“Projecting is when we accuse someone of doing, feeling, thinking, being something that we ourselves do, feel, think," says Melanie Ross Mills, PhD, friendship and relationship expert. "In a way, we 'reassign' our feelings, struggles, emotions to someone else.”
While projecting can take so many different shapes, here's an example of how it may look in practice: Maybe your friend asked you for advice about how to deal with their parents, but instead of tuning in to their unique relationship with their parents, you give advice based on your strained relationship with yours.
"Projecting can occur when one is not ready to accept, face, or deal with what they themselves are experiencing." —Melanie Ross Mills, PhD, relationship expert
So, why do we project? Dr. Mills says “projecting can occur when one is not ready to accept, face, or deal with what they themselves are experiencing.” It often has to do with personal insecurity and is less related to the nature of your relationship with the person onto whom you're projecting, says therapist Hope Kelaher, LCSW. In fact, “projection can and does occur in any type of interpersonal relationship," says Kelaher.
To get clearer on what it means when someone is projecting, keep reading for signs you might be guilty of it, plus guardrails to help you make sure you aren't.
5 signs you might be projecting your issues on someone
1. You notice emotions like anger or annoyance
If you feel annoyed by the other person’s problem, it might be time to take a step back rather than attempt to give advice. Big emotions, like anger, rage, annoyance or being overly sensitive in response to a conversation puts you at risk of projecting, says Kelaher.
2. The situation is a little too close to home
It is especially hard to be objective when you just experienced a similar situation. For example, maybe your friend wants advice on a difficult breakup, but you just went through one. This might lead to “making assumptions about someone else’s experience rather than listening to their experience,” according to Kelaher. And that might lead you to project your experience onto them rather than listen for the nuance.
3. You realize you give the same advice to many different people
Giving the same canned advice to multiple friends means you might be projecting, according to Irene S. Levine, PhD, psychologist and friendship expert, and co-producer of the Friendship Rules advice guide. Advice should be based on individual circumstances. If your advice isn’t based on who you are talking to, then it probably has more to do with you than them.
4. You gave advice before hearing the whole story
Dr. Levine says that jumping to conclusions without actually listening to the other person is a sign you may be projecting. Without the whole story, you could be filling in the gaps with your own experiences and feelings.
5. Your advice is judgmental
Your bestie is trusting you with their story and situation. The last thing they need is judgment or criticism. Noticing judgment in what you might say or how you might give advice is a signal that it might be time to for some self-reflection.
5 ways to ensure your advice is supportive, and doesn't veer into projecting
1. Engage in thoughtful conversation
“Conversations, when done in love, seem to gain the most ground and offer deeper opportunities for bonding,” says Dr. Mills. According to Dr. Levine, finding the right time and place to have the conversation is essential. She also suggests giving sufficient thought to what you are going to say or advise rather than saying something impulsive.
2. Be supportive and compassionate
When your friend came to you to talk, they likely trusted that you would hold their situation with care and sensitivity. For this reason, it’s essential to avoid judgment and to tread gently rather than acting in an overbearing way, says Dr. Levine, adding that it's best to offer support and reassurance.
3. Rely on questions
According to Dr. Levine, asking questions can help you understand your friend’s situation fully and make sure that you are an active and engaged listener, which could be what your friend needs most. Dr. Mills suggests leading with questions like, “Have you thought about…?,” “What do think about…?” or “How do you feel about…?”
Questions can also help your friend better understand how they are feeling about the situation and explore potential solutions and outcomes. “Perhaps if your friend is seeking advice on how to manage a difficult work situation, you might become curious about the variety of outcomes that may arise if they take certain courses of action,” says Kelaher.
4. Make sure they want your advice in the first place
To appropriately support your friend, first check in and see if they really want your advice. “I recommend that when a friend comes to you with a need for your help, ask: Do you want my advice or do you want me to listen? As a therapist, I notice more often we reach out to our friends for a listening and validating ear not necessarily someone to give their opinion or fix a problem or tell us what we should do,” says Kelaher.
5. Acknowledge your limitations
Sometimes we don’t have the answers or expertise to help a friend, and that’s okay. Dr. Levine says recognizing your limits in terms of expertise and experience is key to giving good advice. Your role can be in supporting your friend in seeking appropriate care and help.
Navigating any relationship can be difficult. We honestly want the best for our friends and loved ones, but sometimes we can get in our own way. Knowing what projecting looks like for you and taking steps to stop doing it can help you better show up in your relationships and support the people you care about most. Caring for others requires first knowing and taking care of yourself.
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