Have you ever been on the receiving end of someone “projecting”? Has someone accused you of doing something that you didn’t do, but in fact, they were actually doing? Have you ever had someone tell you that you are feeling a certain way when you know you are not? Have you been accused of saying something you didn’t say but the accuser did? Have you experienced someone shift blame onto you, or even distort, deny or ignore the reality of a situation rather than be accountable for their own behaviour?
We are all guilty of engaging in some level of projection at some stage in our lives, whether consciously or not, particularly if we feel under attack during a heated argument or discussion. People can be quick to point out the negative parts of others rather than confront them in themselves. It’s an unfortunate side effect of the human condition. Instead of acknowledging parts of ourselves that we don’t like, we can sheepishly project onto others as a defence mechanism when feeling vulnerable and exposed.
The term “projection” was coined by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud who defined it as “a state in which a person defends themselves against their own conscious or unconscious impulses, emotions, or beliefs by denying their existence in themselves while deflecting them onto another”.
Projection is a form of psychological manipulation whether intentional or unintentional. Being on the receiving end of it can be very challenging and hurtful, especially when the person projecting is someone close to you. It is considered less insidious as its more sinister counterpart, “Gaslighting” but can be just as damaging. Gaslighting is a conscious malicious act used frequently with the intent to harm. Similarly, studies have shown that frequent use of projection is associated with borderline, narcissistic, histrionic, and psychopathic personality disorders and is also linked to bullying, jealousy, victim-blaming and even the assassination of an innocent person’s character.
Why do people project?
People tend to project because they can’t admit when they are wrong, they would rather make someone else feel wrong instead. They are inclined to cast their flaws onto others because they have a trait or behaviour that they find too difficult to face or even acknowledge in themselves. Rather than confront their own demons, people either consciously or unconsciously project their deep-seated insecurities or inferiorities onto someone else. They do this to preserve their ego or self-esteem, to cover their shame and make difficult emotions more tolerable.
How do you tell if someone is projecting onto you?
The most obvious sign that someone is projecting is if they are unreasonably mad about something and they are directing their anger at you. A person may also be projecting if their stories don’t add up, or if they feel compelled to whip out accusations whenever they are uncomfortable. Another tell-tale sign is when you talk to someone about their behaviour or thoughts, and they immediately get defensive and redirect the conversation to something else. A person can project when they are overly hurt or sensitive about something someone has said or done. People that project are usually highly reactive and quick to blame. They tend to have difficulty being objective and lack perspective and empathy. Their buttons are pushed easily.
Some examples of projection include:
- Someone who feels insecure about any area of their lives but mocks others for the same insecurities.
- Someone who instinctively dislikes someone, but over time begins to believe that person dislikes them.
- Someone who criticises a person for interrupting them while they are talking, when in fact, they themselves regularly interrupt conversations.
- Someone who feels guilty for doing something wrong, such as lie, steal, betray, be unfaithful, etc., but suspect or accuse others of the same behaviour.
- Someone who ignores their own aggressive impulses and instead inaccurately believes others have aggressive tendencies.
- Someone who has a victim mentality but accuses others of being a victim.
What can you do when you find yourself on the receiving end of projection:
- Keep your distance:
This behaviour could be a warning sign of worse to come. Projection is a toxic trait and associated with narcissistic personality types, addicts, people with personality disorders or abusers. It’s important to be able to identify when projection is more than just a one-off thing or a deeply rooted personality trait.
- Remember that projections aren’t the truth:
Before trying to figure out how to respond to someone negatively projecting onto you, remember that projections aren’t the truth. Do not begin to doubt yourself or your self-worth because of this negative behaviour. It says more about the culprit than it does you. Someone else’s weak behaviour and negative opinions about you are just a reflection of their character and you should never take them on or own them.
- Set clear boundaries:
Call someone out if they are projecting and making you feel uncomfortable or upset. Be sure to let them know their behaviour is not acceptable. You may experience some pushback or even hostility but stay true to your values and your need to be treated with respect. Never allow yourself to become a punching bag for a bully or else it will continue to spiral out of control. Stand up to someone who is projecting in a confrontational way. Stand firm, let them know that their opinion is not true, ask them to take responsibility for their negative feelings, point out that their projection is not about you, reject their negative energy and suggest they self-reflect.
- Don’t argue:
Communicate with respect, avoid getting into an argument and adding fuel to the fire. One of the worst things you can do when a person is projecting negative feelings onto you is to engage in an argument. Your responses should not be passive-aggressive in anyway but assertive and clear. Try to come from a place of understanding but if you’re unable to respond positively, just leave. A negative response is only going to drive the projection and make it harder for the person projecting to take responsibility.
- Ask the person why they are in pain:
Make sure they know you are not the cause of their pain. Sometimes, projection is unconscious and you are the unfortunate bystander caught in the cross-fire. Try to respond with compassion, this person is more than likely battling their own demons. Let them know that you can support and help them and that you are not the enemy. Ask them not to push you away and let them know you are on their side.
- Consider what it was that triggered someones projection:
Don’t engage in chaos but if you are close to the person projecting try to assess what the trigger was and ask out right what the reason for it is. Questioning the reason behind the projection can instigate reflection. Hurt people can hurt people. Try to investigate what is truly behind the projection. Ask the person what you did to offend them. Ask them to explain, encourage them to question their own behaviour in a loving way. Assess whether a response is worth it, sometimes the best thing you can do in some instances is just walk away.
- Lend a non-judgmental ear:
If the person is willing to engage in a respectful conversation and take responsibility for their projection let them know that you can listen. Let them talk, usually there is some level of frustration behind the projection. Give them space to figure their behaviour out without judging. Validate their experience and try to empathise with them. However, if you feel like they are being disrespectful and trying to manipulate the situation do not engage. Use your best judgement and trust your gut feelings, they are always right.
- Recommend therapy:
If you feel like you cannot help and this is a recurring issue with someone in your life, recommend that they seek help. Therapy is an excellent resource to get to the root cause of a person’s need to project regardless of whether it is conscious or unconscious. A trained professional will be able to guide the person and help them deal with any underlying issues. They can offer positive ways to deal with any issues and move forward.
Understanding how to respond to someone who is projecting is an important life skill. We can experience projection in all areas of life, from random encounters in our day to day lives to interacting with work colleagues, family members, partners and friends. Awareness is key to identifying if someone is projecting or not. It’s also important to catch yourself if you find you are the one projecting. Taking time out to pause and reflect is necessary. Learning how to unwind and control your breath to regulate your nervous system can be very beneficial. Ultimately, we need to make sure we acknowledge projection and don’t take it personally. Letting someone else’s opinions of you in can be very destructive and diminishing. Stand in your truth at all times. If you find yourself in the company of someone who repeatedly projects their “stuff” onto you, you might want to reassess the relationship. Protect yourself and your wellbeing at all costs. xx