Breaking Through Projection and Reactivity in Relationship

Breaking Through Projection and Reactivity in Relationship

“If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. What isn’t part of ourselves doesn’t disturb us.”

― Hermann Hesse

I must have heard the above, or something like it, at least 20 times before I got it. I remember my epiphany: I was telling a group of friends about some spiritual principle that I had read in a book—something I hadn’t known before which I recognized as truth the moment I read it. It suddenly occurred to me that I could not have recognized it as truth unless I already knew it. How could it be otherwise? Even the word ‘recognized’(re-cognized) presupposes a prior knowing or cognition.

Epiphany: Part 1

Then it occurred to me that, by the same token, I could not recognize virtue and goodness in others without first knowing those qualities in myself. How can you ‘know’ what you do not yet know? Is it possible to ‘re-cognize’ what you have not first cognized? How would you recognize goodness without some inner familiarity with it?

Epiphany: Part 2

The second part of the epiphany occurred when I applied this new insight to my critical judgments of people. On what basis could I recognize someone as selfish, narcissistic, uptight, mean, whatever, without intimately knowing the territory? To be clear, I’m not talking about judgments informed by social conditioning. I am talking about that inner knowing which is unmistakable.

It’s you and not me

In doing couples therapy, I know that when one member of the couple is convinced that “the problem” is their partner, my red flags go up. When someone claims that the solution to their painful feelings is for their partner to change, I know better. They are projecting their own disowned qualities upon the other, often wrongly and irrationally—though there is usually a shred of truth in it. Most humans share some constellation of the same human qualities.

When someone else’s behavior bothers me…what’s up with me?

We do not like our own shadows. In fact, sometimes they make us so uncomfortable that we project it onto others, particularly those closest to us. That is, we see in them what we cannot accept in ourselves. This is projection. Projection is real. And it leads to more misunderstandings and violence—emotional and physical—than can be counted.

The usual objection to this line of reasoning goes something like this: “Hey, wait a minute, she really did cheat on me.” Or, “He really does lie about his spending.” “I have a right to feel this way.” “You made me feel (fill in the blank).” It needs to be said that there are such things as abuse, personality disorders, addictions, and behaviors in a partner that we should absolutely call out and remove ourselves from. Sometimes a genuinely malevolent person can damage us to the point that we are confused about whether to terminate the relationship. Such culprits are skilled at undermining their partners’ confidence and clarity. But, I am speaking about those “not so clear” instances of daily conflict and struggle that make us wonder, “Is it them, or is it me?”

You spot it…you got it

Why are our companions’ behaviors confusing to us? What prevented us from making an immediate decision to either accept the behavior or terminate the relationship when we got the bad news? Why couldn’t we make an informed decision, formulate effective action, and get on with it? Why do we get so upset and confused about what direction to take? I propose that it is as Hesse observed: “What isn’t part of ourselves doesn’t disturb us.”

My partner as a mirror…

I believe that even though we know that the other’s actions are problematic, we also know it could have been us in other circumstances. So, we are confused, flummoxed, immobilized. The same qualities are within us, and at some level, we know we cannot escape our own shadow by escaping the relationship. We sometimes need help to sort it out.

What I heard you say…

Feelings are such tricky things. All feelings are real, but not all feelings are true. One of the truly constructive things about couples therapy, particularly therapy that targets dysfunctional patterns of communication such as judging, criticizing, blaming, shaming, and accusing, is the opportunity to give a voice to your thoughts and feelings and to have them heard, validated, and empathized with by your partner, prior to any attempt by the partner to contradict them.

The gift of dialogue is listening that leads to understanding

The gift of being truly listened to, rather than defended against, is the clarity that comes as a result. When your partner does not resist your personal truth but instead makes a sincere attempt to follow the flow of your personal logic, something remarkable happens– order, clarity, and even deep healing. Simply by being heard, you can untangle the thread of thoughts and feelings to see that what you are in reaction to are traits and behaviors that are as true, or more true, of you than your partner. Or it may be that you see that your feelings and perceptions have been hijacked by the primitive parts of your brain confusing your partner with a parent or early abuser. When a conflict stalls at the level of argument, we never get the gift–the chance to “blow the head off the beer” and see what the actual beer is.

The healing is in the act of deep listening

What is more, the act of deep listening by your partner can be as generative for them as it is for you. It may be that what they said or did that triggered your upset was wrong and offensive. By slowing down the process of reactivity through the act of disciplined listening, validation, and empathy, they finally get you. Such moments of genuine empathy are the gold of couples therapy and produce healing for both.


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