Are you a rock thrower? The problem of projection...

David Olsen, Ph.D., LCSW and Erin Belanger, LMHC

A vicious, angry crowd circles a woman after accusing her of adultery. Each in the crowd carries stones, prepared to cast them at the woman, stoning her to death. The rock carriers feel self-righteous as they project their sins and brokenness on the poor woman… until one voice rings clear above the rest.

We all know the rest of the story - Jesus says to the crowd, “Let him who is without sin throw the first stone.” From there, the crowd slowly loses both their energy and anger, and disperses without harming the woman. The woman is left stunned.

In so many ways, this story is the story of all of history, and all of us. When times are more anxious, people love a scapegoat. Who remembers Hester Prinn wearing a scarlet A in “The Scarlet Letter”?  Sometimes a scapegoat can be a whole group of people who are blamed for what is wrong in society, like in the Salem witch trials or, on a more horrific level, the Holocaust. In times of anxiety, projecting anger, fear, disgust, or other unresolved feelings onto a scapegoat and then attacking that scapegoat actually reduces anxiety - at least in the short run. On a smaller level, projection and scapegoating are one of the most powerful ways families and organizations “bind” anxiety. If someone can be blamed, anxiety goes down.

So what exactly is projection?

Projection is a defense mechanism that we use to protect ourselves from difficult feelings by putting them onto someone else. To return to the biblical story, the crowd projected their own sexual impulses onto one woman and then attacked her, and thereby “disowned” their own vices. We can also think about the husband who has a secret affair and then distrusts his wife because she’s “too secretive,” or the mother who was raped as a teenager and who is now bringing her “overly sexual” daughter in for therapy. In each of these examples, the uncomfortable feeling - fear, disgust, etc - is being displaced from one person and projected onto the other. Their anxiety is reduced temporarily at the expense of the other.

How is projection impacting my relationships?

Clearly, projection can be a significant problem in relationships and may interfere with the development of intimacy. Families and couples both struggle with this.

The Family Projection Process

Most of us were the recipient of some projections within our families - just think of the role you played in your family. Maybe you were seen as over-responsible, the “smart one”, the one who wouldn’t amount to anything, or the peacemaker. The problem, as we shared in earlier newsletters, is that eventually what is projected onto us, becomes internalized and becomes part of us. If you were seen as the over-responsible one growing up, you are probably still living out that role today. If you carried the “mantle of success” for your family, you are still achieving and afraid to slow down. Sadly, if you were seen as the “problem child”, you are probably still struggling with feelings of inadequacy. Projections stick, and they help define both who we are and how we are seen by our families from the time we are young children through adulthood. These projections eventually become problematic in future relationships.

Projection in Couples - The False Partner Picture

In couples, projection becomes even more tricky. Couples project unwanted parts of themselves onto their partners. For example, the man who doesn’t trust his own impulses, becomes very jealous of his wife. The woman who doubts her own self-worth believes her husband is under-responsible, and then over-functions to gain some self-worth. There are hundreds of other similar examples!

The problem is that these projections create a picture of who the other is. Once that picture is locked in place, it filters the way we understand all interactions. This means that a wife who projects onto her husband that he is uncaring and distant will create a picture for herself of a cold and uncaring husband. She will then interpret everything he does as evidence that he is uncaring and distant and doesn’t love her. In reality, he might be overwhelmed at work, or exhausted, but all she will be able to see is her picture. And this could be made more complicated if the woman’s father was distant and not affirming of her growing up. Not aware of her own deep wounds, all the woman can see are cold, rejecting men.

Too often couples project unresolved issues from the families they grew up in onto their partners. The man who had a suffocating, enmeshing mother, sees his wife as too needy and suffocating and seeks distance. His wife panics and pursues as a way to attempt to get close, which “proves” his picture that she wants to suffocate him. The pictures they have created have in turn created a defensive dance that they cannot escape from, and which will ultimately destroy intimacy.

So what can we do?

  1. First and foremost - you can get help from a trained couples therapist. Too often, once these pictures get formed and locked in place they are very difficult to see, much less shift. A trained therapist can help challenge these pictures so that you might begin to understand your partner more wholly and they may begin to do the same for you.
  2. Practice “constructive confusion”. If you want to find out whether your picture of your partner is accurate, try something different - Experiment! The wife who believes her husband is uncaring could non-defensively work to hear about her husband’s experiences so that she could better understand him and why he seems shutdown. The man who is convinced that his wife is suffocating could take more risk by spending more time together going out for coffee, or a drink, or a movie to see if small steps like these challenge his picture.
  3. Finally, one of the best things you can do for your partner is focus more on yourself.   Understand your childhood wounds, your vulnerabilities, and your hot buttons. By better understanding yourself and becoming comfortable with who you are, you will be less likely to project onto your partner. To return to our original story, Jesus’ invitation to have the one without sin cast the first stone was really an invitation to practice self-focus as an alternative to projection.