“She wants to trap me.”
“She’s always trying to control me.”
“She’s ruining my life on purpose.”
“She knows that what she’s doing is driving me crazy.”
“Clearly, she’s here to make my life miserable.”
Let’s take a poll. Who do you think “she” is in the above statements?
- The speaker’s mother
- The speaker’s partner/spouse/housemate/friend
- The speaker’s child
- The speaker’s pet
- The speaker’s colleague
- <<insert anyone, from waitress, to sales clerk, to person driving in front of them, etc>>
Realistically, it could be anyone. When we have a sense that other people trap us, control us, ruin our lives, and make us miserable, then we can’t help but project that onto the people around us. You see, the person above isn’t really talking about another person. The person is talking about his or her own relationship to the world and how it makes them feel. These sentiments are encapsulated by their current interaction, which they then project upon the other and they think, “It’s them.” Chances are good that these thoughts aren’t new, either. They’ve likely been around for awhile, either consciously or subconsciously, and they probably first came on the scene when the individual was quite young. Possibly pre-cognition.
You might be wondering, “Who would think that their infant is trying to trap them?” (particularly if you’ve never had children). Regardless of what you’re thinking, my clients are normal everyday people – people like you, and people like me. In fact, my clients often express things to me that I’ve thought countless times about my own child. As I’ll expand on later, when I was a young mother I was often operating from past hurts and experiences that I’d never processed. Those hurts infiltrated my thoughts, crept into my life, and were projected onto my daughter. So when my clients utter sentiments like you read up top, I understand. My clients are humans who get overwhelmed and feel powerless. I get it. I’ve been there, too.
We can most easily get a sense of these projections when we make the recipient of these accusations an infant. It is unlikely that a sane, rational mind would honestly think that an infant is here to purposely make life hard for its parents. But those thoughts aren’t coming from a sane, rational person. They are coming from a person who, ultimately, is stuck in their own childhood. They are coming from a person who is in pain, and is likely blaming themselves. But blaming oneself feels horrible, and utterly disempowering, rendering a parent even less capable. So the blame moves outwards, as a survival strategy, onto the object that seems to be causing the problems: the child.
Oddly enough, this blaming outwards is the opposite of what we do when we’re young. As young people it’s not safe to get mad at our caregivers. It wouldn’t be a wise move to blame the person who is in charge of feeding, clothing, housing, and – most importantly – loving us. We can’t bite the hand that feeds us, or hate the heart that’s in charge of loving us. So, unbeknownst to even ourselves, in our earliest days we don’t get mad at our parents, and we don’t blame them. Instead, we internalize it all, we experience powerlessness, and then we assume that something is wrong with us to explain why Mom or Dad isn’t there when needed, to explain why they yell or hit, or why they ignore us. We assume it’s something we’ve done when our parents’ attention forsakes us for our siblings, their partners or friends, their job, or even their phone or the TV. We assume that it’s us- whatever is going on, it’s our fault.
Naturally this is disempowering, and we try to regain that power by pleasing those around us so that they will give us the food, clothing, housing, and love that we so desperately need. We hide our true feelings, and we put on appearances. But underneath those appearances lies the self-blame in which we’ve become trapped, controlled, crazy, and miserable. We’re still just kids, and we don’t yet have the internal or external resources to acknowledge all of that…but we feel it. And we don’t yet have the internal or external resources to process those feelings…so we repress them. Those feelings remain there. Buried. Deep. This is what Eckhart Tolle calls the pain body.
What or who triggers these repressed emotions and feelings? There are plenty of variables, including how stressed we are or how powerless we feel. It could be the person ahead of us in line, or the people we love the most. When we haven’t become aware of the repressed ideas and emotions that are running the show, we simply can’t help but project our (sometimes paranoid) thoughts onto our lovers, our friends, and even our innocent infants.
I’m sure by now you’ve got a sense of how this projection has shown up in your life – both how you’ve been projected upon, and how you have projected onto others. I’ve been on both sides of this as well. An ex-boyfriend who hadn’t processed his childhood could not help but project all the ill sentiments he had for his sisters and mother onto me. Being the youngest, he felt small in his family in every way. From his young-self perspective, the women in his life seemed to control him, and one day he decided that people would not get to tell him “No.” You can imagine the toxicity of that relationship: when I said “No” to him, I’d trigger that small powerless child self that still existed within his grown adult self. And he projected his fears onto me from that child self who felt controlled by others. I thought I was dealing with a grown adult man, but often I wasn’t.
