I Know What Her Problem Is!: Exploring Projection

“You really, really don’t want kids, do you?” Bert leaned forward in his seat, pointing his finger at his wife. “You work 60 hours a week and in the evenings you always want to go out. You don’t have time for children!” Betsy rolled her eyes with disgust. “I don’t know how many times I can tell you that I want kids. You know I’ve always wanted to be a mom, but no matter what I say or do, you just don’t hear me.” As the conversation paused I asked Bert, “Do you really want to be a father?” “It’s not about that,” he angrily spat out, “it’s about Betsy!” I must have asked Bert the same question 5 different ways, but he could only talk about his wife.

The next client, Shawn, came in clearly distressed. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “My best friend Sarrah went on and on yesterday about how unhappy I was in my marriage.” “I’m confused,” I said. “I thought life was going well with Phillip, did something happen?” “That’s what’s strange,” Shawn explained. “I thought I was happy, but she was so insistent that I have problems!”

Sigmund Freud took projection, originally a religious concept, and refined it for psychology. He hypothesized that when we disown thoughts or feelings we instinctively and unknowingly place them on the people and world around us. These days some psychological theories dismiss this as un-researched history while others claim it is the cornerstone of the psychological process. I find it’s one useful technique for assessing our own thoughts and feelings.

Bert’s insistence pushed Betsy to thoroughly explore the idea of children, concluding that perhaps she was a bit apprehensive about juggling motherhood and her job. Her honesty encouraged Bert to focus on himself and admit he was terrified of being a father. The next time Shawn saw Sarrah she gave her friend the opportunity to talk about her own relationship. It turns out Sarrah was considering divorce and was relieved to talk about her struggles with Shawn (who is still happily married to her husband). This week take some time to notice when you’re putting your own life onto someone else!