Reflections From Others

The mirror made me do it.

Posted Aug 19, 2020

Projection, as a psychological defense mechanism, is how we attribute our own emotional states or attitudes to others. When one partner feels irritable, for instance, it’s not unusual to accuse the other of irritability. If one partner feels guilty about attraction to the star of a TV show, he may well suspect that the other is attracted to the costar.

In a wider social sense, we continually project onto others expectations of how they should behave. Sometimes projections take the form of social roles—teacher-student, waiter-customer, doctor-patient, parent-child, dating partners, and so on. More frequent and less conscious are projections about “appropriate” behavior in social settings, such as restaurants, movie theaters, and hotel lobbies. Most people would experience anxiety and make harsh judgments of someone who shouts or disrobes in any of those places. Social projections are a way to predict other people’s behavior.

The most troubling kind of social projections are those we make concerning other people’s character, such as "lazy, selfish, brutish and critical." In addition to the invidious bias inherent in character projections, they are the most susceptible to projective identification.

Projective identification occurs when we identify with the projection: You get irritable when your partner accuses you of being irritable and you notice for the first time how hot the actor is, after your partner mentions it. Similarly, children tend to identify with adult projections about them being “bad boys” and “bad girls” and become the best bad boys and bad girls they can be.

Projective identification happens so often in daily living that we hardly notice it. If a friend accuses you of gossiping, you might have an urge to report the accusation to your mutual friends. If someone believes you don’t like him, you start to notice things about him that you really don’t like. If you have coworkers or acquaintances who think you have a good sense of humor, you try to be funny around them. Those who think you’re compassionate inspire you to go out of your way to inquire about the well-being of their children. If some people think you’re intelligent, you try not to say anything dumb around them. If someone thinks you’re critical, you’ll feel an urge to criticize. And if some people think you’re selfish, you’re not likely to express concern about their health and happiness.

Projective identification is strongest in close relationships. If you project your confidence onto your children, you will help them gain confidence, and if you project your distrust of them, they will likely become sneaky. Frequent criticism makes loved ones feel incompetent and make mistakes. Your resentment makes them feel less lovable and behave less lovingly. 

Although we become resentful and angry when we internalize distorted reflections from our partners, the reflections become accurate when we get resentful and angry; we become like the distortions in the mirror. That’s because it’s not possible to feel loving or worthy of love at the same time that we feel resentful or angry. They’re incompatible emotional states; we can feel one and then the other, but not both at once.

Of course, we don’t have to conform to people’s projections, but it requires conscious attention not to; on autopilot, projective identification usually prevails. Because you’re likely to get more of what you project, be sure to project what you want, not what you don’t want.

Use Projective Identification Positively

The experiment I’m about to suggest sounds counterintuitive. So you don’t have to buy it, just rent it with an option to buy. Be a scientist gathering data on projective identification for the next three weeks.

Start by listing three positive qualities you will project onto your partner, qualities you would like your partner to have, for example, compassionate, helpful, affectionate, agreeable, or friendly.

Don’t mention these qualities, just assume (or pretend) that your partner possesses the qualities you desire. Look for evidence of these qualities and regard any contrary evidence as uncharacteristic. At the end of the three-week experiment, if you’re able to maintain the projections that long, you should notice your partner behaving more like your positive projections. For one thing, the projections will change your emotional demeanor around your partner, making it more likely that your partner will react positively.