We have four teenagers, so dinnertime is never dull, but this particular evening it was chaos. One of our kids had not eaten much. My husband, Mark, really wanted this kid to eat more, and so he offered a bribe/threat: You can’t go hang out with your friends until you finish everything on your plate.
A power struggle unfolded, complete with sibling cheering sections. I tried to shut it down using dramatic non-verbal cues for my husband: This was not what we agreed to do when a kid doesn’t eat well, I screamed silently with my supercharged glares. I was not successful; the picky eater ate what was required in order to go hang out in the neighborhood.
Although I was obviously right (chuckle) in my frustration — because bribing kids can work in the short run, but research clearly demonstrates that it backfires in the long run — I want to discuss what I did next, and why.
The next night, I intended to calmly raise the issue with my husband so we could prevent similar spectacles in the future. I knew that I couldn’t make accusations or do anything that might make him defensive, because people don’t learn well when they are being criticized.
So let the record show that I was not even remotely uncritical. I opened with something like “How could you have been so stupid?” and then I started to rant: “Haven’t we talked about that situation a million times? We have a freaking PLAN for this!! We’ve AGREED what we will do about picky eating!! Why can’t you follow through with the plan? Why can’t you understand how important it is to be consistent?”
He responded calmly. I rolled my eyes with contempt and superiority.
I was such an ass.
I do not know of any parent, myself included, who has not at some point threatened, bribed, or otherwise manipulated a child into doing what they wanted. I actually do possess a huge capacity to empathize with my husband’s intentions and behavior, but it was a capacity I failed entirely to draw on in this moment.
But why? Why was this so emotional for me? Why was I so critical and punishing?
Because I was projecting.
We project, psychologically speaking, when we unconsciously and unknowingly attribute our judgments about ourselves to other people. The thing that drives me most crazy about myself is that I often make elaborate behavioral plans for myself, and then don’t follow through. For example, I’ve recently stopped meditating—after making a plan to meditate more. The perfectionist in me has been a mess of guilt and anxiety over this, something I didn’t consciously realize until I found myself dressing my husband down for not following through on our picky-eater protocol.
We humans have blind spots. It's hard for us to see our own failings, but it can be very easy for us to see what’s wrong with other people. Those around us, particularly our partners, are like mirrors: We see clearly what we don’t like, but we get it backwards: It’s not them, it’s us.
Martha Beck cleverly calls this charming human propensity “You spot it, you got it.”
Psychological projection (in its many forms) is a defense mechanism first conceptualized by Freud. His daughter, Anna, later developed the theory. The Freuds posited that we often deal with the thoughts, motivations, desires, and feelings that are hard for us to accept in ourselves by attributing them to someone else. And while many Freudian theories have not stood the test of time, projection is still considered a textbook human behavior.[i] I see it all around me — in myself, in my friends and children, and in my clients.
That doesn’t mean that we are always projecting when we see other people’s flaws, or when we see the ways that others can learn and improve. But when we feel particularly emotional about a situation? When we feel hooked and irrational or harshly judgmental about someone else’s shortcomings, rather than empathetic or compassionate? We are probably projecting.
Projection is an undeniable human tendency, and I think it is pretty wonderful, actually, because it allows us to see ourselves more clearly, to better understand what is causing us anxiety and stress. The greatest thing about projection, to me, is that it comes with a set of instructions for our own growth and happiness: We’ll usually do well to do whatever it is we wish other people would do (or would stop doing).
I was infuriated by my husband’s inability to follow our parenting plans, but even in my fury, my instructions for him were clear: Stop asking me to make parenting plans that he can’t follow through on. Instead, let’s make easier, good-enough plans. So the way forward — for me — is not to force myself to follow through with my best-made plans at all costs. It’s not to try to be more perfect; it’s to stop making plans that aren’t realistic given the lovely, messy world that we all live in. Our fight showed me that I don’t always have to model the very best practices; it’s good enough to be strategic, realistic, and skillful.
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[i] Wade, Tavris “Psychology,” Sixth Edition, Prentice Hall, 2000.