Have you ever been on the receiving end of wrath and unfair insults? Been told you’re a bad person? That you need to change? That you’re to blame for a situation you didn’t cause?
It could be a friend, a loved one, or a co-worker slamming you with, “I’m right and you’re a mess,” slurs. It usually surprises us when a simple disagreement explodes into heated drama steaming with personal attacks.
It’s tough to endure those battleground conversations—and even harder to figure out how to respond.
When faced with these difficult situations, we have at least three options:
Fight back. We can put on our boxing gloves and lash back at our attacker. This response can turn into rage and usually ends up with hurt feelings and possibly the end of the relationship. Nobody wins or grows.
Submit. We can melt like swiss cheese on a hot summer sidewalk and accept the angry, untrue words as signs from God of what’s wrong with us—and then try to change ourselves. This not only implodes our self-worth, but it also can create an imbalance of power in the relationship. Again, nobody wins or grows.
Identify Projection. But wait. There’s yet a third option: learning to recognize and respond to “projection” when it rears its ugly head so we can understand and navigate the conflict with love and honesty. When we do this successfully, everybody wins. The conflict shrinks and a peaceful resolution emerges—one that meets everyone’s needs. Love wins.
According to an article in Psychology Today, projection is displacing one’s feelings onto another person to shame, control, or manipulate them. The term is most commonly used to describe defensive projection—attributing one’s own unacceptable behavior to another. For example, if someone continuously bullies and ridicules a peer about his insecurities, the bully might be projecting his own struggle with self-esteem onto the other person.
The concept emerged from Sigmund Freud’s work on defense mechanisms and was further refined by other prominent figures in psychology.
What Does Projection Look Like?
Projection is elusive and hard to spot. People who unfairly attack others may not even realize they use this all-too-common self-defense mechanism. When confronted with the truth that they’re engaged in projection, they’ll typically deny it and often will fight back harder. Projectors believe their criticisms of others are true. They don’t understand why others can’t see it their way.
According to the article in the Happiness Clinic, 3 Steps to Clarity: Know When You’re Projecting and Stop:
“Projection is an unconscious defense mechanism stemming from the ego. In projection, you take an unacceptable part of yourself, such as your feelings, thoughts, tendencies, and fears, disown it, and place it onto someone else. Projections contain our blind spots. Although almost everyone has engaged in projection at some point in their lives, it’s often difficult to know when you’re doing it.
“Projection can cloud your vision and skew your perception of reality. This makes it hard to see a situation for what it is, and instead, morphs a person or situation into something it is not. When you engage in projection, you become susceptible to self-victimization and blaming other people for something you need to address within yourself.
“Projecting is like dumping clutter into someone else’s living room and then hating them for being messy. It’s a way to avoid the responsibility of dealing with your own emotional clutter and instead, making it someone else’s fault. Projection is often a calling for self-reflection and setting healthy boundaries.
“While it’s important to determine when you’re projecting, it’s also essential to not take on other people’s projections, and not make yourself responsible for someone else’s behavior. There will be times when you encounter manipulation, rage, disrespect, and other boundary violations that say more about the other person than they do about you. In these situations, your response is still your responsibility, whether that includes practicing nonviolent communication, setting a boundary, or removing yourself from the situation.”
True Confession: I Was a Melter
When I’ve been on the receiving end of these kinds of hostile situations in the past with attorneys, former friends, and others, I confess—I typically melted. I thought every attack was God’s way of teaching me to grow up. I believed there was something wrong with me, and my people-pleaser personality grew exhausted trying to fix me.
After years of white-knuckling through what I thought were personality defects, I went into counseling. The wise counselor told me that sometimes in those heated situations, there’s nothing wrong with me. It’s other people projecting their problems onto me to get the upper hand. I learned how to recognize and deal with projection when it flails its tongue, to stand my ground, and to calmly mirror back the truth.
Here’s some good advice about projection directly from the experts at Psychology Today:
Projection in Everyday Life
“Projection can occur in a variety of contexts, from an isolated incident with a casual acquaintance to a regular pattern in a relationship. But learning to recognize and respond to projection can help people understand and navigate social conflict.”
How can you tell if you’re projecting?
“When your fears or insecurities are provoked, it’s natural to occasionally begin projecting. If you think you might be projecting, the first step is to step away from the conflict. Time away will allow your defensiveness to fade so that you can think about the situation rationally.
“Then you can 1) Describe the conflict in objective terms 2) Describe the actions that you took and the assumptions you made and 3) Describe the actions the other person took and the assumptions they made in order.
“These [above] questions can help you explore whether and why you may have been projecting.”
How can you tell if someone is projecting on you?
“If someone has an unusually strong reaction to something you say, or there doesn’t seem to be a reasonable explanation for their reaction, they might be projecting their insecurities onto you. Taking a step back, and determining that their response doesn’t align with your actions, may be a signal [of] projection.
“A harmful consequence of continual projection is when the trait becomes incorporated into one’s identity. For example, a father who never built a successful career might tell his son, ‘You won’t amount to anything’ or, ‘Don’t even bother trying.’ He is projecting his own insecurities onto his son, yet his son might internalize that message, believing that he will never be successful.
“Although it’s difficult to do so, individuals who experience this can try to remember that the criques [sic-critiques] are about the other person, and to be confident in who they are outside of that relationship.”
How Can We Make This Work for Everyone?
Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). He didn’t say you might have trouble. He said you will have trouble.
And the trouble he pointed to can often be found in day-to-day communication with family and friends. Recognizing our own self-defense mechanisms and understanding others when conflict arises is key to living the three-part law of love: love God, love yourself, and love others.
When someone is constantly pointing out your faults or when you do the same to others, it’s important to check if you’re being projected upon or being a projector. Then you can foster honest life-giving conversations and everyone wins. My wife often asks, “How can we make this work for everyone?”
And if we slip up, like I often do, we can always go back, admit our mistake, forgive, and be forgiven.
Then we can say with confidence: How do I project onto thee? Let me count zero as my way. And instead, shower God’s unconditional love onto others.
—brian j plachta
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