Jan & Monika

Blog: The single most derailing phenomenon in intimate relationships

A relationship is not intended to hurt you… rather we believe it is intended to help you grow, to up-level you, to shift you, to enhance you, to free you. If you also held this belief, how would it shift the way you are currently experiencing your relationships? 

Would the relationships that fill you with love and joy provide even more for you? Would the ones that challenge, or trigger, you become easier to navigate? Knowing that they are simply providing lessons for growth and enhancement, rather than to hurt you and break you down? As life and relationship coaches, our most valuable impact comes in the form of our clients releasing the beliefs that confine them to suffering. Let’s break that down a little…

When a person feels blame, and then, blames in reaction to it, a cycle of trauma infliction begins. We refer to this as projection. The great news is that there are two sides to it. One is negative projection, which can create a cycle of blame, and the other is positive projection, which can lift us out of our pain and suffering, or upset, and show us the truth of who we are through the lens of recognizing it in someone else.

There is a human tendency to focus on certain behaviors in others (the very traits we have denied in ourselves) so that we can point at them outside of ourselves. In this way, we declare our (illusory) separation from—and victimhood to—the patterns we abhor. This tendency to disown the qualities we don’t like about ourselves and see them in others is called projection. Simple psychological projection is most often described as an attempt to cope with anxiety caused by having unpleasant or frightening thoughts, feelings, and/or impulses. The projection comes by keeping the unwanted thoughts, feelings, and/or impulses out of our own conscious awareness, and instead seeing them in others.

And ready to have your mind blown?

As coaches, we have witnessed projection as the single most derailing and destructive phenomenon in intimate relationships.

Its power lies in our inability to see it. Because it is a subconscious defense mechanism, we are most often blind to our own projections. We are SURE the fault lies within our partner, and fail to see the part we play in it. The result is that boundaries get blurred, and blame sets the tone for interpersonal communications. Partners waste a great deal of time focusing on the wrong things, and fail to see what is really happening in the moment. Projection hurts our partners by casting them into a false role, and blocks authentic communication.

If you try to blame your partner for what you are feeling, thinking, saying or doing, then you are likely projecting your issues onto them.

When your partner is projecting, it can feel crazy-making. You may be accused of the very things you know are true about your partner. It feels like a complete reversal of the truth, and you may be shocked, confused and disenchanted. You may feel tempted to defend yourself and prove your innocence. You may feel frustration, despair, anger or betrayal.

All of us have projected our own thoughts, feelings, motivations and desires onto others in our relationships, and have been at the other end of projection at one time or another. Many of us have 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.

So, 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 up to themselves, and consequently open up with you. Be very compassionate towards 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. After all, don’t we all just want to love each other and get along?

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, 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 focusing on themselves. When they are permitted to disown their role, a fight typically begins.

Here’s an example. Your partner is insecure and afraid of commitment. Instead of accepting this reality, they start to punish you, insisting that you make things difficult, that you’re always showing signs of distrust and desires to cause them harm.

You realize that the problem is not you, it’s them. But instead of facing the fact that they have a self-worth issue, they punish you, providing evidence for things that aren’t real. They throw their anger at you like darts, and project their negative emotions onto you so that they can achieve the following:

1. Ignore the problem and attribute it to someone else.

2. Free themselves of their internal judgement and anguish, and dump it somewhere outside of themselves. (Typically on the people around them.)

3. Gain a clear position of power: “I don’t have a problem, other people do. The world should revolve around me.”

4. Distort reality any way they see fit. They can now believe in their fantasies, and deny their true upset and inner judgment.

Once you realize that you are being projected onto, try to step out of your own mind and into theirs. See through their eyes, feel what they feel, think their thoughts (just be aware that these thoughts and ruminations are theirs and not yours).

Seek to understand why this person might be projecting onto you. Recognize that their projections are a defense mechanism with the sole purpose of avoiding the uncomfortable feelings that would inevitably arise, should they have to confront their underlying issue.

Projections are merely manifestations of their own insecurities, and by stepping into their shoes, you will be better poised to empathize with them. This process will also teach you a great deal about that person, and maybe even deepen your connection with them. You will see the human in them, the doubt-riddled soul that yearns for the safety and security of kind loving words and acknowledgement from others.

In time, you can use the knowledge you gain to help build their self-esteem and help them address those issues they project onto others.

So, how can we stop projecting?

1. Realize that projecting onto others is a defense mechanism. A life jacket that keeps us afloat so that we don’t have to admit something.

2. One must understand that projecting guilt and anger onto the people around us will achieve nothing more than creating more negative emotions. We’ll fall into a vicious circle where we have a false sense of power that we will inevitably fall down from.

3. If it’s you who is experiencing projection from someone else, make it clear how you feel.

It is important to recognize projections can inflict considerable damage onto the receiver, altering their thought patterns to the point where they see truth in the projections where there is none.

The harm is not, however, an instantaneous consequence of the projection. Instead, the damage is done when those thoughts and feelings are held onto, and dwelled upon again and again. Only then can your mind subsequently adopt these foreign invaders as one of its own beliefs.

Not falling under the influence of another’s projections, then, is simply a case of letting them come and go as fleeting ripples in the pond of your mind. Whatever is said, let the words pass through you like the wind passes through the branches and leaves of a tree.

However hurtful the comments may be, remember that they are not gospel; no matter who said what, your truth and your mind are your own. You have the power to choose what is, and isn’t, allowed to permeate your thoughts and how you react to the person who projected in the first place. Remaining aloof (emotionally uninvolved; at a distance) to any negative remarks, and reminding yourself of their true source, is a powerful tool for your peace of mind.

“The goal in [relationship] is not to think alike – but to think together.” – Robert C. Dodds

My husband Jan and I work with many couples and people in relationships who are dealing with issues that consistently negatively impact their inner peace, their sense of self or identity, their ability and willingness to trust others, and their ability to see their worth, their gifts and their innate inherent value. If you, or someone you love, is dealing with any such issues, it may be time to get some support. You can reach out to us through our confidential contact on our website.  We look forward to healing more relationships!