My ex husband accused me of cheating.
Never to my face, maybe because he feared my response or because on some level he knew the claim was baseless, but to his friends and coworkers. After he left, I learned that others had been hearing graphic and disturbing stories of my supposed infidelity for years.
He then went on to detail my irresponsible spending in his “suicide” letter to his other wife and to my mom (he made a suicide attempt when he was released from jail). He described how I wouldn’t take “no” for an answer and I always needed the latest and greatest things.
My initial reaction to my discovery of these accusations was one of unmitigated horror. You see, I trusted him so much and had slowly been groomed to accept his description of reality, that I initially believed that his claims must be true.
And then I grew confused. Because none of the facts, which I obsessively detailed to those who surrounded me in the aftermath of the tsunami, matched his claims. I struggled to understand what was real as the oil of his accusations failed to blend with the water of my recollection.
Finally, it became clear. He was charging me with the exact misconduct that he was guilty of. He was projecting and I was the screen.
What is Projection?
Projection is a common cognitive dance where self attributes or actions are shifted to another person. Much of the time, it is relatively harmless. Yet in the hands of an addict or abuser, projection can be used in a more detrimental way to distract or to transfer blame.
We all engage in some amount of projection. In some cases, projection allows us to empathize with others when we superimpose how we believe we would feel in a given situation over their stated experience. Other times, we may assume that someone feels the way we do or that they have the same aptitudes or perspectives. You see this when people caught behaving badly offer up the excuse that “everybody does it.”
Projection is also used as a defense mechanism. When there is some aspect of your beliefs or behavior that does not align with your view of yourself, you experience something called cognitive dissonance, where you either have to alter your view or amend your behaviors. One “solution” to the discomfort caused by this misalignment is to assign the disallowed characteristics to somebody else in the classic, “It’s not me, it’s you” move.
Often times, projection occurs when we are aware of something, yet we’re not yet ready to see it in ourselves (an example of this would be the claim that, “You don’t love me” when the reality is that we’re starting to doubt our own love). After all, it takes quite a bit of courage to look within.
Projection As a Weapon
I’ll never know to what extent my ex husband was aware of his projections. It’s possible that he was so deluded that he accepted his lies as truth (in fact, he actually told my mom after the suicide attempt that he had started to believe his own bullshit). But it’s also likely that his projection was largely conscious, distilled and aimed in order to cause the maximum damage.
By accusing me of horrific misdeeds, he excused his own undeniable choice of abandonment. When he projected his deceptions on me, he painted himself as the victim. His indictments acted as a slight of hand, keeping me distracted from looking too closely at what was happening on the other side of the stage. And finally, he used projection as a form of gaslighting, blurring and altering my view of reality.
If you’ve been in a situation where you have endured emotional abuse or faced the helplessness and frustration that comes from living with an addict, you’re vulnerable to believing the displaced accusations. Your self-image and confidence are likely low and you’re prone to assume responsibility for another’s well-being. When these accusations arise, refrain from blind acceptance. Ask yourself first if those claims are actually a better fit for your accuser.
As the divorce proceedings progressed, I found my new awareness of his tendency to project helpful. Whenever he accused me of something (withholding information, lying on a discovery document, etc.), I knew what to expect from him. Because even though his projections were aimed at me, they were simply a reflection of him.