Often, people come into therapy complaining that their partner is difficult, or depressed, or self-absorbed. Yet, over the course of counseling, it becomes obvious that they, themselves, struggle with these issues.
However, instead of openly admitting and acknowledging these issues in themselves, their subconscious throws up a defensive wall, and they instead tell themselves that these issues characterize their partner.
To help understand how someone who projects operates, here are some examples of projection in relatable contexts:
- A mother struggles with parenting her teenage daughter, but it is too painful to think that she may be disappointing her daughter in the same ways that her own mother disappointed her. Instead of confronting this difficult truth, she tells her husband, “You never empathize with her, no wonder she doesn’t feel comfortable with you.”
- A woman is anxious that she is wasting the best years of her career at a dead-end job. She accuses her boyfriend of sitting around and playing video games and never trying to change his life for the better.
- A man is dissatisfied with his weight, and engages in comfort eating when he feels depressed. He belittles his partner for overeating and having “no self-control.”
All of the people in these examples are subconsciously disappointed in themselves in an area that is key to their self-image and identity. Since it is too overwhelming to expose their own flaws, their subconscious helps them out by allowing them to project these flaws onto a handy, nearby targets: their partner or loved ones.
Are You Projecting? Here’s How to Tell
One way to determine whether you may be projecting your issues onto your partner is to think about the issues that you are most ashamed about — even if it’s difficult.
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For some, the issue is rooted in a mental illness, such as depression or anxiety. For others, it is something about their looks, what they have accomplished in their lives, or how well they get along with others. Whatever this issue is, do you find yourself telling your partner that they struggle with it?
Even if you and your partner both struggle with the same key issues, it is unfair to your partner — and unhealthy for your relationship — if you don’t discuss your own struggles, and instead solely focus on whether or how your partner exhibits them. After a while, your partner will get sick of being criticized, and will either leave or start criticizing you back.
Also, and even more importantly, projecting your own issues gets you no closer to actually working on and resolving them.
Finding Solutions Using Our Previous Examples
In the examples from the start of this article, if the mother was able to address her own inability to empathize with her daughter, and figure out why this is a problem for her (in this example, we see that it’s probably related to her own issues with her mom, or replicating how her mother treated her), then she may be able to develop a closer and more loving relationship with her daughter.
If the woman in the second example did the hard work of looking at her own career stagnation, she might decide to go back to school or change careers.
If the man in the last example confronted his underlying challenges, he might address his weight gain and body image issues more directly, through a fitness program and or therapy.
As you can see, there are positive ways to bring yourself up to your own self-imposed high standards through rational thought and hard work. Most importantly, this keeps you from harming others by taking back ownership over your own self-image.
Consider Therapy to Help Work Through Relationship Issues
Therapy is very useful in helping with projection. Couples counseling can teach couples how to deal with their issues in a more direct, open, and honest way, without passive aggressive projection or other problematic communication styles.
Additionally, individual counseling can help partners address their own issues, which never seem as hopeless or painful once they are discussed openly with an empathic, objective third party. If this article resonates with you, share it with your partner and use it to open up discuss on this topic.
And don’t be afraid, it’s never too late to start a healthier pattern of communication in your relationship, and to work on yourself while you’re at it!
Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.
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