Beatrice’s reaction to hearing, “You’re controlling!” depends on her beliefs and assumptions. If she believes that controlling people are abusive and bad, she will react defensively, at least in the privacy of her mind.
- “I am not!”
- “No, you are!”
- “I don’t like you.”
- “If you think I’m controlling, there’s something wrong with me.”
On the other hand, if she believes that everyone is controlling sometimes, she can respond calmly to the immediate content of the statement. “My friend Tomás thinks I behaved in a controlling way.”
We each contain the potential for all qualities, ranging from wonderful to terrible. When you think back, you can probably remember times when you have been controlling and yielding, cruel and kind, greedy and generous.
Pushed into shadow
We start out freely expressing all of ourselves, but quickly learn that some qualities are rewarded more than others. We emphasize the qualities that get us what we want, and push away qualities that are frowned on or punished. The qualities we push away, both positive and negative, accumulate into our shadow.
What qualities live in your shadow? Quickly complete the sentences:
- Only bad people do ________________.
- I hate it when people ____________________.
- I would never be __________________.
- I wish I were ________________.
- This person is my hero because_________________.
When we despise or long for a quality, we contain enough of it to recognize it. Other people’s actions catch on the hooks inside us and provoke strong reactions. When we acknowledge our shadow qualities, the hooks are smoothed away, and we can observe without reacting.
When we acknowledge our capacity for a full range of behaviors, we can choose appropriately for each situation. When we limit ourselves to a narrow range, we have fewer conscious options, and our shadow expresses itself without our awareness.
Projection is assigning those unwanted qualities to the people around us instead of acknowledging them within ourselves. We think everyone else should work as hard as we do to keep the same qualities squashed, and react strongly to small signs of them. This leads to conflict, since we each have a unique set of qualities in our shadow.
When we believe only bad people are controlling, we work hard not to be controlling, deny that we are ever controlling (or hate ourselves for it), and judge others harshly for being controlling. We spend a lot of energy fighting with a quality we want to avoid.
How to unhook
Beatrice notices that being controlling has come up a lot lately. A surprising number of people are trying to control her, or accuse her of being controlling. She decides to take a look at her relationship with control.
- Notice: She brings the incidents around control into her awareness.
- Own it: She repeats “I am controlling,” and looks compassionately for times when this has been true. She realizes that when she is concerned about safety, she tries to control other people. She also harshly controls herself to be “good.” She sits with grief and shame, breathing through the strong emotions until they pass.
- Beliefs: She looks at her beliefs around being controlling, and their origins. She remembers struggling against other people’s control in the past, and learning that controlling others is disrespectful. She looks at all the times she was taught she was bad, and needed to control herself for approval.
- Benefits: She looks at the benefits of being controlling. Taking control of herself and her environment supports her boundaries and makes it less likely that someone else will inappropriately take control of her life.
If Beatrice has projected “controlling” onto neutral events, unhooking from her projections will dramatically change her experience. Perhaps Tomás only teased her about speaking assertively, and does not think she is controlling at all. Usually, events are not a neutral background, and change comes more slowly. Beatrice might look back over months or years of work and realize that control no longer comes up as much.
If she notices herself being inappropriately controlling in the present, she can apologize, make amends, and work to change her behaviors.
Now that Beatrice fully acknowledges her capacity for control, she can also discern clearly when she has not been controlling. If Tomás accuses her again, she might notice that he also has issues with control.
It is rarely effective to tell someone, “You’re projecting!” Mutual accusations of projection create a hall of mirrors where the truth is lost in distorting reflections. A neutral question, “What makes you say that?” gives Tomás the opportunity to check his assumptions.
Not the problem
Like most powerful tools, unhooking from projection can be misused. The most common misuse is to assume it will change the outside world, and that a lack of immediate change means we need to work harder. When we own our projections, we change our perception of the world and how we interact with it. While it can be comforting to believe that we control everything that happens to us, most of us do not have that kind of privilege and power.
If unhooking from a projection has no effect, it means we are probably not creating the problem. That information can free us to look for other solutions, such as expressing boundaries or leaving the situation.
Accusations and gaslighting
Accusations of projection can be used to gaslight, casting doubt on people’s perceptions. For example, present-time abusers accuse survivors of projecting old memories when survivors confront abusive actions. Vulnerable survivors are already accustomed to believing others instead of their own perceptions, especially when awash in flashbacks.
A powerful antidote is to own projection itself. A survivor can work through the process and say, “Yes, I project sometimes.” If acknowledging projection does not change the situation, then projection is not the only problem.
Fallible and clear
When we unhook from projections, we acknowledge that we are fallible, opening the door to compassion for ourselves and others. No one is perfectly good or perfectly bad. When we stop fighting our shadows, we see ourselves and the rest of the world more clearly. The energy we put into condemnation becomes available for enjoyment instead.
Debbie Ford’s The Dark Side of the Light Chasers contains detailed information and exercises about projection. In her examples, owning a projection magically changes the situation every time, which has not been my experience.