Relationships have the potential to not only be a source of joy but can also open doorways to the kind of healing and growth that is difficult to accomplish on our own. This is also precisely what makes relationships so hard.
No one else can push our buttons in quite the same way. A partner usually brings out aspects of ourselves that we struggle with. When this happens, it is an invitation to do some deep introspection and work on yourself. This means taking accountability for our own flaws. It’s been said that every argument has three sides: his, hers, and the truth. (This is also applicable to fights between people of all genders, of course!) The point is that we all have room to grow, and arguments shed the most light on where that growth is needed.
Often, we aren’t even mad about what we think we are; we are simply projecting.
What is projecting?
It’s called “projecting” because we’re taking a negative aspect of ourselves or our past and casting it on a person or situation, much like a projector casts an image on a screen. We believe or insist that an emotion or an issue is someone else’s instead of our own. Projecting at its core is self-defense; it is the opposite of vulnerability. It shows up around emotions that we find annoying, embarrassing, or traumatic. When those feelings arise, we look for ways to quickly dispel them, and the oldest trick in the book is to blame someone else.
Every relationship experiences friction at some point or another. Couples disagree or become annoyed with each other. Sometimes one partner will feel disappointed by the other’s actions or words. Disagreements are healthy, but when couples become overwhelmed with focusing on each other’s flaws and when conflict becomes the status quo, it’s time to stop and take a deeper look at what is happening. You may be projecting.
Here are a few ways projecting can blow conflicts way out of proportion and ways to overcome the impulse to do this in your relationship:
1. Your words are a mirror.
If you are complaining about your partner nonstop, you are probably projecting.
That might have been hard to read.
Our partners act as mirrors, showing us our strengths and our potential. At the beginning of a relationship when couples are sharing their best selves, the mirror is positive. But that mirror can also reflect our insecurities and fears—the areas in our lives that need work. What bothers you most about your mate often has little or nothing to do with that person; instead, it has everything to do with how you feel about yourself.
Think for a moment about your partner and focus on something about them that bothers you. Now ask yourself in earnest: Where am I also like this? When do I behave this way? If you see your partner as nagging, defensive, or unsupportive, ask yourself honestly if it’s possible that you might be bringing that quality to your relationship too.
2. Notice when you’re playing the blame game. Remember: There is no one to blame.
When we are projecting, we tend to generalize and look for someone to blame. When we experience conflict in our relationships, our minds search for an explanation: This is not my fault, so it must be theirs. Blame says, “You are responsible for how I feel.”
A little while ago, I had to go to the dentist, and for the record, I hate going to the dentist. After she poked and prodded for what felt like forever, she said, “You need a crown. Your fillings are starting to break down, and there’s some trouble with your gums.” She continued on and on. You get the point. I realized at that moment that what I don’t like about the dentist isn’t just the Novocain; it’s that I feel like a failure when I’m there. I’m sitting in the dentist’s office feeling like the biggest loser because I have not adequately taken care of my teeth throughout my entire life, and I can’t do anything about it at this point. There I am, sitting in the dentist’s chair, feeling the unwanted feelings of being a failure when a thought cropped up.
This is my husband’s fault.
Yep. I wanted someone to blame, and he was candidate No. 1. Have you ever found that it is somehow easiest to blame those closest to you? In moments when we are feeling negative emotions, we tend to blame our partners. And usually, we blame them for things we would never blame on anyone else. I’m not just referring to disappointment; I mean unhappiness, unworthiness, and failure. All the things we are inherently responsible for. Blaming my husband for my disappointing dental report did not allow me to take responsibility for the state of my teeth and left no room to improve the situation. I was casting myself in the role of the victim.
We all fall into this trap, myself included. There I sat, truly ruminating, as ridiculous as it sounds, over the fact that if Michael had better dental hygiene, I would too. The thought I caught was, “I haven’t taken care of my teeth because he’s rubbed off on me!” I brought awareness to this thought and, of course, started to laugh—because it’s obviously ludicrous.
Projecting makes it difficult to know the difference between blaming and accountability. Holding people accountable for their actions is not the same thing as blaming. Accountability holds someone responsible for an action; blame holds someone responsible for how we feel. It’s justified to hold an ex-spouse to their commitment to pay child support. It’s not justified to make your ex responsible for your continued emotional suffering and inability to enter into a new relationship.
Interrupting the habit of looking outward for someone to blame will shift your attention toward self-awareness. Ultimately, no one can “make” us feel anything, nor is anyone else responsible for the quality of our lives. Ending the cycle of blame is a powerful step in the direction of having the loving, fulfilling relationship you want.
3. Your past is not your future—so don’t act like it is.
There is a difference between reacting to something that is happening in the present moment and reacting to something you are projecting from your past onto the present moment.
We can wrap ourselves up in the guise of being self-aware: “This happened to me as a kid, so I always feel X when people do Y.” This is a good first step, but putting your past firmly in the past means releasing that belief system. Traumatic events can cripple us—or, painful and awful as they were, they can make us stronger, more empathetic, and more grateful for all the blessings we have in our lives.
Projecting past hurts and flawed belief systems on your partner is a vicious cycle of reliving that trauma. When conflicts arise, take a moment to analyze your reaction. The current situation may bring up feelings from the past, and that’s OK. Recognize them, identify them, and share them with your partner. Try explaining, “When you do X, I feel Y because of Z. I know that is not what is happening right now. I want you to be aware of how this feels to me and why.”
Early on in my marriage, my husband and I had a minor disagreement, and he said I was acting crazy. At that time, he didn’t know the word crazy had a deep significance to me. I have an uncle with schizophrenia, and from a very young age, I was terrified I would become schizophrenic. When I heard my husband call me crazy (which he didn’t do, but that’s how I perceived it), it awakened that terror from my childhood and was the catalyst for a monumentally disproportionate emotional response. I shared with him the trauma surrounding childhood events with my uncle, and, understanding this, he’s never used the word crazy in an argument again.
Why you’re projecting in an argument.
We project not because we are bad people or lack self-awareness. We are all the sum of our past experiences, and we come away from those with ingrained systems of beliefs and powerful emotional responses.
Left unchecked, projection can wear down the foundation of even the strongest relationships. If any of the above points resonate with you, give yourself space to look inward. You’re human and on a journey to become a better one. Recognize that your partner is human too. Don’t see conflicts as an omen that your relationship is going badly; instead, see them as an opportunity for learning how to love more fully.
- Monica Berg
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