Projecting

A First Date Question:
How aware are you of your traumas and suppressed emotions, and how are
you actively working to heal them before you try to project that shit on me?

How much pain could be avoided if only we were able to approach our potential relationships with that kind of clarity! Sadly, that’s rarely if ever the case. We have all sorts of notions about what a relationship should be, programmed by modeling when we were children, unconscious desires to re-live relationships with abusers and get them right by proxy, cultural ideas of how the good life should be lived, what a good relationship should look like, and on and on. As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in the last lines of The Great Gatsby, “And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Projection is used differently in the recovery rooms than it is by therapists. In the fellowships we often use “projection” when we might better say “anticipation,” referring to looking ahead and trying to figure out what the future will bring, often with concern about an undesirable outcome. In the world of psychotherapy, however, projection is normally used to refer to situations similar to that in the introduction above: when we project on another the feelings, pressures, dislikes and resentments that we are actually feeling ourselves but prefer not to recognize.

If I am unable to express my anger I may project and accuse my partner of being angry, almost as a sort of proxy. I may allow myself to become annoyed about the behavior of an obnoxious drunk, failing to consider that I am drunk and being obnoxious myself. I may become unusually obsessed with another’s tardiness when I’m frequently late myself, or become upset with someone’s rudeness or failure to respect my boundaries when I’m equally guilty of those things, if not worse.

Essentially, projection of this kind refers to the same thing as the old aphorism we hear from time to time in the rooms: we tend to dislike most in others the traits that we most dislike [or fear] in ourselves. This is a perfectly natural way to protect our own already poor self-esteem. It’s a subtle form of denial, similar to “Look how she is . . . and they say I’m bad!”

Just as with over-the-counter nostrums, the fact that something is “natural” doesn’t mean it is healthy or harmless. We are not responsible for the way we were programmed or the sick defenses we developed on our own, but as recovering people we are responsible for discovering these traits in ourselves and doing something about them. That’s where the Steps–particularly Steps Four, Six and Ten–come into play. Therapy is also a help, as is a conscious desire to be as honest with ourselves as possible. Like a competent carpenter, we need to master our tools and use those that are appropriate to the situation, instead of complaining how the other guy bends every nail he tries to drive.

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