Projecting your insecurities is a coping mechanism that co-opts someone else’s psyche to use as an emotional dumping ground. And so, projection is a form of unsolicited communication. If you can even call it that… You might even refer to it as false communication, or a form of communication breakdown that’s rooted in shame, anxiety and hurt, which, if left unaddressed can keep you locked in a cycle of playing out the same drama over and over again, that, more often than not, have their roots in childhood traumas that require focused reparenting.
How Does Projection Actually Work?
Projection, like most behaviours, is learnt. It doesn’t surface by itself but is the result of the influence of our family, environment, society and culture. And so, projection is something we often take on from our parents, but never quite grow out of emotionally as we enter into full adulthood. It’s a defence mechanism. One that seeks to disown feelings that can’t be processed, or that our psyche believes to be too damaging for us to handle. Because children have no real agency of their own and depend on their caregivers for all their needs, they will inevitably defer to them for everything. And as a result, believe everything their guardian says to them. And so, in effect, they see themselves through their guardian’s eye.
What Does Projection Look Like in Real Life?
So, let’s look at a fictional example – a young 5-year-old girl we’re going to call Jane. Jane’s parents are quite strict and authoritative. They expect a lot from Jane even at such a young age. And when she doesn’t perform, she’s met with their intense disapproval. Jane’s fed with a continuous stream of negative input and is often unjustly punished for not performing to expected standards. She’s shamed and blamed for not doing as she’s expected. And so, she’s learnt several lessons here. The first is that she has to please others to receive love and affection – that approval is conditional only on her ability to perform at a high level in whatever she does…
The second is the capacity to blame. And what this means for Jane as she enters adulthood is that she’s firmly rooted in negative thought cycles about herself that become her patterning. Because that’s the only reference point she has for how the world views her. That’s the perception she still holds through the lens of her parents, which, in turn, leads to her projecting those insecurities onto other people in adulthood, and then potentially fulfilling the same function for her children. Unless, of course, she breaks the cycle.
Projection in Adulthood
But for now, Jane has a very narrow bandwidth of perception. And so, she applies this model of behaviour to everyone she meets. She’s in a constant state of negative reinforcement. As far as she’s concerned, no one likes her… She attempts to people-please and overcompensates massively in both her platonic and romantic relationships. As a result, many of them tend to fall apart, because she’s so unwilling to accept praise for the things she does from others and yet is also constantly seeking approval. This forms a paradoxical loop that ends up driving a lot of people away and is also known as a disorganised attachment style.
Now, focusing on her career, Jane’s playing out the same drama in her professional life. She’s actually done pretty well because of her people-pleasing ways and intense desire for approval. It’s turned her into a bit of a workaholic. But, just like in her other relationships, she simply cannot accept praise. It’s a completely foreign concept to her and makes her feel intensely suspicious and often outright rejects praise in a very forceful manner. She’s constantly self-demeaning and will find the negative in everything – even her very best work. Because you can praise someone with insecurities all you want, you can give them a hundred compliments. But they’ll choose to remember the one passing remark you made that was less than glowing and focus on that – negativity reinforcing their victimhood narrative.
And so, Jane reaches a plateau. She stays right where she is in her professional and personal life because she’s playing out the same drama over and over. It stunts her growth and she’s just kind of stuck… Jane’s projection becomes a kind of illusionist’s trick. The irony being that person projecting is actually being tricked by their own smoke and mirrors. It leads to a form of static white noise that interrupts the flow of a proper two-way conversation between two people. Because you can’t express yourself to someone who’s projecting their insecurities if that person is constantly bringing their in-built bias to everything you’re saying with dramas from childhood. That filter they use radically distorts the conversation. And so, anything the projector receives in return is always going to be passed through that very narrow bandwidth of perception that filters out anything positive.
Again, they view the input they receive as coming from their parents, or the person(s) that created those insecurities in the first place. Essentially, turning everyone they meet into avatars of that person, projecting their securities to achieve this. So, in a sense, it’s like having a conversation with someone of a fixed ideological mindset – someone who’s completely wedded to a fixed worldview. Although, that’s not to dismiss their struggle or be reductionist in any way. It’s simply the same mechanism.
