One of the most frustrating aspects of overcoming abuse is freeing oneself from the projections of an abuser. Abusive people by nature do not take responsibility for their own actions and behaviors, and victims of abuse often have an overdeveloped sense of misplaced guilt and shame. Abusers blame everyone but themselves for being out of control. “If you did the dishes correctly, I wouldn’t have to yell at you.” “You didn’t call. You must hate me.” “You’re making me crazy!”
Here’s what’s paramount. No one can make anyone do anything. How someone responds to their environment is their choice.
Projections are a form of cognitive distortion. Abusive people will often project their own bad behavior onto another, and then punish the innocent person of the very thing they are guilty of doing.
When I was a teenager, my dad was paranoid that I was sneaking around behind his back, and thus, I was constantly grounded for things I never did. I found out later, he was cheating on my mom. He constantly accused me of lying to him, but turns out, he was the compulsive liar.
I have seen parents punish their children for “acting out,” when the only person screaming is the adult. I have seen bosses accuse employees for being “lazy” when the boss is the only one not pulling any weight. Another scenario looks like this. Abusive person feels guilty about being a jerk to a friend, so when the friend is being nice to them, they treat the friend even worse. They assume the friend is “showing off,” or “making them feel guilty,” so they blame the friend for rubbing it in their face. In other words, they punish the innocent for their own bad deeds.
Projections are so common in dysfunctional relationships, they feel normal, and people tend to get used to them. When it’s an everyday issue, many can no longer recognize when projections are happening. Trauma survivors struggle with projections just as much as their abusers, and it can become confusing to constantly defend one’s own motives. They start to believe that maybe they are bad, or responsible, or maybe people hate them. When someone has spent too much time around an abuser, victims can start to feel like they can do nothing right and that everyone is out to get them. They expect to be abused in every new encounter, and sometimes, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The good news for survivors of abuse is that when a survivor owns her own stuff, and only her own stuff, it can be liberating. The load is lighter, and she feels a sense of control. No one can make her do or be anything. Isn’t that wonderful?
The bad news is that, unless an abusive person is capable of seeing the pattern and truly desires to change, she will probably never take ownership of the damage she caused. For those who really desire to do the work, there is a rough road ahead of acknowledging harm, showing true remorse, and seeking to repair what’s broken. With a good counselor and a lot of accountability, it is possible, but often the real weight of their actions is too much to bear. For those with personality disorders, it is extremely unlikely they will ever experience the necessary insights to change.
It’s important for survivors to recognize when projections are happening, and create good boundaries around people who exhibit such behavior. When a survivor can recognize when a projection is happening, it no longer has power over them. It can be a freeing experience to fully realize, “It’s not me, it’s them.”