Blog Short #31: What to do when someone “projects” their stuff on you.
Welcome to Monday Blog Shorts – ideas to make even Monday a good day! Every Monday I share a short article with you about a strategy you can use, or new facts or info that informs you, or a new idea that inspires you . My wish is to give you something to think about in the week ahead. Let’s dig in!
This week’s blog is Part 1 of a two-part series about the defense mechanism known as “projection.”
- Part 1 will address what you need to know about being on the receiving end of projection.
- Part 2 will address how to identify your own use of projection and what you can do to stop it.
Let’s start with a few definitions.
A defense mechanism is a psychological strategy we use to protect ourselves from anxiety or guilt that arises when we have unacceptable thoughts, feelings or motives. We use it unconsciously meaning we aren’t aware of it.
Projection is a particular defense mechanism that assigns our unwanted thoughts, feelings or motives to someone else. So instead of becoming anxious when those unwanted thoughts arise, we pass them on to someone without ever acknowledging to ourselves that they apply to us. In other words, “It’s not me, it’s you!”
Here’s a few examples:
- A woman has many critical thoughts during the day about her co-workers, but complains that her boss is highly critical and hurtful.
- Your husband complains that you’re overly emotional and reactive, yet he often loses his temper and flies off the handle.
- Your friend complains about how inept a guy is on your softball team, yet you know this friend strikes out regularly and has had the most errors this season.
In all these examples, one person is projecting his or her feelings and behavior onto someone else without awareness of doing it. They’re assigning to another person something about themselves they don’t want to acknowledge.
This happens a lot, and I’m sure you can think of examples you’ve observed. Like…
- The person who’s late all the time complains about people who’re late.
- The person who can’t be trusted to keep a secret complains about people who blab everything.
- The person who’s a terrible flirt says everyone is flirting with her.
Why you need to recognize when someone projects.
It’s important to recognize when someone is projecting their unwanted issues onto to you.
If you’re the recipient of repetitive projections, or you ruminate on someone’s projection continuously, you’re being influenced by it and may eventually own it as your own thoughts and feelings.
This is particularly true in more intimate relationships where you’re more susceptible to the other person’s emotions and characterizations of you.
Here’s an example:
Your husband regularly sabotages your confidence in parenting by taking your child’s side when you try to assert discipline, and then tells you that you’re unfeeling and harsh. All the while, you know your disciplinary tactics are fair and necessary and accompanied by love. You also know your husband’s mother was very harsh and critical with him growing up.
What’s happening here is that your husband is projecting his experience with his mother on to you. And in the process, he’s sabotaging your influence with your child.
This is a more subtle projection than some, but over time it can undermine you because you may begin to accept his view that you’re harsh and unfeeling, and react by becoming more permissive with your child which would not be in his best interest.
How can you tell when someone’s projecting, and what should you do about it?
#1 Pay attention to “blame” words.
People who project use “blame words.” These are “you” and absolutes like “always, never, and every time.”
“You never help me with the kids!”
“Seems like you’ve gotten lax with your money management.”
“You make me insecure because you don’t listen to what I say.”
In all of these statements, the onus is on “you.” You’re the cause of whatever the problem is, and in some cases, you’re always the cause.
#2 Challenge each statement for accuracy.
How factual is it? What’s the evidence?
Using our above statements, here are the real facts:
- He says,“You never help with the kids.” In truth, he actually doesn’t do as much with the kids as his wife, who is the recipient of this statement. He has trouble attending to the kids and finds them to be too needy, as did his mother with him.
- She says, “You’re upset!”Actually she’s the one who’s upset, but doesn’t recognize it and projects it off on her partner.
- He says, “Seems like you’ve gotten lax with your money management.”The reality is that he often spends money frivolously, yet accuses his wife of not managing their money well.
- She says, “You make me insecure because you don’t pay attention to what I say.” The truth is that she often feels insecure in spite of her partner’s affection and attention to her.
Sometimes there’s some truth in projective statements, yet they are still projections.
In the case of the wife who doesn’t manage money well, it may be true that she has difficulties managing money, but it’s also true that her husband spends frivolously. He points out something in her that’s partially true, while ignoring that he has similar if not worse issues with the same problem. That way he can relieve himself of acknowledging his money issues by focusing solely on hers.
This is a fairly common type of projection, and harder to sort out. Yet, with careful discrimination, you can evaluate it accurately.
The goal is always to lean toward reality, and not take in projections that don’t fit.
If you’re not sure what’s being said, get in your detective mode and ask questions. Instead of defending, ask the person to explain more. What’s she feeling? What’s she actually saying?
By asking questions and getting into an empathy mode, you turn the attention away from you and back to the person who’s launching the projection. If she feels heard, she’s more likely to withdraw from the projection or at least become more receptive to your responses to it.
#4 Sometimes just let it go.
It isn’t always necessary to correct someone’s projections. Often you can let them fly by, especially if the projection doesn’t personally affect you. You observe it, clarify it for yourself, and let it go.
The choice to bring it to light will depend on the nature of the relationship, the level of distortion that’s present, and the consequences of letting it go or not. Here’s two examples that might help you figure out which path to take:
- Let it go. With the friend that complained about how inept a player was on their softball team even though he’s the inept one – you can let this one go. There’s no reason to get into an argument, or hurt the friend’s feelings, or start something up. Everyone sees his performance and it’s up to him to come to terms with that or not.
- Confront it. With the husband who accuses his wife of mismanaging money, the projection needs to be addressed. The wife may own up to her part in the management of their money, but also recognize her husband’s part in it. She might suggest they write everything down that’s spent by both of them for several months to see where the money goes, and then make adjustments. By doing that, she’s addressed the projection without being defensive, and come up with a way to test it out.
Understanding projection and knowing how to identify it is a very valuable skill. It helps you do two things:
- Learn to accurately assess when someone is trying to pass off their unwanted feelings and behavior on to you.
- Learn how to field it without being defensive, and learn when to let it go or confront it.
Next week we’ll talk about how to become aware of our own projections, and what to do to turn those around.
Have a great week!
All my best,