Expert Source: Psychotherapist and clinical psychologist Joseph Burgo, PhD, author of Why Do I Do That? Psychological Defense Mechanisms and the Hidden Ways They Shape Our Lives.
Cranky existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote, “Hell is other people,” and we’ve all felt this way from time to time. Especially when the snide comments of a coworker, a friend’s constant complaining, or our sister’s endless bossiness annoy us to distraction. If only they would change, we think, we’d find some peace.
We’re often wrong about that. In a process psychologists call projection, we attribute traits we dislike in ourselves to other people. Then those people drive us crazy when they remind us of qualities that we’re trying to suppress.
“Parts of ourselves don’t simply disappear when we disown them,” explains psychotherapist Joseph Burgo, PhD, author of Why Do I Do That?
Shouting “I could never be like that!” in response to an annoying person helps deflect attention from the part of us that is actually like that. And even if the other person renounces his or her unpleasant behavior forevermore, someone else will come along and trip that trigger — at least until we accept that we’re rejecting it in ourselves. This process is part of what Burgo calls our “innate tendency toward integration.”
Learning to identify projection, Burgo says, is enough to stop it in its tracks — and prevent it from harming our relationships. He offers some tips on how to get a handle on this sneaky psychological defense mechanism.
Challenges to Overcome
- Ego. We tend to believe we’re mostly perfect, which has its drawbacks. “When we encounter something that challenges this idealized view of ourselves,” Burgo says, “we’re much more likely to blame it on other people than to own it.”
- Lack of awareness. The projection response is largely unconscious, he notes. Until we notice its signs in our mind and body — physical tension, mental obsession — we’ll be unaware that we’re doing it.
- Psychic resistance. The whole point of projection is to offload feelings that we don’t want to feel — usually aggression, sadness, shame — onto others. So, it’s natural that we resist owning up to our feelings and the role we are playing in a difficult relationship. “We’re not particularly interested in taking back the projections because they’re painful,” he says.
- Habit. If we’ve been projecting for years onto a person or group, the pattern may be so ingrained that it operates like a “built-in defense,” says Burgo.
- Exhaustion. We’re more likely to project our feelings onto others when we’re tired, tense, stressed, or feeling rundown.
- Our real shortcomings. “There are always ways in which we fall short,” Burgo notes, “so trying to maintain a sense of self-worth can be challenging. It’s much easier to blame other people than to struggle with our own feelings of shame or disappointment.”
- The real shortcomings of others. The people who bug us are not perfect either; they may well be displaying antisocial or inappropriate behavior. Distinguishing the difference between our “stuff” and theirs isn’t easy.
- Dehumanization. When we project, says Burgo, we turn the other person into a symbol: the Bossy Jerk or the Needy Wreck. “They become a personification of the thing you’re getting rid of. Rather than being a whole person with whom you might be able to empathize, they become a kind of caricature.”
Strategies for Success
- Notice preoccupation. Projection has characteristics that distinguish it from mere irritation, says Burgo, and chief among these is an “inability to let go of our focus on the other person.” This comes with intense feelings and a conviction that you are not like that person or group at all. “It’s a kind of mental blaming and self-justification that can go on and on and on.”
- Look inward. Projection is, by definition, a turning outward. The first step in overcoming it, he says, is to make the shift to self-awareness. Take stock of how you’re feeling, how you’re breathing, and so on. This will help interrupt your obsessive focus on the “problem” person and redirect your attention to where it can do some good.
- Calm yourself. “Focus on your breathing to stop the word-chatter in your head that’s justifying the projections,” Burgo advises. Take a few breaths in on a count of four, and exhale on a count of eight. This is a simple and effective way to settle yourself down.
- Notice your body. When he senses he may be projecting, Burgo does a body scan, checking “my back and shoulders where I carry tension, around my eyes where I register fatigue and sadness, in my belly where I feel hunger and other kinds of longing.” He suggests noticing these sensations without trying to explain them in relation to someone else — which can be challenging.
- Get real. Burgo acknowledges that difficult people may well possess the same negative traits you disavow in yourself. “We often project into reality, meaning that if we’re a very critical person, we’ll project it onto someone who actually is critical,” he explains. “But they’re not only critical, and you need to try to see them in their full humanity. And if they are truly toxic, you need to shield yourself from them rather than making use of them to disown parts of yourself you don’t like.”
- Trade places with the other. Burgo suggests asking yourself, “How would I feel if I knew somebody else was thinking about me the way I’m thinking about X or Y?” This can help convert the other person from a symbol of what you don’t like (in yourself!) into a human being who, like you, is probably just doing the best he or she can.
This originally appeared as “Own Up” in the September 2017 print issue of Experience Life.