don’t.
Anytime you disown parts of yourself, you are at high risk for projection.
Projection in Relationships: What to do about it
The thing to remember is: Everybody does it. It’s human and serves as a defense against threats to our ego.
So the first thing to do is accept this fact. Don’t beat yourself up about it (or your partner), and most importantly expect that it will crop up now and again.
As long as you are aware that neither you nor your partner is immune to it, you can use it projection as an opportunity for self-awareness, emotional connection, and growth.
When looking at strategies for coping, there are two situations to consider: One is that you are the one projecting, and the other is that your partner is projecting onto you. Let’s look at each separately.
When you are projecting:
If you try to blame your partner for what you are feeling, thinking, saying or doing, then you are likely projecting your issues onto them. One defining characteristic of projection is the level of intensity and degree of focus you feel. You will have a very strong urge to blame.
The best antidote to projection is setting these three intentions:
1) Look Within. Every time you are triggered by your partner, take a moment to look at the part of you that is just like them. Are you annoyed because your partner is lazy? Maybe your whole being would rather lie on the couch and do nothing, and you hate this about yourself. If you are honest, you will usually see some part you play. When you do, the intensity of judgment will fade.
2) When you get triggered, stay with the feelings. Avoid acting or speaking out while still triggered UNLESS you are able to merely share your own reactions, without identifying with the judgments. Not acting out will cause discomfort. A good rule to remember is that 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 avoid judging thoughts.
3) Be aware of stress. The higher our stress level, the fewer emotional resources we have. During times of stress we are more likely to project. So stay aware of when you are under stress, and take extra care to be mindful as well as proactively reduce your stress. This will set yourself up for success in your relationship.
When your partner is projecting:
When your partner is projecting, it can feel crazy-making. 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.
The best thing to do in this situation boils down to just two things:
1) Respectfully disengage. Often, the best thing is to say something like, “This feels like it is not about me,” and then lovingly avoid getting sucked in. Be compassionate toward yourself, because it feels like a betrayal to be attacked about something that isn’t based in real-time.
2) Do not explain, defend, argue, teach, analyze, counter-attack, or criticize. If you do, your partner is off the hook. The only way to avoid getting tangled up in something that is’nt about you (and become implicated) is to keep it about them. You can express empathy for their distress, and ask questions that create greater awareness (“have you felt this way in the past?” or “I can see something is really triggered in you, and I am here for you.”) But don’t pick up what isn’t yours.
If you follow these guidelines, projection can be used to expand self-awareness and closeness in any relationship. It’s just about a willingness to self-reflect.
You can truly become closer than ever by committing to mutual awareness of projection in your relationship.
Since it can’t be 100% avoided, you may as well make use of it!