I recently got a vivid reminder of the power – and pain – of projection. Projection is when you project your worst beliefs or fears about yourself onto someone else and believe that the other person actually feels that way. Think of a slide projector – if the slide in the machine is shame, you might project onto those around you that they “hate you” or “think you are stupid” or that they are mocking you. If the slide in your machine is abandonment, you might project that those around you don’t really love you or that they are going to leave you. Just like a projector onto a screen, we project how we feel about ourselves onto others and the worst part is, we react to it as if it were true!
Whatever we fear, we search for evidence to confirm or deny it in those around us. And when we look hard enough for evidence, we can usually find it. Imagine you see your spouse looking at you with a furrowed brow (the evidence). You instantly feel like they are mad at you (your projection, not fact). You find yourself irritable and defending yourself in your head (your reaction to the projection), you are then cool and brusque in your interaction with your partner. Unless you’ve asked your partner if they are mad and they’ve said “Yes”, then you’ve just reacted to your projected feeling, not the truth.
To be fair, the feelings are so powerful that it is very difficult to distinguish a projection from the truth. That is why we react so harshly! Our anxiety that our worst fear will come true (that they don’t really love us, for example) causes us to be angry, distant, attacking, critical, defensive, cut off, etc. which often causes the very thing we are trying to avoid! Now imagine that both you and your partner are projecting onto each other, looking for evidence to confirm your projection and then reacting to it. Sounds pretty messy, right?
I could go on and on with examples, but the thing we need to know is this . . . if we want to prevent projection from blowing up our lives, we have got to stop assuming we know what other people are thinking and feeling. Trusting our feelings, which are often tainted by our insecurities and issues, can cause a lot of pain in our lives. When we recognize how inaccurate our projections can be, and we start asking people what they really feel, we can begin to respond in a healthier way to things going on around us. If you need help distinguishing projections from the truth, a trained, unbiased counselor can help. It might just change your life!