Projection as Protection

by | Jul 27, 2011 | Wedding/marriage transition | 26 comments

I’ve been thinking a lot about projection lately, especially since many of my engaged and newlywed clients and eCourse participants have been perseverating on the thought, “I don’t love him/her.” This is such an important and complex topic that I’ve written about it several times on this blog (including one of my “Alanis and the eCourse posts“) and have devoted an entire lesson in the Conscious Weddings eCourse to it, but let me say it more clearly here: Projection is a defense or an addiction against feeling the natural fear and grief associate with a transition and the anxiety, self-doubt, and old traumas around love of your wounded self. As one of the women on the eCourse forum said so poignantly in her recent post: “But I also know from my own experience that its so much easier to stay in the projection state than to deal with the real grief.”

It might sound strange to think of projection as an addiction, but in order for this to make sense you need to understand the difference between a process addiction as opposed to a substance addiction. An addiction is anything that distracts or protects you from your painful feelings. We commonly think of addictions as related to substances like drugs, alcohol, or sugar. But process addictions, like spending, sex, television, planning and ruminating are just as rampant and difficult to address. Planning? Ruminating? Were you surprised to read these in the list of addictions? Planning is when you can’t top thinking about things you have to do (like planning a wedding). Ruminating is when you become so obsessed about a single thought that it successfully distracts or protects you from addressing the underlying emotional pain.

The phenomena of “bridezilla” that runs rampant in our culture is a woman who’s so addicted to planning her wedding that she avoids addressing the natural and normal fear and grief that accompany this major life transition. She obsesses so deeply about all of the items on her to-do list, the things she needs to buy, the place settings and the table arrangement that she becomes a warped version of herself who alienates everyone around her. She’s living in a state of control, tightness, and disconnection. She’s living with an addiction.

The same is true for the people who find their way to my work, except that instead of over-focusing on the planning, they’re over-focusing on their partner. Where bridezilla funnels her fear, grief and old wounds around love and intimacy onto her dress and flowers, the “conscious brides and grooms” funnel their difficult feelings onto their partner. They put their partner under a microscope until all they see are the so-called faults and flaws. They disregard the good times, diminish what works, and only focus on the reasons why they can’t possibly move forward with this person. Then they spin their thoughts into a spool of negativity until a single thought remains: I don’t really love him/her. And that’s when they find their way to my work.

So what’s the antidote? First of all, to recognize that every time you think the thought, “I don’t love him/her” you say to yourself, “I know this feels real but it’s a projection.” Then ask yourself, “What am I protecting myself from feeling right now?” If you can, spend some time with your inner self and ask yourself if there’s anything this hidden, often ignored part would like to share with you. Projections sound the alarm that there’s something inside of you that’s off-kilter and needs attention. If you hook into the projection and believe it as truth, you’ll fall down the rabbit hold of anxiety. This takes a Herculean effort as the projection sounds so convincing. But the more you challenge it and instead turn your attention inward, the less power the projection will hold.

Remember: You’re struggling NOT because you don’t love your partner, but because you love him/her more than you’ve ever loved anybody in your life. And this scares the you-know-what out of your hurt, scared, ego self, who simply doesn’t trust love because of what it’s seen, heard, and experienced. In fact, I’ve also come to understand that the depth of the childhood abuse (emotional, physical, or sexual) informs the intensity of the projection once you’re in a real relationship with a safe person. The scared-hurt self is simply panicking because it doesn’t trust that love can be safe. It’s screaming at you in every way it can to get out now. And it often uses the line that will get you the most which, for many people, is, “I just don’t love him/her.”

Projection is one of the most difficult psychological states to deal with because it feels so real. The hardest part is peeling the projection off of your partner and getting, really getting, that it’s not about the other person. The wounded self will think of every reason in the book why your case is different (“Sheryl doesn’t really know what she’s talking about” or “But what if it IS about the other person”) but having worked with thousands of women and men over the years just like you, I can say with a fair amount of certainty that chances are quite high that you’re in a good relationship and that it truly isn’t about the other person.

Hang in there. Hold on. You will get through this. It take a real commitment to yourself, patience, and support, but if thousands of others have gotten through it and found their way to love, you can, too. I promise.



  1. Sheryl, I truly believe you should be sainted for your work with transitions, especially those dealing with weddings and engagement! Your writing has calmed so many of my inner most fears by simply helping me DEAL with them in a constructive way. I feel like this engagement has actually been one of the best things that’s ever happened to me, despite how much anguish I have gone though, It’s brought so much of my former pain to the surface and forced me to deal with it. I feel happier as a whole thanks to your work and advice.

