Here’s a scenario for you –
Your husband is working on a project and you come in with a series of questions regarding an upcoming visit of the in-laws. You notice that he gives quick, short answers to your questions without taking his eyes off his project. You leave the room feeling uneasy. Later at dinner, you find everything wrong with what he is doing. He’s not engaging with you or the children enough. He seems preoccupied and irritated. You say nothing. By the time the two of you are ready for bed, you are tense and upset and you’re not sure why. That upset lingers into the morning when he asks you if you can do him a favor and stop by the dry cleaners for his shirts because he doesn’t have time. Your response is an angry, “Oh, you get to ask me for favors when you don’t even have time to answer a simple question or spend time with your children!” He is taken-aback and bewildered, thinking, ‘Where did that come from?’
Did any of that resonate? Maybe for some of you, it did.
Often times we can find ourselves at odds with our significant other (SO) without a clear idea as to why. All that we can be certain of in those moments is that we are upset and it’s their fault.
One pitfall of getting close to another person is that we will start to see traits in that person that we don’t like, that get under our skin, that make us doubt that we know this person at all.
When you find yourself getting upset with your SO often and that the upset is not in proportion to what actually happened, you may be projecting on them.
Projecting or projection is when we start to identify traits in people that they don’t actually have. Or they may have them but not to the degree that you think they do.
In the early days of a new romance, when you are just falling in love with someone, most of us project perfection on the other. We see the object of our affection in the best possible light. Everything they do is wonderful! Because they are wonderful!
But once the relationship has become serious and committed the patina starts to fade.
One reason is that once the euphoria of new love passes we start to see the person as they truly are, free from the rose-colored glasses of our positive projection. You start to see the “flaws and warts” so to speak.
Something else that happens is that you start to project traits on them that others from your past had.
Let’s go back to the couple in the above scenario. When the husband is taken aback by his wife’s angry outburst, little does he know that she has fallen victim to projecting. When she came into the room with her questions and he did not look up and gave her short answers, he was behaving in a way that unconsciously reminded her of her father.
When she was a little girl her father worked long hours at the local plant and when he came home he was exhausted, with little energy to play with the little girl waiting excitedly for her daddy’s return. His response to her questions was often short. He was noticeably irritated and didn’t want to deal with an energetic child after a long day. He would go spend time alone in the garage. This left his daughter feeling sad, rejected and lonesome. And his irritability scared her because she did not know if he would get so angry as to shout at her to “leave me in peace” as he had done many times.
When her husband gave terse replies to her questions and did not stop what he was doing to give her his full attention, she felt that same sadness, fear, and rejection she had felt as a little girl. The problem is that she did not realize that was the reason she was upset. And until she made that connection herself she would be stuck in the pattern of being upset with her husband when he did things that reminded her of her father.
To some degree, we all do this. But depending on your upbringing and the safety versus lack of safety you felt as a child, your projections on your partner will vary in intensity.
So what can we do?
Everything begins with awareness.
The first step is to simply become aware of what you are doing. And the main clue to realizing what you are doing is if your upset is out of proportion to what actually happened.
If you fly off the handle because your girlfriend is five minutes late for your date; or if you become incredibly depressed because your guy failed to show appreciation for the handmade gift you gave him; or if you get enraged because your wife pointed out some small thing you did wrong, then you may be projecting traits from a primary caregiver on them.
Once you’ve seen that your reaction did not fit the circumstance, give yourself some time. Think back to other times where you felt similarly. Talk this through with your partner or a friend. Free associate until something comes up or until you have that “Ah-ha” moment of, ‘When my dad ignored me I would get so sad and so scared. That’s exactly how I feel when you don’t give me your full attention.’
If nothing comes immediately that’s okay, just stay with it and something will arise.
After making that connection, you can start a dialogue with your partner that shares how you are, or were, feeling and what the memories that situation brings up for you.
This is where the change happens: Now you are empowered to say, ‘I see where those feelings are coming from and it’s not about you really. It’s about me and my stuff. Sorry I got so upset the other day over such a little thing.’
The more you can do that, the less hold your past emotions will have on you. Also, you will be able to recognize what is happening to you more quickly so that you become less reactive.
When we stop bringing our past into our present, our relationships have room to thrive.
What has your experience with projection been? Please, leave comments below.
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* If you’d like to read more about projection, here is a great scholarly article written by a psychologist regarding projections and her clients.
© 2018 Tamara Jefferies.