John D. Hawkins Jr., M.S., C.A.P., Registered Mental Health Intern
One of the realities of being human is projecting previous relationships onto current ones. In individual therapy, this manifests when a client engages in assumptions regarding the therapist’s feelings towards the client and reacts to these suppositions; in psychology this is know as transference. A common example of this is when a client will believe the therapist is angry with them or is judging them, which frequently is a projection of a critical parent they had as a child or adolescent.
In couples counseling, this projective process is occurring in almost every conflicted interaction. One partner may have been raised by an intrusive or overbearing parent. Now when their partner approaches them with a need, or complaint, they have, they feel as though they will lose their autonomy or have to give up their own needs, which then causes them to either withdraw or go into a self-protective stance. The other partner may have been abandoned emotionally or physically as a child. Now as their partner withdraws, the fear of abandonment developed in their initial attachment injuries are triggered, which typically leads to depression or angry pursuit.
Even in healthy relationships, we still project at times. The difference is in understanding and self-awareness of the process. The effective way to manage projections is to own one’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Too often, these aspects of ourselves are blamed on another, which then feeds the projection and renders it unidentifiable. By owning our personal reality, we are able to identify and block projections. Moreover, recognition of the projection provides awareness of unresolved issues from a prior relationship, which can then be addressed and ameliorated. This leads to more effective communication, respect of another’s personal boundaries, and a greater level of relational intimacy.