All of us have projected our own thoughts, feelings, motivations and desires onto others, and have been at the other end of projection. Many of us learned to project onto others as we were growing up, when our parents, siblings or caregivers projected their unconscious feelings, thoughts and motivations onto us.
We might project onto others when we have judged our own feelings, actions, desires and motivations as bad, wrong, shameful or dangerous.
This article is about being at the other end of someone projecting onto you.
Projections are very different than someone offering you gifts of valuable information about you. Projections are often angrily hurled as an attack, while valuable information about you is generally offered with kindness.
Projections may create a sense of confusion; they are not about you, but the person projecting is saying something as if it is about you.
For example, Frank is upset and Mary is trying her best to be there for him. Suddenly Frank attacks Mary with, “You have no compassion!”
If Mary takes the bait, she will defend herself, vehemently explaining that she is doing her very best to support Frank. But no matter what she says, it does no good. In fact, it gets worse, as more insults are hurled her way.
Mary needs to understand that Frank is projecting. The real message behind “You have no compassion,” is “I have no compassion for myself or for you. I feel ashamed of myself for something I feel, want or have done. I don’t have the courage to face myself, so I’m defending against it by attacking you.”
What is the best thing to do in this situation? Often, the best thing is to say something like, “This is not about me,” and then lovingly disengage – keeping your heart open, in case the other person decides to open to themselves and with you. Be very compassionate toward yourself, as it is lonely and heartbreaking to be attacked about something that has nothing to do with you. We all want to be seen and understood by the important people in our lives, and it’s painful when they project their own issues onto us.
Common projections are:
- “You’re selfish.” Translation: I’m being selfish and I don’t want to admit it or deal with it.
- “You’re judgmental.” Translation: I’m judging myself and I feel ashamed of this, so it’s easier to blame you instead.
- “You’re angry.” Translation: I’m angry, but I judge myself for being angry so I won’t admit it.
- “Everything is about you.” Translation: I’m being narcissistic and I don’t want to know this.
- “You’re crazy.” Translation: I’m feeling or acting out of control and I can’t let myself know this.
- “You’re abusive.” Translation: I’m being abusive and I refuse to deal with myself.
The thing NOT to do when you are at the other end of projection is to take the bait. If the person projecting can get you to take the bait, he or she is off the hook. As soon as you try to discuss, explain, defend, argue, teach, cry, attack back, give yourself up, project back, or any number of other ways of protecting against the projection, the person projecting can now do exactly what they want to do – which is to focus on what you are doing rather than on themselves.
The worse they feel about what they have done, want, or feel, the more attacking they may be. It’s a crazy-making situation, so generally the only thing you can do is remove yourself from the arena.
Margaret Paul, Ph.D. is a best-selling author of 8 books, relationship expert, and co-creator of the powerful Inner Bonding® process – featured on Oprah.