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  • SuePattonThoele

The Projection Problem

One of the most pervasive and destructive forms of invasion is “projection.” Basically projection is a psychological term used for scape-goating. It’s like a movie. The screen in front of us is blank until the images of the film are projected onto it. The film uses the screen to present its own pictures. The same principle holds true with people. If people are unable or unwilling to own their own internal feelings, they are likely to project them onto the blank screen of someone else.

For example, I need a lot of alone time and consider it a wonderful treat to have the house to myself. However, for many years both my husband and myself have worked at home, making home-alone-time very unpredictable. Because Gene is such a nice, easy-to-be-around guy, I felt ashamed of what I judgmentally saw as my “inordinate need” for solitude. That shame, as well as a fear of hurting him or making him angry, caused me to deny my feelings. Denied, the feelings multiplied like nuclear fission, and I projected them onto him and began to see him as inattentive to me. How nice. Now he was to blame and I was off the hook.

Sensing something was amiss among my mixed messages, Gene actually began to withdraw. That brought me up short and, as a result, I foraged around in my subconscious until I found the root of the problem—my own need for seclusion, which I had labeled unacceptable. Projection is an uncomfortable defense mechanism for both projector and projectee. The person projected upon feels confused, helpless, defensive, and frustrated. On a conscious level, the person projecting his or her feelings onto others may feel righteous and blaming but underneath is actually vulnerable, fearful, and defended.

Projecting onto others those feelings we have disowned within ourselves means that our self-esteem and emotional strength are at a low ebb. Little self-esteem equals lots of

blaming, shaming, and righteous externalizing. The greater our self-esteem and feelings of self-worth, the greater our ability to own our inner worms, darkness, and despair. When we act without consciousness or feel too vulnerable to be honest with ourselves, we will project onto others.

It’s virtually impossible to change someone else’s need to project, but we can fold up our screen and stop allowing ourselves to be projected upon. The most important thing to do about projection is to recognize it and not accept it as our own. I’ll use another example of Gene and myself. One day I could tell he was upset, but he wouldn’t tell me why. In answer

to my prodding, he finally said, “I’m afraid I’ll get in trouble if I tell you how I feel.” Since punishing feelings is not something I do, it was easy for me to recognize this as a fear he was projecting from past relationships.

Some projections are not so easily spotted, but if you’re feeling at your wits’ end about a situation, a good question to ask yourself is, “Could this be a projection?” If the answer is yes, try to take it less personally, disengage, and gently and nondefensively call it as you see it. If you have difficulty knowing whether or not you’re dealing with projection, as I often do, please give yourself the gift of finding someone to help you clarify.

Whether you are the recipient of projection, or engage in it yourself, which we all do on occasion, the best ways to fold up the screen are to shore up your self-esteem, reassure yourself, talk to friends, and learn the Anti-Projection Mantra: Don’t take it personally! As they say in recovery programs, chances are “you didn’t cause it, you can’t change it, and you won’t cure it.”

Excerpted from The Courage to Be Yourself by Sue Patton Thoele. Available on Mango and Amazon.

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