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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Relationships: Projecting Your Negative Feelings About Yourself Onto Your Spouse

When two people are in a long-term relationship, it's not unusual for one or both people to project their own negative feelings about themselves onto their partner. This is an unconscious psychological defense mechanism called psychological projection.

Relationships: Projecting Your Negative Feelings About Yourself Onto Your Spouse

A few weeks ago, I received a call from a friend who wanted to vent her annoyance about her husband. I listened patiently for a while, and when she was through venting about his "laziness" and "neediness," I told her that I was surprised to hear her say these things. I've known my friend and her husband for many years, and I never would have characterized him as "needy" or "lazy." I've always thought of my friend's husband as being self reliant and very hard working.

So, as we were talking, I asked her if she really felt this way about him. At first, she insisted that this is how she really felt. Then, I asked her to give me some examples of these negative traits that she said her husband has. After a while, she realized that she couldn't really give me any examples. Then, she thought about this for a few minutes. And after she thought about it, she broke down crying, saying that she realized that she wasn't really feeling this way about him--this was really how she felt about herself.

We ended up talking for an hour. She went on to tell me why she feels this way about herself which, for purposes of this article, is irrelevant. But afterwards, she said she felt much better about her relationship and realized that she needed to do some work on herself in her own therapy. Part of what we talked about is that it's not usual for husbands and wives to project their own misgivings about themselves onto their spouses. Since my friend knows that I write a psychotherapy blog, she suggested that I write about this topic and use our conversation as a jumping off point.

Why Do People in Long-Term Relationships Project Their Own Negative Feelings About Themselves Onto Their Partners?
First, it's important to understand, once again, that this is an unconscious process. It's not like the person is saying to him or herself, "I can't accept these negative feelings about myself, so I'll put them onto my partner." Since it's completely out of their awareness, in most cases, they don't realize that this is what they're doing.

Often, the negative traits that they don't like about themselves are split off from their awareness. By that, I mean that they emotionally disown these feelings about themselves, in a sense, and because they're disowned, they're disavowed. These negative traits are so unacceptable to them that they cannot acknowledge that they belong to them. It's much easier to project them on someone else. In that sense, psychological projection is a defense mechanism and it protects the person who is doing the projecting from feeling bad about him or herself.

Even though this article is focuses on psychological projection between spouses, psychological projection can take place between any two people: parent-child, employee-boss, brother-sister, and so on. It often happens between spouses because they're together so much.

How to Recognize If You're Engaging in Psychological Projection:
At the beginning of my conversation with my friend, she was absolutely convinced that she was annoyed with her husband because she felt he was "lazy" and "needy." As I mentioned earlier, I allowed her to vent her feelings, but I was quietly thinking to myself, "Really? She really feels this way? She's never said this before. I know him a long time. Something about this doesn't sound right."

After my friend finished venting, I reflected back what she said to me and asked her if she really felt this way. Being an insightful and reflective person, after her initial insistence that she really felt that way, my friend thought about it some more. Since we've been friends for a long time, she also trusts my sense of her and her husband, and my response to her gave her pause.

After she thought about it for a moment, she realized what she was doing--she was projecting her own negative feelings about herself onto her husband. She felt badly for denigrating her husband and then made a commitment to talk to her therapist about these negative feelings that she felt about herself. Now, I don't think that she is any more"lazy" or "needy" than her husband, but these feelings are obviously deep seated in her. And whatever I might feel about her, what's important is that this is how she feels about herself right now, for whatever reason. And, as a friend, I can't be her therapist, so this is something that she'll work out in her own psychotherapy.

How Can You Stop Psychologically Projecting Your Own Negative Feelings Onto Your Spouse:
First, it helps if you have the ability to step back and think about these feelings. Try to put aside your anger and judgment towards your spouse and ask yourself, "Do I really feel this way?" "How do I know this?" "What objective evidence is there for this?"

Very often, because psychological projection is an unconscious defense mechanism, it's hard to separate out your judgments and emotions so you can be objective. If you have a trusted friend, it can help to talk to him or her about it, especially if this friend knows you and your spouse.

If you have some psychological insight into yourself and if you're ready to accept that these feelings might actually be about you and not about your spouse, you can go a long way to avoiding a lot of arguments and heartache between you and your spouse.

What If You Can't Stop Engaging in Psychological Projection on Your Own?
Psychological projection can be very damaging to a relationship, especially if both people in the relationship are projecting onto each other, which is not unusual.

If you sense that you could be engaging in psychological projection and you find it too challenging to resolve this problem on your own, you could benefit from the help of a licensed psychotherapist who has expertise in this unconscious psychological defense mechanism.

I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, and EMDR therapist.

I work with both individuals and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006.

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