In general, emotionally healthy people base their feelings on facts. For example, if your husband came home every night drunk (fact), you might feel worried (feeling). If your neighbor complimented you on your cool sports car (fact), you would feel proud and happy (feeling).
Some, however, do the opposite. When their feelings don’t fit the facts, they may unconsciously revise the facts to fit their feelings. Have you ever been in a discussion with someone and they accuse you of all the negative things it seems like they are doing or feeling? It feels like the twilight zone!
This is called projection. Projection is denying one’s own feelings by attributing them – often in an accusing way - to someone else. Elyce M. Benham, MS compared projection to gazing at yourself in a hand-held mirror. When you think you look ugly, you turn the mirror around and Voila! Now the homely face in the mirror belongs to somebody else.
Individuals who engage in projection hold the unconscious hope that by projecting their unpleasant stuff onto another person they will feel better about themselves. And they do feel better for a little while, but their discomfort comes back. So unconsciously, these individuals play this game again and again. If you’re in a close, interpersonal relationship with someone like this, it becomes pretty difficult. If you refuse to absorb their negativity, often they become highly irritated and a conflict escalates from there. You may begin to ask yourself, “How can I get along with this person without being required to be a sponge for their negativity?”
When you object to someone’s projection, or try to defend yourself, often you find yourself on the receiving end of accusations that you are too defensive, overly sensitive, or unable to accept constructive criticism. Since the person projecting unconsciously feels that their very survival seems to be at stake, they can defend themselves with ferocity. Often, even once the moment of crisis has passed and your “projector” has seemingly won, they may even act surprised that you are still upset! From their perspective, their projection has prevented you from seeing their vulnerable shortcomings. They may actually think that this should draw you closer to them – or at least prevent you from withdrawing from them. However, you feel worse; and baffled because your projector doesn’t seem to understand the impact of what they’ve done.
First rule of thumb in these situations – don’t take it personally. The argument is not necessarily the actual event, but the projector’s interpretation of that event. People who project often come to very different conclusions about what was said and done in any given situation and can feel threatened. Once you begin to accept that sometimes your projector will behave irrationally, you can alleviate some of your own internal stress. You can unburden yourself from the “what-ifs” and “shoulds” in your mind, you can deal with the way things really are. Then you can seek out support and find what really works for you.