Imagine: You disclose a personal story to a friend about a recent conflict with your partner. Then, all of a sudden, she gets emotional and starts telling you what to feel, think and do. You listen and agree but something doesn’t quite feel right. You reflect later on her frustrated and impatient tone, and think, “Wow, I think she was really talking about her own relationship, not mine.”

If you nodded your head in agreement, then you know what this experience feels like. This is what it looks like when a friend projects her story or experience onto you. It’s a common scenario in any relationship—a friend or loved one offers advice. However, it’s clear to you that this advice actually pertains to her. While targeted at you, her words directly correlate to her own story.

Sigmund Freud, an Austrian neurologist and psychoanalyst, developed the psychological concept of projection. It is a well-known concept used to describe an often unconscious conversation dynamic where you are left believing that there was more underneath the surface.  

What is projection? Projection is one of many defense mechanisms that Freud and other psychoanalytic thinkers utilized to understand the way an individual displaces unacceptable thoughts, feelings or impulses onto another person, place, animal or other animate/inanimate object. A person may project an undesirable characteristic about his or herself or experience onto the life of another person. 

A person may project an undesirable characteristic about his or herself or experience onto the life of another person. 

Imagine the concept of projection as if it were a movie in the theater. When a person is consumed by his or her own life story (and that experience may be unacceptable, intolerable, in conflict or repressed in desire), they cannot help but project that narrative onto the screen of another person’s life.

It can happen quickly in a conversation: Person A gets triggered by something Person B shared. Person A makes statements of projection. At the time, Person B may not know it is happening. Yet, the more in tune one becomes with projections, the better able you can deflect the situation with personal mastery.

Here are a few things to help you better understand and identify projection.

Oftentimes, people project when they have not processed their own issues.

As human beings, we are too close to our stories to see the way our issues and experiences spill over onto our perception of others’ lives. Before you point fingers at your friend who projects, consider the last time you may have done it. When did you project? How were you triggered? How can you take ownership over those thoughts, feelings and experiences?

Before you speak, consider your audience.

If you wish to share an important and possibly emotionally triggering story with someone, then consider how it might impact that person and the possibility of projection. Has she been through a similar situation? Is she in the middle of something which compromises her ability to be impartial? Is this generally a topic that your friend personalizes? 

You might decide not to share and speak to your therapist. You might decide to communicate once the situation is resolved or when you feel more grounded. Decide what’s best for you.  

Communicate how you want to be heard.

Often people act as though their friends and family have to know their personal life. Therefore, they offer up-to-speed details on the latest developments, whether it be romantic relationships or career. Others hear these stories and it may bring up a range of thoughts, feelings and experiences.

In one scenario, a good friend might feel compelled to advise you with suggestions that she has never exercised in her life. In another scenario, your family member may feel obligated to tell you the way this whole thing is going to play out or what you are doing wrong. If communication goes on in this unhealthy manner, you are more prone to others’ projections. 

One way to avoid projections is to tell friends and loved ones that you are not looking for advice. Perhaps, you are looking for a supportive witness, an empathic listener or a cheerleader. Let people know, in advance, so they can better be there for you. If you are unclear, then take a moment before you speak and get clarity. What am I looking for in this conversation and from this person?

Weigh the value of the feedback and decide whether it will work for you.

Getting feedback from loved ones can be incredibly helpful and imperative to one’s growth. Oftentimes, loved ones have been through similar experiences. They can see things from a different vantage point. Perhaps, they see the light at the end of the tunnel or they know how these situations typically play out. Perhaps, they’ll confess that they are unable to exercise the advice they have to give but will offer it anyways. 

To weigh the value of feedback, you can ask yourself these questions: Did their feedback resonate with you? What parts did and what parts did not? Does their feedback connect to your inner knowing, gut and intuition? If you have spoken to more than one person, then how does the feedback you got from one person balance out with the feedback you got from others? What feels most authentic to you?

At the end of the day, there is more to learn from projections than not. They can tell you about your unacceptable thoughts, feelings or impulses. Simultaneously, they can inform you of what’s going on in the interior worlds of your loved ones. To master projection, reflect and tune into your inner voice before seeking out the wisdom of others.  

Have you ever had someone project onto you? What is a healthy way to identify projections and to respond when it’s happening?

Image via Jason Barbagelott, Darling Issue No. 15

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5 comments

  1. WELL SAID. So much important information to cover within this topic. Yes, part #2 to this article should absolutely focus on gaslighting. Thanks for reading and replying!

  2. Gaslighting needs to be addressed too. For example some people within the same family experience abuse then their experiences are completely dismissed and the whole family continues to gaslight because the abuse wasn’t what everyone experience. This mindset puts the blame only on the abused person as “a person who projects” instead of the abuser and gaslighters.

    1. That’s such a reality and a problematic behavior in relationships. Thank you adding that Chandra!

    2. Chandra,
      WELL SAID. Yes, so much to explore in this topic. Part #2 to the article should be gaslighting, for sure, and thanks for responding!

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