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You Spot It You Got It: How to Understand Projection

Photo Credit: Andrej Lisakov

Yesterday a client told me her soon-to-be ex-wife called her “juvenile.” I wrote back “projection.” This was in response to my client asking to have their child’s car seat set up in her ex’s car according to the safety standards for his height and weight. Her ex kept putting her off and making shitty comments. She then offered to do it herself and was put off again. Last night she said, “I’ll drive him to daycare tomorrow” to which her ex said, “juvenile.”

The ex is prioritizing her disdain for my client above the safety of their child. That is juvenile behavior. And yet she’s calling my client “juvenile.” That’s a classic care of projection.

If you're not familiar with the concept of psychological projection, it goes something like this: when we have something emotionally or psychologically going on inside of us that’s too difficult or painful to deal with, rather than dealing with it internally we “project” it outward onto other people. Let’s use the quality of immaturity as an example, like my client’s ex.
When we can’t handle our own immaturity, we’re likely to get triggered when we experience immaturity in others. If they do anything that might remotely be considered immaturity, it’s like a neon sign and alarm bells go off. “IMMATURY ALERT!!!”

The expression we use to describe this concept of projection in recovery is, “You spot it, you got it. “ If there's something about other people that irritates the shit out of you and you see it all the time in others and the world, it's probably a quality you have. And one you don’t particularly like and have a hard time owning psychologically.

For me that quality is arrogance. I had no idea I was arrogant until I got into recovery. I realized that’s why arrogance is probably my most hated human quality – because I’m arrogant A.F. 
I had no idea I was arrogant until doing the 12 steps. I have a lot of grandiose thoughts and thoughts of superiority like, “If only they did things MY way.” I still have them sometimes, just not anywhere near as frequently. And now know they’re bullshit. That’s another thing I learned in recovery – just because I think something doesn’t mean it’s true! My mind was blown by that one!!

I still have arrogant thoughts, even though I don’t want to have them. Now I know not to believe them, though sometimes it takes me a while to recognize them. They’re just my thoughts, they’re not necessarily true. 
I have another story from recovery about projection that I experienced firsthand. Someone I cared deeply for projected their psychological issues onto me and blamed me for them. I'd heard of projection before that (and of course engaged in projection myself, I think we all do to some degree). I’d also seen it in action before, but not like this! Before I get into more detail I want to say that I’m not a psychologist. What I’m describing is from a layperson’s perspective, so please give me grace if I don’t get this exactly right.

The person who projected their stuff onto me, Here’s the story about someone in recovery who projected their shit onto me. I’ll call her Athena. She was probably my closest recovery friend at that time. After almost three years of recovery together, something happened to her. I'm not exactly sure what happened, but I think she got a bit too deep without professional help. And again, I’m not a psychologist, I’m just stating what I concluded after the fact

One night, Athena shared at a meeting that she just realized she’d been gaslighting herself for decades. She talked about how she made jokes about herself, then roped others into making those same jokes about her too. Then she’d get resentful of those people for making those jokes that she fed them about herself. All of this had come to her consciousness that week. She gave the following examples. 
She said, “I tell people all the time that I'm bad at math and I joke about it, meanwhile I’m successful in a career that’s math-based.” She proceeded to give two other very similar examples. Then she mentioned how she ropes others into making fun of her, then she resents them.

What happened next is that she started acting out toward others in recovery. This all came to light after the fact and our recovery community was able to put this together afterward. I’d also noticed that she’d started doing and saying things to me that were a little off. I didn't say anything to her about it because I was waiting to talk directly to her in person but she kept putting me off. 

I was definitely concerned about her behavior toward me and the way she’d acted in meetings and at coffee afterward. But I wanted to speak to her directly in person rather than on the phone or via text because this was really important. I wish now that I hadn’t waited to do that.

One day she sent me a text message that was pretty harsh. I texted her back to say, “I'm getting concerned by your messages so I need a break from you for a bit. Please don't contact me again for a while until I let you know that it's OK to do so.” She immediately texted me back and wrote to say, “Toughen up.”
I thought, “HELL NO!” and I blocked her on my phone. I immediately called a friend in recovery to come over and help me process the situation. When my friend got to my place and saw the text from her, she agreed that blocking her was the right thing to do.

As you can imagine, I was really disturbed by this whole situation. There was zero compassion in her response AND she didn’t honor my request to stop contact. This was someone who had been a close friend for several years.
Later that night I was writing an email to someone and a message from Athena came in and the subject line was, “You're hilarious” and I opened it. Inside the message she wrote, “FUCK YOU.” I blocked her from email too. 
I want to note here that since I grew up in a dysfunctional family, I have a high tolerance for dysfunction. It’s taken me years to understand that just because I have a high tolerance for dysfunction I don’t have to live up to that. Back then, I didn’t understand that opening her email after I’d blocked her on my phone was not a wise thing to do. I’ll call it “dysfunctional” because it didn’t serve my best interest.

A few days later I did another dysfunctional thing, which was to look in my spam folder to see if she had emailed me. Of course she had, three times. I didn’t open them, but I didn’t need to because of the subject lines. One of them said, “You have assassinated my character.”

Then I asked myself, “Why the hell did I go looking for those messages? Why did I go into my spam LOOKING FOR TROUBLE?!” Then I realized this is my pattern having grown up with dysfunction, I go looking for trouble. That was the last time I’ve ever gone into my spam folder to see if someone I blocked had messaged me!

I reached out to another fellow in recovery and asked them to check me - did I assassinate her character? I think I’m too close to this situation to know. She said, “No Barb, she assassinated her OWN character when she shared in the meeting that she made jokes about herself about math, etc.” She was telling us openly about assassinating her own character. Then I realized that was some serious projection!
Athena couldn’t internally handle knowing that she’d assassinated her own character, so she projected the blame for that onto me. When she admitted publicly that she had been saying bad things about herself and roping other people into making fun of her, she was assassinating her own character in two ways:

By making jokes about herself
By pulling others in on the game with her

When the understanding of what she was doing to herself bubbled up to the surface of her awareness to the point where she admitted it publicly, she just couldn’t deal with that. She just couldn’t bear the weight of knowing what she’d done to herself and she projected it outward onto me! This is a perfect example of what can happen when people are digging things up in recovery and not getting the professional help they need. 

This was one of the most painful things that I have been through in recovery. I had to do a LOT of step work on it. That was one of the strongest boundaries I’ve ever had to set when I blocked her. It really solidified for me an understanding of what projection is and it helped me in my own recovery, especially with my boundaries. I understood she was a very sick person and I HAVE TO protect myself from her. There’s no wavering on this boundary if I want to take care of myself.

I share this story in the hope that you might understand that when someone projects their issues onto you, it’s not about you, it’s about them. Think of them as ill. You don’t have to put up with their shit, but you also don’t have to condemn them. 

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