Imagine you’ve received an ugly handy-me down sweater from a self-involved, highly critical relative. You hate it, and you’re ashamed to wear it because, deep down, you feel ugly because of how that relative has treated you. But for reasons you don’t understand, you feel you can’t throw it away. Instead, you give it to your friend, who will wear anything. Every time she puts it on, you attack her, not only for having tacky taste, but also for being narcissistic. Eventually, the ugliness of your disowned sweater taints your entire perception of your friend, so that every time you feel an old ugly shame feeling creeping up, you blame her ugly sweater, whether or not she’s wearing it. Whenever you fight, it’s her fault because she has no fashion sense and only thinks about herself, thus disowning your shame, and narcissistic preoccupations.
This is a somewhat ridiculous but close analogy that illustrates what it means to project our own shameful, uncomfortable feelings onto someone else. And it’s the main reason we may be quick to say “it’s your fault, not mine” in a conflict. If we don’t have enough confidence to own our shadow — the parts of ourselves we don’t like — it’s much easier to point the finger at someone else.
In other words, projection is self-protection.
Projection is perhaps the most insidious obstacle to discerning our role in interpersonal conflicts. It’s one of the common defense mechanisms identified by Sigmund Freud. Simply defined, it’s when a person unconsciously protects his or her self worth by denying unwanted negative qualities and attributing them to others; for example, a chronically tardy person who has no tolerance for other people’s lateness. Sometimes the person may, in fact, possess the projected qualities in small measure. But rather than perceiving them in scale, the projecting individual seizes on and exaggerates these qualities, blowing them up in their mind.
Projection usually takes the form of accusatory stories: “He’s late because he doesn’t care about me.” “She’s upset with me because she’s jealous.” “He’s not answering his phone because he’s cheating.” Sometimes these stories might be true, or possess a grain of truth.
The problem, however, is that we jump to conclusions before we have the facts and fail to explore alternate explanations. Maybe he’s late because he’s stuck in the subway without cell reception. Maybe she’s upset because you broke her trust. Maybe he’s not answering his phone because he’s in a business meeting.
But more often than not, they are mechanisms to avoid exploring underlying feelings. For example, “maybe he’s cheating” may mask a sense of fear linked to an underlying belief “I’m not loveable or desirable enough.” “She’s jealous” may be a defense against owning that you did something hurtful driven by darker, less appealing aspects of your personality.
Psychologically speaking, it takes a strong ego to hold onto our shadowy emotions. If, deep down, we believe that negative thoughts, feelings and behaviors make us unlovable, unworthy, inferior, or inherently bad, denying them becomes a necessary and habitual form of self-perseveration.
Rather than risking being vulnerable, projection is an easy go-to response when our fears are poked in the heat of an argument. That’s why taking a time out can help us get emotional distance from a conflict before it spirals out of control. Once we’re calm, we can begin to view events through more objective terms, thus sorting what actually happened from the stories we make up about what they mean about us, or the other person.
Here are some steps to sort fact from fiction next time you find yourself wanting to blame someone for a conflict.
Step 1. Describe the conflict (where there was fault-finding) in objective terms. What happened? Try to be as factual as possible (eg. don’t include any adjectives or adverbs that convey emotion)
Step 2. Describe your role in the situation. What might you have done knowingly or unintentionally that may have triggered the other person’s reaction? Ask yourself, what does it mean about me if that’s true? Could I live with that?
Step 3: Describe the other person’s role in the situation - stick to the facts and avoid adjectives or adverbs. What stories are you making about the meaning of the other person’s behavior? What evidence do you have that these stories are true? What might be some alternative explanations? How would you feel about the conflict if these alternative narratives were true?
Step 4: What projections are you making?