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It Takes Two to Tangle: The Problems of 'Projection'

Published: Nov 2, 09:13 am

Our relationships with our partners are seldom straightforward as we would like, often being shaped by our own personal legacies. We often respond to partners as if they were someone else, creating conflicts through mistaken identities originating from the past. What we expected in these primary relationships was a safe zone of nurture, of validation, just for being who we are. Not an unreasonable expectation to have. What we wish for, however, in this realm of human attachment, can often be far removed from reality. Why is this?

The pattern and quality of relationships we have with our primary caretakers (parents, teachers, relations), determines from that early, crucial period onward, the kind of relationships we will have into and throughout our adult lives thereafter. These initial attachments, for good or worse, become the ‘blue prints’ for all our subsequent relationships. If, growing up, we experience secure attachments, then we are likely, excluding any other event that could lead to distrust, to form trusting relationships with others throughout our lives. If, however, a child falls victim to an absence of proper care from significant others in the earliest stages of life, it may be a challenge during adulthood to learn how to experience love.

When a child experiences both good and bad care taking in life (and who among us at sometime hasn’t?), this can give rise to ‘projections’ in adult life – mental defenses that can create considerable conflict in relationships. Good experiences creates a positive self definition for the child; bad experiences, a negative self definition. As these dual aspects are carried through into adult life, ones’ negative aspects can be disowned and projected into the other person – a way of protecting the pristine, untainted self. (Projection is a way of blaming others for your own faults, such as blaming your partner for being ‘over controlling’, when in fact the control issue is yours).
The kernel of the issue is that we project our own problematic feelings onto anther person. Take for example jealousy. We feel jealous, but because we can’t tolerate the idea that we may be capable of harboring such a negative feeling (which could precipitate shame, an arguably worse feeling), it’s easier to attribute it to someone else. Unable to correct the problem in ourselves, we target the problem in another person! The solution to this, of course, is to take responsibility for the projection and understand its impact on us.

Projections, then, are often at the root of the conflicts that couples experience in their relationships. Unable to move ahead with our own conflicts, it’s as if we decide to hunt down the problem in the other person. For this to ‘work’, there has to be some kind of ‘hook’ in the other person (i.e. in the ‘host’) to hang the projection on. Perhaps someone has a problem with assertiveness (they are in fact the opposite – too passive). The host (partner) is healthily assertive, but in the eyes of the person who is projecting, this assertiveness in the other person is exaggeratedly perceived as aggression and overbearing dominance. The partner who unwittingly receives the projection becomes the focus of the projector’s struggle with the issues of dominance and submission. When we project, we take any cue we can from our partner and magnify it. Our own problem becomes the other person’s problem. We protect ourselves from the burdensome task of having to resolve our own issues. In the case of the person with the assertiveness problem, it’s much easier to cling on to submissiveness and blame the other person for having a problem.

Learning to reclaim these projections is obviously the healthier option; becoming more aware of our own internal conflicts and the ways in which we put these into our partners can empower us to bring about positive change and growth in our outlook. One can, for example, begin to recognise the same projections cropping up in other relationships. One can then try out new ways of dealing with people. A pattern begins to emerge, perhaps, whereby we notice repeated frustration from feeling dominated by others. We’ve let go of our own ability to control and direct our lives, giving that sense of self agency over to others. Learning some assertiveness techniques can alleviate the problem.

In-spite of the importance of recognizing the disruptive presence of projection in relationships, it is equally important to acknowledge that projections are not the root cause of every problem that couples experience. There are times when the other person genuinely does have a problem that can lead to an abusive situation. In that scenario, viewing it as one’s own projection would be wrong. Seeing it for what it truly is and taking appropriate action to change the situation would be the right response.