3-Steps to Clarity: Know When You're Projecting and How to Stop

You know that old saying: what you dislike about others is what you dislike about yourself. In the heat of a challenging moment, this might be the most annoying thing anyone can say to you. Yet, it's often true.

So what if you hate serial killers? Does it mean that you’re a self-loathing person with violent tendencies? Possibly, but probably not. Most people have had moments when they've wondered if they are projecting something onto someone else, or if they're seeing something that's purely about the other person.

Projection is a defense mechanism that comes from the ego. In projection, you’re taking an unacceptable part of yourself, disowning it, and placing it onto someone else. Almost everyone has done this at some point in their lives.

In these moments of skewed perception, it's hard to see the person for who they are as a whole. They become an awful person with no positive qualities at all. The lens of projection morphs people and situations into things they are not.

What’s unfortunate about projection is that it can cloud your vision, burden the other person, and it robs you of the opportunity to deal with something that starts within you. It also places you in victim/perpetrator mode.

When you’re projecting, it can be difficult to know you’re doing this. It’s easy to justify, rationalize and blame in order to make everything the other person’s fault.

The most common things we project onto others include:

  • Fear and anxiety

  • Shame

  • Insecurities

  • Childhood pain

  • Trauma

  • Fantasies

  • Parts of ourselves that we don't understand

  • Our parents

  • Expectations

  • Judgment

  • Unfinished business

Projecting is like dumping clutter into someone else’s living room and then hating them for being messy and owning a stupid red lamp that you despise. Even though the red lamp is yours.

And it’s not always the dark and heavy stuff. You might also project positive aspects of yourself that you’re unconsciously afraid to own. It's like admiring someone for their excellent taste in furniture and their beautiful end tables that you just love. What you might not realize is that those end tables are also yours and that it’s okay to explore that part of yourself.

Sometimes we project positive qualities onto others. Just like the negative aspects, it can be scary to own our positive qualities, but much easier to acknowledge them in others.

To make things more interesting, sometimes it'll turn out that you really are dealing with a difficult person and you're not projecting at all. And sometimes it's a little of both.

Below, you'll find a three-step process to help you clarify whether you're projecting or not. You can apply this inquiry process to any challenging situation that comes up for you.

STEP 1: Notice if you're exhibiting these symptoms of projection:

  • Feeling overly hurt, defensive, or sensitive about something someone has said or done.

  • Allowing someone to push your buttons and get under your skin in a way that others do not.

  • Feeling highly reactive and quick to blame.

  • Difficulty being objective, getting perspective and standing in the other person's shoes.

  • Noticing that your reactivity is a recurring pattern.

  • You're the only person to notice or experience these issues with this person.

STEP 2: Become honest with yourself.

To get the most out of this process, ask yourself all of these questions and write down the answers:

  • What part of my past is this person triggering?

  • Where does this send me on an emotional level?

  • What types of stories am I telling myself about this person/situation?

  • Do I feel reactive about this? If so, in what way? What do I want to do?

  • Who or what does this person or situation remind me of?

  • In what ways do I act like this person? Is there any area in my life where I also show up in this way?

  • In what ways do I not act like this person? Why is that?

  • Am I afraid that I might be like this person, or that others might think of me in this way? If yes, what's at the core of this fear?

  • What do I need to do to take care of myself right now? How can I self-soothe?

  • How can I be compassionate while also setting a healthy boundary with this person/situation?

STEP 3: Reclaim your power and radiate compassion.

Whether you've discovered that you are or aren't projecting, you can regroup and release yourself from being in victim/perpetrator mode. This final step will help you to shift into a state of clarity and empowerment while creating space for compassion.

  • Take 10 slow, deep breaths with your eyes closed. As you breathe, imagine anything you’re projecting onto others is coming back to you. Imagine that your projections are illuminated with your awareness. Take 10 deep breaths as you imagine compassion circulating through your body. As the projections come back to you, imagine that you're welcoming them into a world of compassion. Visualize the compassion expanding with each breath until you're so filled with compassion that you radiate this energy all around you.

When you embody compassion and reclaim or release projections, it’s like you're clearing obstacles that blocked you from having an authentic relationship with other people. If you find out that you aren't projecting, it still helps to go through this 3-step process to gain perspective and generate compassion for yourself and others.

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