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Deciphering Projection: Are Those Your Feelings Or Theirs? Leave a comment



Lately, I’ve had some difficult conversations that left me feeling depleted, anxious, and questioning my self-worth, life purpose, and behavior. After careful introspection and a few conversations with my therapists and loved ones, I’ve realized that some individuals may have been projecting their feelings and thoughts of themselves onto me. Although I try my hardest to hold myself accountable for my actions and how I interface with others, I started to wonder how much projection plays a part in this certain interaction and how I could self-soothe to make myself feel more grounded in my personhood. This revelation allowed me to explore how projection rears its head into my relationships and how I should begin to analyze this behavior and govern myself accordingly. 

According to Brittany Phillips, a trauma-informed therapist and founder of Phillips Psychotherapy, LLC, projection is an unconscious coping technique people use to protect themselves from feeling and dealing with uncomfortable emotions; it’s a defense mechanism. “Projecting is a tool to help people navigate painful internal experiences. When people project, they can deny or disconnect from aspects of themselves and attribute those qualities to someone else,” Phillips says to ESSENCE. Meghan Watson, psychotherapist and founder of Bloom Psychology agrees and provides two great examples of projection. “For example, an insincere person may claim that a friend or coworker is not being genuine in their interactions due to their lack of sincerity. Another example can be seen with a cheating spouse who accuses their partner of infidelity to deal with the guilt of their unfaithfulness,” she states. 

Although we can always know when people in our lives or strangers are projecting their insecurities, self-beliefs, and experiences onto us, there are little hints that give us an idea that they are. “Exceptions occur when we experience projections by strangers that seem out-of-the-blue, unexpected, or disproportionate to the situation or circumstance,” Watson says. 

She adds, “An example of this is if you work in customer service, you might have been on the receiving end of a customer’s rage in response to kindly explaining a routine store policy. We can assume that this person is likely projecting their frustration and anger in our direction due to their inability to process and regulate those emotions. Without a prior existing relationship to add knowledge and context, projection becomes clear when experienced by strangers.” 

So what can we do to protect our mood from people projecting onto us? Watson suggests taking your power back by regulating your emotional response through grounding (i.e., take a deep breath, and drink a glass of cold water if you can). Finding an emotional center allows you to respond instead of reacting and projecting your own beliefs, emotions, and experiences. “Clarify your values, beliefs, and internal compass. The better you get at identifying who you are and what helps you stay true to yourself, the easier it becomes to shield yourself from the projections of others,” she suggests. 

Lastly, it’s important to remind yourself that projected experiences often have little to do with you. It can be a relief to remember that projection is usually related to the other person’s inability to acknowledge their reality and shortcomings. However, Watson believes projection can also be positive and enhance interpersonal relationships. “Empathy can be understood as a projection of our emotional experiences to understand others better, and we may project beliefs and motivations onto others to motivate them and ourselves toward positive action,” she shares. 

Some common examples of projection, according to Phillips, are: 

  • Blaming others instead of accepting responsibility
  • Judging others, i.e., criticizing others for behaviors or qualities they dislike within themselves
  • Denying one’s thoughts or feelings while simultaneously viewing others as displaying those thoughts or feelings
  • Making assumptions about people or situations with no real evidence

Now how can we protect ourselves when projection shows up?

Build Your Self-Awareness: If you have a deep understanding of yourself, your thoughts, your emotions, and your behaviors, you will be able to recognize when someone is projecting their stuff onto you. Self-awareness is your biggest protective factor. You can help develop and increase your self-awareness through journaling, reflection, therapy, or talking honestly with safe people. 

Feel Your Feelings: Take time to sit with your emotions and fully feel them! When we experience projection, it can be jarring and uncomfortable. Sit with that and allow your body to process your experience. Feelings only pass when we allow them to move through us, don’t bury them. Validate what you feel.

Create Boundaries: Having clear and healthy boundaries can help you maintain control over what intake. Make sure to communicate your needs, expectations, and limits in relationships. Boundaries can help us develop a strong sense of self, so when we encounter projection, we know “that’s their stuff, not mine.”

Practice Empathy: Understand that the person engaging in projection is lacking some self-awareness and possibly experiencing internal pain that they cannot process. Having compassion for them helps you not take things so personally. 

It’s important to note that we all engage in projecting; however, the key is to build and strengthen our self-awareness to process our emotions, so we’re not negatively affecting others with our behaviors. 


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