In my previous post on projection, I discussed two important skills for when your partner projects their “stuff” onto you. I encouraged awareness and empathy, and suggested that projection can paradoxically encourage connection; when you’re aware of what your partner is emotionally carrying, you can be more sensitive and speak directly to their emotional wounds, regardless of whether they’re aware of their projections or not.
I now want to offer some specific strategies and language for how to communicate and stay calm in those moments when you just want to scream “this is not my fault; this is about you—don’t you see that?!” That reaction is so natural and understandable, but it doesn’t usually go well when followed, and rarely leads to greater peace or closeness with your partner. The difficult truth is that if you want to break the cycle of projection and defensiveness, you’ll need to practice a more mindful and disciplined strategy.
Projection is difficult and painful for both you and your partner. Your partner’s core wound is re-activated and they’re deep down the rabbit hole in a negative narrative. And for you, the one being criticized and misjudged, it’s frustrating, hurtful, and infuriating. It’s also profoundly lonely because your partner is not with you in the present moment when they’re lost in projection; they’ve disappeared into a past reality that you’re not part of. So, what can you do and say to navigate this challenging situation in a thoughtful and productive manner?
The first thing to do when you smell the scent of projection is, counterintuitively, to shift your attention away from your partner and bring it towards yourself. That is, to ground yourself inside your own body. You can do this by simply placing a hand on your abdomen or heart (or anywhere that helps you feel present). From there, you can inconspicuously (or not) take a conscious deep breath, which will prepare you for the interaction and help you stay calm and connected to yourself, which can be difficult when the projection train is heading your way. Taking a conscious breath (or three) can also help create a separate, safe space where you won’t be swallowed up by your partner’s feelings and narratives, and overcome by the survival instinct to defend yourself.
When you feel grounded in your body, you can more thoughtfully respond (or not respond) to your partner’s grievances. When your partner accuses you of making them feel bad in a way they always feel bad, the best plan is to become Teflon, that is, to unstick (and make yourself unstick-able) from their projections, which involves resisting the urge to join them in their storyline. Instead, you want to empathically reflect your partner’s feelings, what they’re suffering, but (and this is important), without including yourself in the reflection. As in, “I get that, for you, the situation felt really invalidating.” It’s also helpful to use words that frame your partner’s experience as feelings not facts: “You felt invalidated” rather than “You were invalidated,” or worse, “You were invalidated by me.” In using feeling words, you highlight the fact that this is their experience (which means it’s important) but not necessarily what happened in some absolute reality.
It’s also helpful to use language like “for you” and “in your experience.” For example, “I hear that—for you—it felt like this…” or “I get that—in your experience—it felt like this…” By using these sorts of phrases, you also suggest that the experience they were living might not be the experience you (or anyone else) was living. Your mindful response is designed to unlink their experience from you and also from what is.
Your task in responding, always, is to draw the “conversation” away from the you-based storyline, and empathize with the feelings and suffering your partner is caught in, to make it clear that you see and get their experience, their pain. Your skillful language is designed to create a separation between how they feel and what you did. Ultimately, the skill in responding to projection is to be sensitive to the other person’s pain, but not bite the hook—not engage in the personal battle over who’s to blame for that pain.
So too, it helps (if you have the emotional bandwidth) to lead with an affectionate word, like “sweetheart” or “love.” As in, “Sweetheart, I hear that you felt invisible in that interaction.” Notice that you’re not saying “I hear that I made you feel invisible.” Or perhaps, “Love, I’m sorry you had to go through that pain.” If you choose to use the word “sorry,” do so carefully; be mindful that your sorry-ness is not about having caused your partner’s experience, but rather, for the fact that they are suffering at all. When projection is happening, skillful language can help you create space for yourself, between you and your partner’s narrative, which you can then maintain regardless of whether they want to collapse that space. Responding mindfully doesn’t just change the relational dynamic, it keeps you safe and saves you from having to get on the emotional roller coaster your partner is riding.
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The key “don’ts” in dealing with projection are:
- Don’t bite the hook.
- Don’t engage in the battle your partner is trying to wage
- Don’t try to prove your innocence or set the record straight
All of these “don’ts” are saying essentially the same thing, and if you practice them in whatever ways you can, they will change how you experience your partner’s projection, and also change the part projection plays in your relationship.
There might also be an opportunity, not in the thick of conflict, but at a more peaceful and loving moment, to draw your partner’s attention to the fact that their feelings with you seem similar to feelings they’ve described from other times throughout their life. The key is to raise this issue with curiosity and not judgment. As in, “Do you think this feeling of (fill in the blank) might be one of those core experiences for you, one that reappears in lots of different forms for you?” You might also share a core experience or wound from your own life, one that reappears in different situations, to remove any shame, create connection, and show your partner that what they’re experiencing is something you share and part of the human experience.
I would be remiss, however, if I ended this post here, without saying this: telling your partner they’re projecting onto you is almost never a good idea. Regardless of how certain you are that projection is at play, to assume that you know more about what’s happening in their internal world than they do, that you know the real truth, is disrespectful, unkind, and not helpful. When we do that to anyone, assume superiority and make an interpretation that pathologizes, shames, or claims to know their truth, we emotionally violate that person and rob them of their dignity. Don’t assume the role of authority in your partner’s experience; it isn’t compassionate and it won’t encourage greater awareness in your partner or serve to deepen the connection. If you want to break the cycle of projection and create a more conscious and intimate bond with your partner, mindful communication—which starts with your response—is ultimately what works.