I’ll admit, however, that I have done the same. When I was a young mother there were plenty of times when I wasn’t acting from a mature adult place – I was responding from that overwhelmed girl from my own childhood. When I was a child and I disappointed my mom, she’d be angry, but since anger was not a safe emotion in our household she’d shut down and become cold to me. Then I’d shut down. As such, shutting down to strong emotions became my go-to strategy. As a new mother who hadn’t processed my own childhood, when my daughter would exhibit anger I’d handle it calmly…for a while. But if it continued I’d become overwhelmed and start to feel powerless and trapped. And then, sure enough, I’d shut down. I’d shut down inside myself and I’d shut down to her, making myself emotionally unavailable to her as my mother had done to me. I mirrored behavior directly from my childhood, and projected that onto her.
In both examples the adult in the situation felt controlled or trapped, as well as powerless, and so projected outwardly as if the other person were making their life miserable. From a distance we can see that this came from unhealed childhood wounds, but in the moment the projections seemed completely valid and accurate. It was clearly “them”- i.e. the other person’s fault.
Hearing these stories from clients and reconnecting with my own life stories reminds me of the vulnerability of parenting, of relating, of loving, of being. I take a glance back in time and I feel the pain of both my child and my younger parenting self – and in that pain, both of us doing the best we could. Wanting to be a better parent, for myself and for my child, led me to explore my unprocessed childhood – my conditioning and my unmet hurts. And even now, with my child in her teens, strong emotions can still start to fill me with overwhelm. Luckily I have tools that I didn’t have when she was a baby, and when I start to feel the overwhelm flag flying I immediately pause. I feel down and into my being. I breathe. And I breathe again. Then from my being I look at her being, from a place beyond personality. And I feel again into me. Only after the flood of immediacy washes past me do I respond. I wait until I’m inwardly connected from a place of wholeness. And later, when I have the time and space, I go deeper into the stuck places that catch me, releasing the layer of pain body that had arisen.
If you are a parent who finds yourself in predicaments where you can’t help but project onto you kids… please get to know yourself. Through a therapist or your own deep inner work, identify and heal your own childhood wounds. Get to know what triggers you. Then when you start to feel triggered, stop and take care before engaging with your child (whenever possible). When you take care of you, you take care of those you love. Here are some ways to take care that are designed to support and help regulate stress and overwhelm:
- Pause what you’re doing and get a glass of water. Not thirsty? Do it anyway. Taking the time to slowly walk to the kitchen, drink some water, and walk back will buy you some time to s.l.o.w. d.o.w.n, breathe, feel, and remind yourself that your child (or any other perceived offender) is not purposefully trying to destroy you. Remind yourself that your child is just a small being on this planet without inner resources. Remind yourself that you’re doing the best you can with what you have available. As you walk, breathe consciously.
- Breathe. Consciously. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Bring your mind into your breath. Drop your attention into the actual experience of breath coming in and out of your lungs, your diaphragm, your nostrils.
- Smell something good. Flowers. Chocolate. Fresh air. Lavender.
- Go outside, or look outside. My favorite outdoor objects to connect with are trees. I look at the trees. I feel the trees. I become connected with the trees. I breathe into my legs and my own root system. Connect with what resonates with you. Birds, plants, clouds, the sky, the breeze…
- Ground. Feel into your lower belly and sacral area. Breathe here. Feel here. Center here. Move downward through your legs, to your feet. Center here. Ground here. Breathe here.
- Pray, set an intention, and/or ask for support. Bring your attention to your heart and silently connect with yourself, your attention, your highest self, or whatever “God” means to you.
- Know that “this too shall pass.” No moment, no matter how good or bad, ever lasts forever. Breathe.
- Look – with curiosity – for the innocence of that moment. The innocence of your child’s eyes. The innocence in you not knowing what to do. The innocence of the predicament. The innocence of your exhaustion. The innocence of your love.
- Hum or sing. Music stimulates the spacious centers in your brain, while humming and singing helps your system “find itself” in times of stress.
- Make a mental note of what triggered you and what you’d like to explore later, when you have time and support. Write it down or send yourself an email. If you don’t know how to do somatic work, or even if you do, consider connecting with a somatic practitioner to help you connect with your subconscious pain body. Your inner child deserves your attention, too. Your adult self as well as your loved ones will thank you for it.
I think back to the days when I didn’t have these skills, and I feel compassion for myself and my daughter, but also grief. Taking time to sit and feel – sadness, regret, and shame arise. I sit and feel. I breathe. I sit and feel some more until all the stories are gone, and love remains. I feel love for the daughter that I was, and for my own mother who mothered me to the best of her abilities. I feel love for the mother that I sometimes was: angry, scared, and sad. I feel love for my daughter, who was being her perfect child self, caught in the web of my conditioning.
To me and my lineage: I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you. I love you.
I honor all parents on their path. I extend love and compassion as we do our best to not repeat our parents’ “mistakes.” Just know that we can’t help it when we do. My heart sends love and compassion and healing to all our parents and their parents, to all our child selves, to all our children, and to all our adult selves as we still heal from our child wounds. Onward, forward, one breath at a time.