Meanwhile, you accept the blame and try to be more understanding in the relationship. In vain attempts to win approval and stay connected, you tread on eggshells, fearful of your partner’s displeasure and criticism. You worry about what he or she will think or do and become preoccupied with the relationship. You stay to prevent your greatest fear—abandonment, and rejection and losing hope of finding lasting love. You may begin to believe that no one would want you or that the grass isn’t greener. Your partner might even say that in an attempt to project their shame and fear onto you. After whittling down your self-esteem, you’re primed to believe it’s true.
When we have a strong sense of self and self-esteem, we have healthy boundaries. When someone projects something onto us, it bounces off. We don’t take it personally, because we realize it’s untrue or merely a statement about the speaker. A good slogan to remember is QTIP, “Quit taking it personally!”
However, when we have low self-esteem or are sensitive about a specific issue, such as our looks or intelligence, we are susceptible to believing a projection as a fact. We introject the projection. This is because internally we agree with it. It sticks like a magnet, and we believe it’s true. Then we react to the shaming and compound our relationship problems. Doing so validates the abusers’ ideas about us and gives them authority and control. We’re sending the message that they have power over our self-esteem and the right to approve of us.
Responding to Projection
A projector may exert enormous pressure on you to accept the projection. If you’re empathic, you’re more open, less psychologically defended. If you also have poor boundaries, as described above, you may absorb a projection more easily and identify with them as your own trait.
Understanding how projective identification works is crucial for self-protection. Recognizing the defense can be a valuable tool, for it’s a window into the unconscious mind of an abuser. We can actually experience what he or she is feeling and thinking. Armed with this knowledge, if someone shames us, we realize that he or she is reacting to his or her own shame. It can give us empathy, which is helpful, provided we have good self-esteem and empathy for ourselves! Building self-esteem by disarming our inner critic is our first defense against projection.
Still, you may feel baffled about what to do. When someone projects onto you, simply set a boundary. This gives the projection back to the speaker. You’re establishing a force field – an invisible wall. Say something like one of the following:
“I don’t see it that way.”
“I don’t take responsibility for that.”
“That’s your opinion.”
It’s important not to argue or defend yourself because that gives credence to the projector’s false reality. If the abuser persists, you can say, “We simply disagree,” and leave the conversation. The projector will have to stew in his or her own negative feelings. See “Do’s and Don’ts in Confronting Abuse.” Learn how to communicate with a narcissist in Dealing with a Narcissist and how to overcome toxic shame in Conquering Shame and Codependency.