Projection is a defense mechanism used to displace the responsibility of one’s negative and unacknowledged feelings, behavior, beliefs and choices by attributing them to someone else.
The goal of projection is to create a distraction that helps avoid ownership and accountability. The victim becomes the focus, and is manipulated into taking responsibility for the abuser’s behavior, beliefs and feelings.
For example, an obviously angry parent confronts and accuses their child of hating them. The child, in fact, loves the parent, feels disliked by the parent, and walks away feeling ashamed and guilty for hating their parent, even though that’s not their feeling. For the moment, the parent has successfully displaced their own self-hatred onto the child.
Another example is a friend talking to another friend about her experience of a chaotic yet transformative life event that’s picked her up and set her down in a different place. The speaker is accused of being negative and making her friend feel stressed and upset, in spite of the speaker’s attempts to be clear about the exhilaration and joy of her experience. The speaker walks away with her friend’s displaced inability to deal with change and loss of control, her own joy forgotten.
Projection is a common defense mechanism, and most of us use it to one degree or another. It’s not necessarily a Big Evil. On the other hand, projection can be a subtle and cruel blame-shifting game of power-over, and some people who employ this tactic intend to win at any cost. Their victim and the world at large are blamed for everything that’s wrong or feels bad. The projector is an innocent victim of the machinations and manipulations of others, the general unfairness of the world and bad luck.
People who use projection as a weapon can have a devastating effect in our lives, but I’ve been even more devastated by my own use of projection, and this is a skill the culture has actively and systematically taught me to perfect.
I’ve been brainwashed since I was a child to believe that all people share my desire for peace, compassion and cooperation. I’ve been led to believe that all others share my empathy, my thirst to learn and grow and my priorities for healthy connection. I’ve been taught the Golden Rule, the application of which ensures being treated with love and kindness. We treat people the way we want to be treated, and voila!
Furthermore, as a female, it’s my responsibility to be a representative of all these values. If I fail to exemplify peace, empathy, loyalty and kindness towards others, I fail to be a good daughter, wife, lover, friend, mother and woman.
It’s also my job to be the keeper and carrier of feelings the people around me don’t want to deal with. It’s what I’m for.
No one ever suggested to me how dangerous it is to project my own value system onto another person…
Then it occurred to me that our approach to strangers (or even those we think we know) needn’t be either/or, friend or foe. A stranger is a stranger. An unknown. It’s not necessary or useful to project anything onto a stranger. The Golden Rule still applies and I still conduct myself authentically and respectfully and pay attention as I interact with an unknown person. I’m learning not to manufacture stories, make assumptions or project. I inquire, listen, watch and take responsibility for my own feelings and behavior.
Projection is a complex technique and can be very hard to see when it’s lurking under the bed. However, in this house we’re skilled at pulling all sorts of monsters out from under the bed (metaphorically, of course) and letting the cat sniff at them. Once identified, projection is perfectly manageable.
Projection, like gaslighting and mice, leaves tell-tale signs.
- Any conversation about a challenging issue (money, parenting, fidelity, keeping one’s word, the nature of the relationship, why you got hit) winds up being about why it’s all your fault.
- You’re accused of something (a feeling, lying, cheating, stealing, being demanding, interrupting) that’s not true.
- In spite of your best efforts, communication isn’t successful. You can’t get your point of view heard and you feel chronically disempowered.
- After an interaction, you feel ashamed and guilty.
- No matter what you do, you seem to be continually hurting someone you care about.
- You don’t experience reciprocity; the more loyalty, understanding, empathy, love, gratitude and forgiveness you extend, the more drained and alone you feel.
- You feel like a disappointment, a failure and a burden.
- You’re always bleeding; you had no idea what a terrible person you are.
- You feel manipulated, used, disliked and angry, which increases your guilt and shame.
- You feel confused, baffled and bewildered. Every time you turn around you seem to get sucker punched, literally or figuratively.
- You don’t feel safe.
- Your trust is damaged.
- Your boundaries are chronically violated.
- Your priorities, feelings and values are disregarded, if not brutalized.
- Your needs are not met.
Abusers and personality disordered people who employ projection invariably give themselves away, right in plain sight, because at some point they project onto others something so bizarre the victim and/or onlookers have an Aha! moment and recognize the manipulation. For example, someone with sexual boundary issues accuses someone else of an assault that never happened. A thief projects stealing onto someone with scrupulous integrity. A liar accuses an obviously honest person of lying. A rageholic accuses everyone else of being angry while they put their fist through a wall.
Another common projection is “You don’t care!” when in fact we care so much we feel terminally ill, and we still can’t make it work.
Shame and guilt have enormous isolating power. One of the best defenses against projection is to verify someone’s stated perception of you and your behavior. I had a boyfriend who accused me of “always interrupting.” I was crushed. It was a heated, angry accusation that blew up out of nowhere, and he’d never given me that feedback before. I’ve studied good communication techniques for a long time, and communication is something I care about doing well. Furthermore, I frequently had the experience that he interrupted me, but I tolerated it because I loved him.
My choice (after I stopped crying) was to ask other people in my life if they had this experience with me and get a reality check. I had a couple of close girlfriends whom I knew would tell me the truth. If it was true, I wanted to know so I could change that behavior.
They thought I was nuts. One of my best friends, who had years of experience of me in groups as well as one on one, said she appreciated the way I always held space for others to speak.
I didn’t cry anymore and I immediately dumped that projection. Not long after that the relationship also ended.
Another good defense against projection is to name the behavior and refuse the projection. There’s no need to fight, raise your voice, cry, argue, persuade, explain, justify or throw something. Those are all distractions from the fact that the abuser is employing a toxic tactic that’s about them, not you. Let them escalate—it’s their game. You’re don’t have to play.
“No. That’s not how I feel. That’s a projection.”
“No. That’s not what I did. That’s a projection.”
“No. That’s not what I said. That’s a projection.”
Stand your ground, look them in the eye and refuse to get distracted from their behavior, no matter how juicy the bait they dangle. Hang up, disconnect, block, delete, walk away, disengage. If you can’t get away from them, repeat a simple statement like the ones above as many times as you need to.
Projection can be abusive and toxic. It’s essential that we recognize it, both when we employ it and when others use it against us. Good boundaries go a long way to disabling projection, and so does the work of authenticity. We can’t control the behavior of others, but we can learn to recognize and excavate our own projections and take responsibility for our choices and feelings, which makes us far less vulnerable to this tactic.
Check out my Good Girl Rebellion page for this week’s antitoxin to life-threatening niceness.
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