Do you ever have a quick change of emotion after connecting with people, especially if they have been venting or emotionally unloading on you? Without realising, you leave an encounter feeling the same emotions shared with you. Be it anger, frustration, fear, depression, anxiety or bitterness, your body and your brain are aware something uncomfortable has happened and tries to internalise it and figure out what’s wrong.
What is projection?
Maybe you can relate to this – a colleague pulls you aside and starts complaining about work. Their concerns and annoyances are valid and have been causing severe anxiety and stress in your colleagues’ personal life. Due to this situation, your colleague is understandably stand-offish towards a certain boss. Maybe they even have some animosity or a sense of disillusionment with the person that causes them to roll their eyes or tune out when the boss enters the room.
After your colleague vents to you, you feel the same anxiety and annoyance in your gut. You are also feeling disempowered because there is a sense of injustice. Your colleague deserves to be treated better, and you can feel anger and frustration making your muscles tighten. You leave work that day feeling exhausted, angry and disillusioned, and because you don’t fully understand why (nothing ‘bad’ happened in your day), this makes you short with your family. They say something and you lash out and complain about not being appreciated. Your partner is dumfounded because they thought you resolved this years ago.
Sound familiar? This is emotional projection. When someone expresses their emotions, and you take them on yourself and realise you feel the same way about a person or situation. An article on Healthline by Kimberley Holland defines it likes this:
Projection occurs when you attribute a behaviour or feeling you have about a person onto them. Then, you may begin to see “evidence” of those feelings projected back at you.
Whether you are the projector (aka the troubled colleague in this story) or the well meaning friend, projection is a cycle we can easily get caught in because we want to empathise with one another. But there is a difference between empathy and over identifying with another person’s story, so it somewhat becomes yours. Some jobs with naturally open the door more easily to projection- anyone in human services, a person who works with trauma survivors, or anyone who has become the de facto safe person for others will have experienced this. And by learning to compartmentalise, empathise and process, they can honour themselves and the people they work with.
Are you projecting?
Some people purposely project their emotions on others to illicit a reaction. They want to be validated, seen, understood and feel like they have a friend on their team. This could be well meaning or come from a manipulative place. Others unintentionally project on others as a coping mechanism – a form of self-sabotage where they are trying to control the worst-case scenario by making it happen. Then, there are people who aren’t projecting – they simply share their story in a safe way with a safe person. How the other person receives it is their responsibility.
How to stop projecting
If you are projecting, there’s a good chance you need to feel safe, seen, heard and understood. You deserve this, but sharing your story in a safe, contained place with a person who knows how to respond will be healthier for you. Counselling, mentoring or spiritual direction are all excellent tools to process things. Doing self-awareness exercises and learning to be present in your body will also help. If you can process and understand what you are feeling, you don’t need other people to unpack your emotions with you. You can still talk about your life, feelings and concerns with trusted friends, but you will do so in an equally powered way where you can support one another.
How to guard yourself from projection
The first step in guarding yourself from projection is by individuating yourself from the other person. Their feelings, stories and emotions are all valid.You may even be part of helping them seek justice or find hope. But their trauma is not your trauma. And you can empathise with them, without becoming a vessel that now experiences the same pain as them.
A great way to Individuate from the person in a conversation is by reflecting on how you feel to them. “When you say this, I feel this. Is this true for you?” By saying this, you place the emotion back on the person and give them permission to define their experience rather than your interpretation of it.
Another key way to prevent projection is by setting boundaries. Is the person rehashing the same story over and over without any sense of healing or change? Are they just trying to make you angry or sympathetic because they need validation? Your friend needs to see a counsellor. You can’t make them do this, but you can set clear boundaries, so they won’t try and make you their de facto counsellor. Decide how often you will catch up, and for how long for. Choose how quickly you respond to social media and text messages, and don’t be afraid to say, “it seems like this is still really painful even though we have talked about it a lot. I love and support you, but I can’t offer you what you need here. Can I help you find a counsellor?”
When you look for projection to feel valued
One last thing – what happens when you find your identity in being the person everyone emotional projects to? Some people even seek out the vulnerable stories because they so badly want to help fix a situation. In many situations, this person finds their identity and purpose in ‘helping’, ‘mentoring’ or ‘fixing’ the other person. It can make them feel useful or superior.
Is that you? If you have a passion for people and want to help them, look into training and education that allows you to work with people! Learn the constructs, techniques, boundaries and accountability measures that will best honour vulnerable people. Aside from this, don’t be afraid to ask yourself WHY you want to help someone. And consider if they have given you consent to speak into their situation. If it comes from a place of fear, or a need to be a saviour, you need to do some self-work. You are whole, valuable and compassionate without this external validation – so reach out to a professional and unpack that.
Do you need a safe space to share your story and heal? Would you like to learn strategies so you don’t project or take on emotional projection? Contact Colleen on 0434 337 245, Duncan on 0434 331 243 or Rachel on 0442177193 for a FREE 10-minute phone consultation on how we can best help you, or press book now and make an appointment.