  2. Thank you, Erin : ) It’s truly one of my deepest joys to be able to share my passion for transitions in this space, and the fact that my passion helps others to make sense of these pivotal life experiences and move them toward healing exponentially increases the joy.

    • Are the thoughts and strong feelings “I don’t want this” a part of relationship anxiety? Instead of the thought “I don’t love him/her”?

  3. Sheryl, I bumped into this enlighting reading totally accidentally, and I can’t restrain from writing to you and thanking you because your words really, really much removed a veil from my eyes! I’m in a relationship with the most wonderful man ever, who loves me a lot and left his country to come and live with me three months after we had met. It’s been almost one year now, and in the last few weeks, I have inexplicably found a number of supposed “issues”. I have been really demanding and insecure, going back over and over on topics about which he had already tried to clear up doubts and reassured me. In the last few days I had begun to feel better; I went on a long therapy before, and I’m kind of good of looking inside of me. I begun to ask to myself “why am I doing this?” I knew it was something wrong with me and not with him. I think you just gave me the key to my answer. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  4. Thanks for the post Sheryl! I emailed you a little while back. I was anxiously engaged this spring, and have been married for almost two months now. SO MUCH of my anxiety (and all of my anxious symptoms!) have subsided, but I still find myself in moments where the “what is I don’t really love him” question is popping up its ugly little head. Yesterday I had a moment like this, but since I’ve asked myself that same question a million times, and then moved on to move past it and feel love for my fiancée/husband again it’s becoming less of a “valid” fear. So yesterday, as it didn’t really evoke the usual sense of panic I asked myself that very thing…”what is this question protecting me from?” I really felt as I looked inside myself and sat with the fear for a while that I was protecting myself from rejection. If there came a day when my husband should say to me “you know, I don’t think I love you after all” I could say “Aha! I don’t either…this little question I’ve been asking myself proves it!” But if I learn to love him fully and without reservation, and THEN he decided he didn’t love me….well…then I’d have nothing to protect myself with. The pain of that thought almost took my breath away. But it was so helpful to realize…it was perhaps the first time that question didn’t attach to some little aspect of my husband’s personality that I don’t quite “get” and rather attached itself to me, and my own fear and my own defenses that I’ve built up. And that was really empowering, because even if it showed me I still have some work to do, I can focus on what made these defenses necessary instead of getting sidetracked on asking myself a question that I’ve asked time and time again and know isn’t true.

    Thanks for the post! It was just what I needed to hear! And for other anxiously engaged women…hang in there…it really does get better!

  5. Jessica – Sometimes the internet leads you exactly where you need to go! I’m so glad it led you here and that this article was able to shed some light on your projection.

    Sarah – Yes, this is really the key question: ”What is this question protecting me from?” and how fantastic that you were able to peel back the projection and touch into the core fear of rejection! Great work : )

  6. This applies even after the engagement/wedding, I am finding… 🙂

  7. Absolutely, MB! It applies for the rest of our lives.

  8. Sheryl,
    I recently got engaged to a fantastic man that I’ve been with for 10 years. He loves me so very much, and I know that I love him because all I really want is to be on the other side of the wedding settled down into a routine. But in the meantime, I feel terrible! I go through a cycle of ‘what if he’s not right for me’ that gets worse because I focus on it and feed the monster. I wonder, ‘What if we’ll hate each other in 5 years?’ I am irritable and nit-picky and grouchy.
    I have come to the conclusion, that it’s me. I didn’t have a fantastic relationship with my parents when I was a child, and I can remember a lot of hurt in my childhood. I was quite sensitive, and I remember my dad saying things like ‘If you don’t stop crying I’ll give you something to cry about!’ I know my parents did they best they could with what they had, but I’ve been affected quite deeply. Your blog is helping me realize this, and now I just need to get through it! I just need to figure out how to heal the wounded child inside of me so that the anxiety isn’t preventing me from loving him fully.
    Thanks so much for your work!

    • It sounds like you’re on the right track with addressing the beliefs and wounds that are preventing you from loving fully. The more you read, learn, and start to journal effectively, the more you’ll be able to chip through the fear that is keeping you separate from love.

  9. Hi again Sheryl,
    You mentioned journaling effectively. I’ve never really thought about journaling; do you have any resources you can point me towards to learn how to effectively journal?