Projection from Another Perspective
Let’s take a quick look at another example. Mark works for the same company as Jane in a separate department. His form of projection is quite different, though. He’s a manager and has anger issues. His childhood was one of verbal and emotional abuse through an overzealous father who was also very forceful in his beliefs and would often put Mark down instead of supporting him in his mistakes. In his case, though, Mark could never win his father’s approval. There was no pointing trying, and instead it created resentment in him. One that now sees him as the archetypal over-controlling/micromanaging boss. He constantly berates people, shouts them down and verbally abuses them. But whenever anyone else takes exception to one of his ideas, he plays the victim card. Anyone who opposes him, no matter how civil or constructive is seen as a disruptive influence to his regime and the task at hand.
Mark’s patterning plays into that of being somewhat narcissistic. And what he’s doing by projecting his insecurities onto others is akin to a form of outsourcing of his emotional pain – one that allows him to not deal with the shame, hurt and anxiety from his childhood. It’s like a personal form of file management. Except, instead of self-regulating those emotions as they come up, he dumps them onto the desk – so to speak – of his unsuspecting ‘victims.’
And this is a massive violation of personal boundaries, which amounts to far more than just the physical space we share. But it also includes our emotional space, as well. And what this actually represents when you break it down, is an incredibly adaptive form of survival, which speaks to the resourcefulness of the human psyche to dump its emotional excess to an external source to lessen the suffering of that individual… However, don’t misunderstand. I’m not advocating this behaviour. It’s not right, healthy or justified.
Because, as much as it does help lessen immediate suffering, it comes at the cost of negatively reinforcing that person’s position. That pent up negative emotional energy doesn’t simply dissipate. It has to go somewhere. And by projecting at someone else, it’s always going to be reflected back at them. Because it exists as an energetic or conscious construct if you like… It still exerts control over the projector throughout the mirroring effect. In short, there are side effects. And just as someone who becomes dependent on alcohol will inevitably show the signs of wear of degradation if they drink heavily enough over an extended period… So too, will the emotional effects of projecting eventually show on the projector. Because it’s a coping mechanism – not a sustainable way of living.
Making the Choice to Get Over Projection
The main issue that prevents people from getting over projection is that it makes you feel like the victim, and so it sees you unwilling to address your problem because it doesn’t appear to be yours in the first place. And what was once a way of defending yourself becomes a form of self-sabotage.
For as long as you’re blaming and shaming other people for the things that you’re thinking, there’s no way out. There has to be some kind of admittance before you can move forwards. Because you can’t take responsibility while you’re constantly externalising all your issues.
You become a prisoner of how people judged you in the past and continue to replay that drama over and over again in all of your subsequent relationships. Locked in a limbo state. The way that you think of yourself becomes your reality, whether there’s any basis to it or not. But it can change with the enactment of admittance followed by choice, which is eminently within your grasp.
How Do You Know If You’re Projecting At Someone?
If you’re unsure whether or not you’re projecting, ask yourself these questions:
- Do you find yourself easily offended by the words or actions of those around you?
- Do you find that you’re easily triggered and react out of proportion?
- Do you find that you’re quick to assign blame even when the matter seems trivial?
- Do you find yourself mentally rehearsing how you’re going to even the score with those you perceived have hurt you and attribute agendas to them that you have no real confirmation for being true?
- Do you find it hard to empathise with other people and you often misunderstand people’s position?
- Do you find yourself ‘emotionally checking out’ of situations to get a better grasp on them?
- Do you find you have issues keeping your temper in check?
- Do you find you react to people who remind you of those you feel wronged you in the past?
- Do you find when assessing the character of people you dislike that you might share certain traits with them that you haven’t yet accepted in yourself?
Ask yourself these questions. And better yet, journal them. As much as we’ve talked about not externalising your issues here, writing is a very healthy way of externalising your thoughts, and it can lead to a lot of insight that you couldn’t arrive at simply through thinking about these questions. If you really want to interrogate yourself, journaling is by far the best way to go. Talking is also another great tool. And if you’re not a confidant writer, voice notes can be just as effective.