Living with Toxicity: Projection


Projection: an unconscious process where one denies the existence of certain desires, emotions, and actions by transferring (projecting) those to someone else in order to protect one’s ego. 

Do you remember 2008-2016, when our president (regardless of what you think about him or his performance during those eight years in office) was able to speak intelligently and compassionately? While perhaps not the most gifted politician, he embodied some of the best of who we are as a nation. Throughout his eight years there were zero personal scandals, he worked hard to honor the diversity of opinions in both political parties, and he represented the office with measured strength and dignity. By the time Obama helped to turn the Titanic-like economy around at the end of his first term, Trump surfaced in the media with the rather strange birther controversy, claiming that he wasn't convinced that our president was born in the U.S. This charade lasted five years (!) before he eventually held one of his infamous media events and in the span of fewer than 70 words made the following remarks:

Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy. I finished it. I finished it. You know what I mean. President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period. Now, we all want to get back to making America strong and great again. Thank you, thank you very much.

This statement (and if we're honest, we could choose any day of any week since he became president to illustrate this) reveals the lengths to which Trump will go to refuse to deal with his own behavior. It has been debunked so thoroughly that it's not even worth the time to link to it, but his attempt to cast himself in the role of the hero by blaming his political opponent for starting a controversy that he supposedly resolves once and for all was laughable at the time. Surely, there was no way that the country would side with a man this deeply troubled. Unfortunately, as Mike Birbiglia often says, "I know, I'm in the future also."

Projections are often easily accepted as reality by large groups of people (perhaps more so). How else can we explain large crowds of people chanting "Lock her up! Lock her up!" while the person leading those cheers (Michael Flynn) has now plead guilty to lying to the FBI about his role in Russia's interference efforts. Having solidified his role as a drum major for disarray, Trump’s constituency has marched in lockstep behind him following his every word (salad) and going so far as to take Russian interference in stride by crafting a narrative that now is grateful for outside help to have kept them from a Clinton presidency that would have been "so much worse" than what we currently have.

As I heard growing up, "What Paul says about Peter says much more about Paul than it does about Peter."

The essence of projection is that there is something inside of us that we cannot accept, so we place those qualities, fears, emotions, and actions on someone else so that we can continue living in a state of denial or blissful ignorance. This leads to the creation of a world of fantasy for the person deeply immersed in projection, for at some level s/he begins to believe his or her own lies and desperately needs others to join him or her in this self-serving distortion of reality. We will talk more about this in another post when we discuss smear campaigns, but suffice it to say, it's a good idea to tread carefully when someone (whether a friend or world leader) approaches you with damning information about another person or groups of people. It's highly likely that s/he is engaging in projection and needs you to share in their fantastical interpretations of reality in order to protect their fragile persona of perfection.

Interpersonally, projection happens nearly all the time. I have colleagues who would go so far as to say that nearly all human interaction is projection at some level. Perhaps, but I choose to take a less cynical approach while acknowledging that all persons need to use projection (remember, by and large, it is an unconscious process) as one way to deal with what is unacceptable in themselves. As Robert Kegan notes, however, once we become aware of what we're projecting—once it becomes object and we have it—we must use our awareness to take responsibility for what hitherto we have unfairly placed on the shoulders of another. 

Parents often project their needs, desires, and fears onto their children based on what's important to them. "Come on, Johnny, you love football!" says the father who still carries the painful nostalgia of his high school playing days into his interactions with his first grader. Meanwhile, Johnny sits on the ground with tears running down his face because he would rather be inside reading. "You look beautiful, Margaret! You're going to give those boys a run for their money," says the mother who projects her own relationship to beauty onto her young daughter. For some parents, it's hurtful statements like, "Why can't you ever do anything right?" that show how confused we are between our unconscious inabilities and what we project onto our children. Sadly, the more entranced or asleep at the wheel we are in the driver's seat of our own car, the more likely we are to engage in back seat driving through this projective impulse. The results of this process become clear when children grow into adult children.

Intimate partnerships provide another platform for profuse projection. Perhaps the most consistent projection by narcissists is that of infidelity. A partner has been acting erratically lately, staying out late, being emotionally distant, and hiding their phone. One morning when the other partner finally has a chance to inquire about this change of behavior, their partner reacts angrily, "Don't be ridiculous! Are you having an affair!?"  "Of course not," the other responds incredulously. At this point the projections continue as the toxic partner continues to accuse the other of having an affair in order to keep from dealing with the possibility of guilt or—more likely—to maintain their "perfect" image. In some tragically ironic instances, toxic partners sometimes accuse the other person of being the narcissist. This is sadly a variation on the old, "No puppet. No puppet...You're the puppet!"

When a narcissist is confronted with the reality of his or her imperfections, many of us assume that we are going to help them come to a place of contrition by showing them how the facts don't line up with the story. To be fair to the codependent persons who often find themselves in these relationships (whether as children or later in life), there is something beautiful about their belief in the goodness of others. These people tend to project their positive qualities onto others even when others' behavior doesn't match the positive projection.

"I'm sure there's a reasonable explanation for the lipstick on his collar and the perfume on his shirt."

"I know my partner. Sure, she's been acting quite strangely lately, but she's been under a lot of stress. She would never cheat."

Confronting someone with narcissistic tendencies with facts or exposing their lies only ramps up their need to protect their egos, usually resulting in the use of the tried and true DARVO technique. DARVO stands for Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender. Trump is a master at this technique, and if you've had the unfortunate opportunity to have been in a relationship with someone with an eggshell-thin ego, you know the confusion that results when confronting someone only to find yourself apologizing by the end of the argument. If you find yourself trying to explain to another person what a normal human response would be to catching them in yet another lie, you may find yourself having to make a tough decision. Similarly, if you finally wake up to discover that they have been doing the very thing they've accused you of doing all along, you may have a long road ahead.

Take heart. There is hope on the other side of toxic projection. Unfortunately, for many, it lies on the other side of grief. May we embrace this process as fully as we are able because the more pain we can experience and express, the greater our access to joy on the other end.

The betrayal of projection is a difficult wound to heal, for there is nothing more painful—whether interpersonally or politically—than realizing the person you thought you were in a relationship with was actually looking in the mirror the whole time.