Have you ever had the experience of feeling like someone kept pushing your buttons over and over until you finally exploded, even though you were trying so hard not to?
Or perhaps this is familiar to you: You keep getting blamed for something that you’re only doing because the other person’s behavior seems to leave you no choice but to react a certain way.
Some people seem to bring out the worst in us and we find ourselves showing a side of ourselves that seems like it’s not really who we are.
All of these experiences probably have something to do with a projective pressure going on in the relationship. Projection refers to seeing something in others that is really part of ourselves or our ideas about what will and should happen in relationships. Projective pressure is when we push the relationship to fit in with our projections or to fit into a certain preconceived idea we have about how a relationship interaction is expected to go.
The term “Projective identification” is often used to refer to some of what I have just been describing. This is a process in which we (unconsciously) put pressure on others to identify with our expectations about how they will act, and thereby create a self-fulfilling prophecy about the ways we think relationships will play out. Others may also provoke us into certain responses which they then blame us for, not realizing that they are the ones who are evoking the very thing they are complaining about!
These are times in which we find ourselves in situations in which someone unconsciously pressures us to become the kind of person they need us to be for psychological reasons of their own, or to react in ways that are more about them than about us. This can be an extremely exasperating experience and can make the boundaries in the relationship feel very confused. Who is doing what to whom?
What motivates this kind of behavior, especially when it seems to lead to the opposite of what a person says they want??
On some simple level, this can reflect a basic fear of change. It’s much easier to relate to someone who acts in ways similar to how others have acted with us our whole lives, because we know what to expect. We know that if we do x, the other will do y. It’s familiar and less scary than having to wait and see how the other person will act, or feel, or respond to us.
Some people may alternatively need us to be their “shadow side” so they don’t have to face something threatening in their own selves, perhaps a part of themselves that reminds them of something they hated in their own parents, or perhaps a part of their personality that feels out of control or like it takes over when it shows up. If they can get us to constantly express that shadow side for them, it reinforces their view that the shadow part exists in the “other” rather than in the “self”. Our behavior reassures them about who they are, even if they complain about it.
We all have reasons for finding people to be with who seem to fit in with our need to see ourselves a certain way. Even when we say that we want our loved ones to be just like us, our behaviors often show something quite different. We unconsciously know that doing the same things we always do is not going to create change in our family members, but we still do the same things again and again anyway (usually just louder and harder)! We could ask, why not do something a bit different if you’re looking for something different to happen?? But really people keep doing more of the same, and one reason for this is because we need the response we say we don’t want in order to feel a certain way about ourselves.
Another reason for projective identification is to communicate something of our relationship experiences or expectations that we cannot express in words. If we can think this through a little and talk about it when it seems to be happening, rather than simply reacting to or escalating the projective pressures, we might learn something that leads to more closeness rather than a repeat of frustrating experiences.
There are harsh ways of pressuring others into a certain relationship script, and then there are
other ways that are more gentle. The healthy projective process involves a soft push and pull, in which we unconsciously push our partners or loved ones in certain directions while still allowing them to equally push us back, finding some sort of middle ground that enhances both people as separate but linked. This is a way in which relationships bring out the best in us but also help us change the worst in us, in ways that aren’t traumatizing or superficial. We meet the other somewhere in the middle, by choice not by force.
Couples are often attracted to partners who seem to fit well with what they need to project. Opposites often attract for this reason. Projective processes happen between parents and children as well.
Someone frugal who partners with a spender reinforces his belief that money needs to be guarded carefully or else it will quickly disappear! The spender in this relationship reinforces his belief that it’s important to spend now because otherwise the money will become inaccessible or will have to be saved for some future that may never come.
Dependent people who partner with independent people reinforce their belief that it’s important to cling, because others can withdraw or become unavailable at any moment. The independent partner feels justified in the independent stance because his partner seems too needy, and it seems like however available he is, it’s never enough.
Again, we project out our conflicts or aspects of ourselves that feel threatening. We NEED our partners to drive us crazy, and even when we complain about not getting what we want, we are unconsciously getting exactly what we want…someone who can play the role for us that we don’t want to have to play.
Sometimes when we have a child who is very different from us, the same dynamics can occur. For example, a mother who is insecure about her weight may try to control her overweight child in ways that actually sabotage the child’s ability to lose the weight. The mother actually has a psychological need for an overweight child who she can control. Similarly, a child who pushes boundaries may get into a projective process with a parent who is very anxious about “losing control” and is rigid about rules and structure. Such a parent may actually need to be in the company of a rebel or someone who pushes the limits; this may be their very own shadow side.
The part we don’t often realize is our unconscious investment in the dynamics that seem to cause us so much frustration and pain.
There is a way out but it takes some hard work!
These projective processes can be our greatest source of healing or else the nemesis of a good relationship dynamic.
Need help sorting it out??
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