Nancy Colier
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Projection and Defensiveness: The 2 Relationship Toxins that Can Poison the House

Bob (not his real name) has been complaining to me about his wife, Jan, for months now. According to Bob, she humiliates him. In social situations, Jan behaves as if he doesn’t exist; she excludes him from conversations with other people and treats him like someone who’s utterly irrelevant.

Bob often gets angry and accuses his wife of overlooking and dismissing him, to which she defends herself, claiming that her behavior has nothing to do with him, that she’s just being the confident and independent woman that she is. But Bob remains convinced that it’s Jan who’s deliberately disappearing him, and that she’s responsible for his feelings of irrelevance and humiliation.

Bob is a 51-year-old, highly intelligent, well-educated, and ambitious man. He was raised in a tiny midwestern town, with parents who were absent in all ways imaginable: physically, mentally, and emotionally. They took no interest in Bob whatsoever. Professionally, Bob has spent his life creating projects, both artistic and business-oriented. Despite his great intelligence, original ideas, and hard work, he hasn’t (as of yet) been able to build any of these projects into a career that provides him with recognition or acknowledgment. He also, for that matter, has not yet been able to translate his efforts into financial stability or true independence. He calls himself a “failure” and suffers with shame and low self-esteem, which makes it hard for him to form close friendships. Bob has struggled his whole life, trying to create a place for himself in the world, one where he matters and his talents and wisdom are seen, validated, and respected.

From what Bob describes, Jan is a woman in her late forties who’s built a successful career as an illustrator. An award-winning, highly-respected artist in the publishing and music industries, she’s a sought-after artist who gets to make her own choices on the projects she takes on and how much she gets paid (which is a lot).

While Bob acknowledges that Jan has worked hard for and earned her success, he’s also quick to point out that the only difference between him and her is that the “universe” has rewarded her efforts and not his.

Bob also acknowledges that Jan is a confident and highly likable woman who makes friends and connections easily. She was raised in a financially well-off family, which has allowed her and Bob to enjoy (and provide their kids with) a comfortably cushy lifestyle. There’s no question that Bob respects and adores his wife, but it’s also clear that he resents her. He believes that life has come easier for Jan and that her success is just part of her privilege. While he, on the other hand, was offered nothing—no guidance and no support.

The relational framework from which Bob operates, namely, that his wife is making him feel humiliated and irrelevant (and choosing to do so), is, in fact, very common in relationships. We blame those people we’re closest to for causing our feelings and conflate our experience with their intention to create it.

Different people trigger different feelings in us, and specifically, different feelings about ourselves. Our narrative of the other person, and most importantly, who we are in comparison with the person we’ve constructed in our narrative, then creates a particular self-experience, an identity that crystallizes in their company.

Rather than own our feelings and acknowledge the source of our vulnerability, shame, anger, or whatever else we’re feeling, we decide that the other person is responsible for making us feel our difficult feelings. We disown our own shame and insecurity and project it onto the other person; we are not insecure…they are responsible for it; they are the ones doing it to us.

Bob struggles with powerlessness and humiliation as a general theme in his life. And yet, he needs to believe that his wife is responsible for these feelings. His humiliation is not about him, and not about what he’s (sadly) experienced in his life, or for that matter, what he’s been able to generate and make happen for himself.

There’s no question that other people affect how we feel; we are not islands. And yet, when we hand responsibility off to others for our own difficult feelings, for creating them in us, we effectively escape and reject responsibility and authorship for our own life. In so doing, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity for self-compassion—to acknowledge what we’ve lived and how we got to these feelings, which would then allow the feelings to transform and heal. Simultaneously, making our suffering something the other person is doing to us deprives us of the opportunity for autonomy and ultimately, growth. If our shame, inadequacy, rage, or whatever else were to be about us, about what we’ve actually lived, then we can get on with the job of changing it, creating a different life and different experience of ourselves.

In Bob’s case, as long as his sense of failure still belongs to his wife, if it’s still her casting failure upon him, nothing can, or will, change for Bob.

This example may sound obvious, but projection in the face of the obvious happens all the time and causes unimaginable stress and conflict in intimate relationships. If the partner being projected onto is not incredibly conscious, present, and grounded in the moment it’s happening, they can easily fall into the trap of defending themselves and going into battle to prove their innocence, which is never productive or affirming.

Some of it is just biology: the ego’s survival instinct gets activated when we’re accused of something and triggers a kind of fight-or-flight response in the nervous system. Being told we’re responsible for (and intentionally creating) bad feelings in another person we care about launches us into a defense or counter-attack—into proving that we’re not to blame, and not the bad person we’re accused of being.

This cycle of projection and defense keeps our relationships stuck and keeps us stuck in our own evolution. We focus on our partner and what they’re doing to cause our experience. We devote our attention and energy to how they need to change—to fix our pain and make us feel differently. We insist that a different reality exists, one in which we don’t feel what we feel, a reality that we imagine our partner controls and could create for us…if only they were different.

In part 2 of this series, I will look at ways to break out of this cycle of projection and defense, both for the projector and the projected upon and how to free ourselves from this repetitive loop that leads to conflict, disconnection, and, in a word, suffering. We’ll look at how to move our relationships to a more evolved, conscious, and harmonious state.

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