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5 Steps to Stop Projection in its Tracks

I can be lazy sometimes. I procrastinate. I lose stuff occasionally.


I’m hard on myself about these things. Others seem to notice and they constantly tell me not to be. I know their hearts are in the right place, but I expect a lot from myself and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. However, there comes a point where my self-esteem can’t take any more criticism.

Unfortunately, when I reach the point where I can’t beat myself down any more, others suffer. My son gets a lecture on the finer points of room cleaning followed by a dissertation on being responsible for the whereabouts of his sneakers. My wife and I love to talk about soda cans, end tables, and underwear. (inside joke alert) Meanwhile, I go back to my own bad habits and nothing changes except for some newly hurt feelings.

A while back I decided to end this cycle. My family didn’t deserve what they were getting and my self-esteem didn’t deserve my repeated attacks. To end the cycle, I had to give my behavior a name, try to understand it, and then figure out how to stop.

Introducing Projection – The Gift That Keeps on Taking

The name was one of the most common defense mechanisms – projection. Courtesy of lifescript.com, it’s formal definition follows…

A defense mechanism people subconsciously employ in order to cope with difficult feelings or emotions. Psychological projection involves projecting undesirable feelings or emotions onto someone else, rather than admitting to or dealing with the unwanted feelings. 

I started picking apart the definition at “undesirable feelings or emotions.” My undesirable feelings were all related to pain and they stemmed from laziness, procrastination, and lack of responsibility. The emotions that followed from the pain?




It became clear in a hurry. These feelings and emotions were unwanted, hated even. My subconscious would do almost anything to avoid or get rid of them. No wonder I was flipping the script by looking for laziness, procrastination and a lack of responsibility in the people I spent the most time with.

With the name in hand and an understanding of why I was doing it, I needed to stop it. But there was another question to answer. Before we can end any bad habit, we have to know what need it fulfills. I looked to the 3 basic human emotional needs for an answer.

Validation – the need to feel important, valued, listened to and understood

Security – the need for comfort, safety, and to preserve the status quo

Excitement – the need for variety, risk, and adventure

There it was at the beginning – validation. When I would assert myself and have discussions with my wife and son I felt important. I felt like the leader of the family putting his foot down. I felt like I would be listened to, agreed with and apologized to.

The other one was just as clear. Excitement. Building up negative emotions inside and releasing them in someone else’s direction was how I fulfilled this need. I was risking getting into a full blown conflict with a loved one and there was a level of excitement that came with it. What would happen? How bad would feelings get hurt?

The First Steps to Stopping Projection

I knew what feelings I was trying to avoid and what needs I was meeting by projecting them onto others so now I needed to create a plan to deal with these emotions before I hurt others. It was unfair for others to suffer from my actions but it would also be unfair to myself to keep these feelings pent up inside.

As I pondered this, the first step became as clear as the nose on my face. Just as athletes study game film to know how to defend their opponents, I needed to be consciously of what situations would most often lead to projection.

Step 1 – Identify the situations that most often lead to projection.

For me, those were situations involving disorder like walking by my son’s room and seeing toys all over the place or looking in my office and seeing papers piled high on my desk. Now that I knew my hot buttons, I could raise my guard and have the best chance to stop projecting before I started.

As soon as the first step became clear to me, the second step followed. Words always begin as thoughts. What if I could catch my feelings in the thought stage and deal with them well before they formed themselves into words?

Step 2 – Upon entering high risk situations, be mindful of your thoughts.

I tend to have knee-jerk reactions to certain things. These reactions feel instinctual, like there’s no opportunity to think before acting. If you’re the same way, it’s important to practice the first two steps together. With a heightened awareness, you can slow down your mind long enough to think before you act.

Projection – I’m Callin’ You Out!

Now I can be mindful of my thoughts until the cows come home but how do I keep them from becoming words directed at others? In other words, how do I “deal” with them instead of holding them inside?

Thoughts pop in and pop out of our heads all day long. For example, a thought will pop into my head about something I need to do today and then it’s gone. The day ends and I forgot to do it. Most of the time when the thought shows up, I’m not in a position to do anything about it. Wrong place, wrong time, etc. I combatted this by using my smartphone’s calendar to remember appointments and events and Evernote to create lists of things I needed to do.

With projective thoughts there’s no need to write them down or save them for later. They can be dealt with in the moment, as soon as they appear. Here’s what this looks like…

Someone tells you they forgot to do something they’d agreed to do. They are normally very reliable but everyone has a hiccup once in a while. The thought comes into your head, “How could they do that? I was counting on them. Now what am I going to do?” Before verbalizing it, do these two things…

Step 3 – Call out your thoughts for what they are.

Say to yourself, “I have issues with following through. I’m embarrassed by them and beat myself up over them. Now I’m about to project my own issues onto someone else who doesn’t deserve to be treated that way.” That’s consciously giving projection a name and admitting what you see in someone else is actually something undesirable you see in yourself.

Step 4 – Identify the need projection would be meeting

Ask yourself, “What need would I be meeting if I lashed out at this person? Would I feel important? Would it be exciting to confront them? Would I feel more comfortable inciting a conflict because it’s what I’m used to doing in this situation?”

It’s powerful to know what emotional needs your behaviors meet. Armed with this information you can choose a number of alternatives – constructive ones instead of ones that create conflict and hurt feelings. That brings us to the final step…

Step 5 – Discover alternative behaviors that meet the same need

Let’s say projecting onto someone meets your need for validation. What else could you do that validates you but doesn’t create unnecessary conflict or hurt feelings? How about forgiveness? The inner validation from forgiving and moving on is powerful and life changing. If projecting excites you, what else would be just as exciting? Problem solving? What’s more exciting than finding a creative way to turn a negative into a positive?

If you’re thinking, “That’s a lot of steps to go through while I’m in the middle of the situation,” I understand. The first couple of times you apply these steps may be a little clunky. Give yourself permission to struggle with it at first. With practice, going through the steps will become an automatic response.

Projection hurts the ones we care about and takes accountability away from where it should lie, with us. We can be responsible for our actions and committed to growth and improvement without beating ourselves up. Use these steps to keep yourself from projecting and tell me how they’re working out in the comments below.