What drives you crazy about your spouse? Do you have a judgment that your husband is controlling and cheap? Do you feel that your wife is impulsive and irresponsible? If you take a few moments to reflect on the very traits that you can’t stand in others, you may be able to see a valuable gift that will teach you a little more about yourself and help you experience great change in your relationship.
Projection: An age-old defense
Long before Sigmund Freud developed his theory of psychological projection, the Talmud stated the principle that “anyone who finds others unfit, charges others with his own defect” (Kiddushin 70a). One who casts aspersions on others is suspect himself to have the very same defect he is publicizing about others. This is the defense mechanism we call projection. If you spot it, you got it.
Projection serves to protect ourselves psychologically from the unconscious pain and discomfort that we may posses a trait that is unsavory. Rather than dealing with the trait in ourselves, we deny it and project it onto others.
How do I know if I am projecting?
One way to know if you are projecting is to witness how much negative energy you feel about that characteristic you’re noticing in the other person. While most people are rubbed the wrong way by someone who is arrogant or greedy, some get more fired than others. If your blood boils when you think of such a person, it’s a good sign that you have struck a golden growth opportunity!
But what if it’s really their stuff?
It may be challenging to discern how much of your strong negative feelings are due to your own “stuff” vs. how much is merely objectively repugnant behavior. Furthermore, if someone is accusing you of an unfavorable behavior that you deny, how much are they projecting their stuff onto you and how much is a denied part of yourself? It’s possible that both parties own a part in it and that is not solely one or the other. The main point for you to take away is to own whatever part you may have. Don’t dismiss it out of hand.
The gift of the mirror
Becoming aware of your projections enables you to become more conscious about yourself. It can transform your negative reactions towards others by realizing that much of your reactivity is coming from a deeper place within. As you look into the mirror that the other person is reflecting back, you can discover the missing parts of yourself that you may have once seen as unacceptable.
This happens often in a marriage. Think of how you criticize your spouse. “You are the most selfish person I have ever met.” “You are so disorganized.” Take a moment to think about why you are leveling those criticisms. (Even if you don’t say it – just thinking it means you’re being judgmental.)What about it bothers you so much? Are you also selfish or disorganized at times? Your unconscious mind may be working overtime to deny those parts of you because you told yourself growing up that being selfish or disorganized were unacceptable. You can’t tolerate the possibility that you may have it so you spot it in your spouse.
Allow yourself to take ownership for those negative traits you see in your spouse that may actually be within you. Instead of focusing on your spouse’s selfishness or disorganization, see what you can do to be more other-focused or organized. While it may be true that you may be selfless or organized in many areas, perhaps you are weak in others. As you begin to work on yourself, you will have more compassion for your spouse and be less annoyed when s/he displays the trait you hate. Use this projection as an opportunity to discover new ways for you to improve and grow in your relationship.
There is another way that we can learn from our projections. When we made the unconscious decision to deny the parts of ourselves we found unacceptable, we may have gone to extreme lengths to rid them. We split these parts off from ourselves and have attributed them to others. It is easier for others to carry it for us than to accept the possibility that we may have them.
You may generally be a selfless or organized person. Because you told yourself that you are not allowed to be selfish or disorganized, the thought of even possessing these traits is horrifying. You may have distanced yourself by becoming completely selfless or super organized, yet by not giving yourself permission to ever be selfish or disorganized, you may thrown the baby out with the bathwater. You may not take care of yourself because you have a judgment that it would be selfish to attend to your own needs. You may never be able to relax and enjoy life’s surprises because you fear something may disrupt your perfect schedule. By taking ownership and re-integrating the parts you hate the most in others, you can reclaim the positive parts you may have cut off from yourself due to their prior negative association.
Relationships, especially marriage, provide an incredible growth opportunity if you keep your eyes open. Many are quick to discard a relationship because of the negative they see in the other, yet they fail to realize the gift of the mirror to provide feedback that can lead to reclaiming our original wholeness. Wholeness is ultimately achieved when we can seriously look at ourselves, take ownership, and make the necessary stretches to grow and improve.
So next time you get triggered by your spouse, hold up the mirror take a good look at yourself. Learn something about your flaws and use it as an opportunity to work on achieving personal completion.
If your marriage requires more immediate assistance, download your free copy of Rabbi Slatkin’s book, Is My Marriage Over: The Five Step Action Plan to Saving Your Marriage