"She doesn’t like me.” “He must be cheating on me.” "They don’t take good care of themselves." If you've ever jumped to a conclusion about what someone else may be thinking or feeling, well, guess what? You're only human. But while the common inclination to make such assumptions is common, what it often actually signifies is that we're projecting our own thoughts onto others.
Projecting can take the form of avoiding a feeling, belief, or judgment we have about ourselves by relocating it in someone else. It allows other people to be the “owners” of our personal flaws, therefore distancing ourselves from having to acknowledge the things we do not like or things that don't feel good within us. But, projecting can also be harmful to developing rich and loving relationships with ourselves and with others.
Why we project, and 2 reasons to stop
Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, MD, coined the psychological term projection as a defense mechanism. It's a subconscious, unintentional habit that lets us know that there’s something that feels too difficult to confront within ourselves. Projections can make it easier for us to live with ourselves because if other people are the cause of any given distress, then we don’t have to deal with the underlying problem. But projecting isn't actually an effective method for self-protection or preservation—and it's a good habit to curb, for two main self-destructive reasons.
1. Projection can cause a lot of suffering
Attempting to read another person's mind can yield anxiety, as you ruminate on their experience instead of focusing on yours. Projections also evoke other unpleasant emotions like anger, frustration, and irritability, because they put the focus on what others are doing, which we cannot control, rather than our own emotions, over which we do hold sway.
Projections evoke anger because they put the focus on what others are doing, which we cannot control, rather than our own emotions, over which we do hold sway.
Anger indicates the presence of unmet needs. And projecting our own insecurities and unmet needs onto others can lead us to feel like victims, subject to the whims of another, rather than as an empowered agent of personal change in our lives.
2. Projecting can create distance in relationships
This is because criticism leads to contempt. If you’re constantly pointing out the flaws in others, you are distracting yourself from your own personal wounds. But if you own your wounds and let people in on your self-criticism and judgments, you invite them to be closer to you (rather than push them away as you judge them for your projections).
When we are forming opinions and beliefs, we see others and the world based on who we are (our social identities, histories, values, and experiences) not as they exist. In essence, when you’re judging another person, you are not understanding them, but rather revealing something about yourself. Additionally, when you are being judged by someone else, know that it isn’t about you, but rather reveals something about the other person's insecurities and emotional needs.
Only when we're able to build mindful awareness of what's happening for us when we make assumptions or judgments about others are we able to shift our relationships with ourselves and them. So, below, learn keep tips for how to stop projecting.
How to stop projecting in 5 simple steps
1. Notice when you're presuming someone's experience, without them telling you
The brain's primary goal is to survive, and in order to do so, it predicts risk and acts accordingly via the fight-or-flight stress response. For many, when we don’t have information, the inclination is to respond with cognitive distortion, filling the the gaps with worst-case scenarios in order to prevent future harm.
When you become aware of the speedy thoughts and your judgment wheel begins to churn, work to look inward rather than outward. Ask yourself: What about this person or scenario is triggering to me right now? What am I feeling in my body, and is there an emotion attached to these sensations? Does the way this person is showing up remind me of other experiences I’ve had or people with whom I’ve interacted? Taking care of yourself at this moment will support you in healing the insecurity that is projected outward.
2. Become aware of your strong reactions
Let's say you’re at work, and your colleague doesn’t make eye contact with you at the coffee machine. You then develop a story in your mind that they hate you.
Consider where this perception might be originating. Ask yourself questions about the facts that would confirm or deny your judgment, such as, Was there anything I did to harm this person? The brain cannot differentiate between triggers and threats, so while someone not making eye contact may trigger a past hurt or experience, it doesn’t necessarily indicate a present threat.
3. Build awareness of “you” statements
Notice when you’re developing narratives about what someone else thinks: “You are bored of me.” “You don’t like me.” “You are ugly.” These types of sentiments are reminders that you may be projecting your experience. Remember in these moments that the path to self-discovery is often paved with fear.
For instance, if you're thinking "you are cheating on me," maybe you yourself are having sexual feelings for someone else, and because you’re scared to face these emotions and sensations, you believe your partner is having them.
In these cases, shift to "I" statements: “Am I feeling bored? “Do I like me? “Am I feeling comfortable in my own skin?” “How do I feel about monogamy or my sex life right now?”
4. Adopt an approach of curiosity, not judgment
If we approach ourselves with judgment, our tender parts will go into a mode of protection and defense. So, rather than make a statement about someone else, ask yourself a question about a personal experience.
Typically, we dislike things in other people that we do not like about ourselves or that remind us of previous versions of ourselves. For example, whenever I experience someone as “phony,” I come into contact with the many years that I pretended I was perfect to avoid social rejection and exclusion. This older version of myself used outward judgment to avoid feeling hurt; because of this, it's better for me to respond with curiosity.
5. Get to know your insecurities
Take an inventory of the areas where you are struggling. Maybe you don’t feel confident, well-dressed, financially successful, smart, or like a good partner or friend. Chances are, you will be acutely aware of others who lack in these areas, too. If we do not heal from who and what hurt us, we will spew that pain on the people who didn’t injure us.
Ownership of our emotions and feelings are powerful tools for developing more empowering and close relationships with ourselves and others. It can be hard to confront the parts of ourselves that tap us into pain and grief because it's “easier” in the moment to think of ourselves as good and righteous. But, it is also less real and authentic. It is your birthright to heal. It is your responsibility to take ownership over that healing.
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