  10. Hi Sheryl,

    I am having these same things happen to me…”do I love him enough?” “what is wrong with me everything is so good in our lives?” “why am I worrying?” I know we chatted briefly before and since then I bought your book, almost done with it and seen a counselor a couple times. I definitely think I am going through stages of grief of letting go from my family, stated crying during those parts of the book, but when I actually think about it it really doesnt frighten me so then I go back to those questions above. I had a great childhood and youth and have never been hurt terribly so why is this happening? I’m trying to get to the root or core of my fears and can’t find what is actually going on. Sometimes when my fiance does something nice for me I feel guilty for having the a ove fears and kinda nervous in my stomach. If he is so great why am I constantly worrying? I never worried or feared about our relationship before our engagement so why now? Thank you so much for the resources you have provided us, definitely trying times but I have hope that I will be a stronger and better person at the end of this tunnel!

  11. Hi Sheryl,

    I went through the same thing and I did not know it was fear. I did not try to understand why I was feeling so all of a sudden and as you mentioned in one of your posts, I listened to friends who said, “if it is so unpleasent, you shoould not do it”. I got myself to believe that I do not love him and called off the wedding.I was so overwhelmed with anxiety, that all I wanted to do was to get out of the situation.

    I knew I was wrong and I contacted him in a week but he did not want to come back, for I spoke to him about all my so called “projections” and how “imperfect” he is. I tried my best to get the relationship back, only to come across as someone needy, confused and desperate, where all I was trying to do, was to tell him what I understood and how fearful I was.

    Anyway, that relationship is done and he has moved on. I would take longer to get there because I know I truly loved him and it was my fault to get fears take over me (even if it was for a small amount of time).

    Thank you for your work and I just hope more people like me find your advice in time and benefit from it. Not later, the way I did, when everything is over 🙁


    • It’s very frustrating to learn “too late” that it was projection and not your truth, but I hope you can trust that you will have another opportunity to work through the fear in your next relationship. Next time (and there will surely be a next time) you’ll know that it’s fear and you’ll work your tail off to understand it and work through it.

  12. I am not sure of the next time, coz, last time my first relationship and it was world to me. I wonder how much the negative thoughts dragged me down.
    The excerpt from one of your articles “The further you go down the hole, the darker it gets and the harder it becomes to find your way back out to the light of day.” and yes, sometimes it gets impossible to read and understand your own thoughts. Fear can cause a havoc.
    Also, true is the fact that I was seeing him differently physically. I was no more attracted to him, the way I used to be.
    Every bit of advice and analysis in your articles is true and benign and I totally can relate to all of these articles.
    Every thought and doubt you mentioned in your articles, is EXACTLY what I felt but I only chose to react in a wrong way.
    Mine was a long distance relationship, which made things worse.
    It is quite strange to realize that someone who is so soft spoken, considerate and loving and for whom, that person was love of her life, did every damn thing to stop the marriage coz she believed that her fears are true and the guy is bad.

    You are awesome Sheryl and I just can feel you how much your advice would have been helping brides to be,now that I am at the wrong side of the wedding equation and can see what would have been, if only I knew you earlier. Hats off to you.

  13. How do I tell if im feeling like this because ‘i have never loved anyone as much as this in my life?’ The reason I ask is that I have had the exact same thoughts and worries about every relationship.

    This guy is the only one who seems to put up with it and treats me really well. But does that really mean that I love him or am I just settling for someone who puts up with me?


  14. THANK YOU, this brought years of relief to my eyes

  15. Hi Sheryl,
    I am so grateful to you. Thank you for setting up a website like this to help myself and others to understand that there’s answers for the many questions we have asked. I feel relieved that I’m not the only person who’s had fears, anxiety and projections. I have been with my guy for 1 year this August and a few weeks after being together, I started having those anxious thoughts and it scared me because I remember on our first date I was so happy and thought to myself, I could travel the world and spend my life with this man. And I felt attracted to him and relaxed and when we are close, it’s wonderful. I was so confused and still am in a way. But the thoughts have started to calm down and my mind is clearer and I believe I am opening my heart to Sam and less anxious about things. I want to understand what the root of my fear is and why I feel like this with Sam because he is everything I have ever wanted in a man and we both have the same dreams. I know you are a wise woman Sheryl, what could the root be? Thanks again Jane x

    • It’s most likely your fear of loss: of self, other, and control. As you continue to read through my site you’ll discover more insights and answers. Welcome!

  16. Dear Sheryl
    i believe that my wife is addicted to projection. our marriage of 13 years is in deep trouble and i am afraid to even talk to her, it is so energy draining and very often ends in a fight and hurt feelings. my wife has had an extremely traumatic childhood and life before we met. She tells me all the time how much and how deeply she loves me. But when we interact i feel that she hates everything about me. We have been in therapy and the issue of projection was brought up by the therapist . But i get the feeling that even here she projects that onto me and doesnt recognise how intensely she is living this(although i dont exclude myself from projecting at all). how can i help my wife to recognise this?
    with many thanks for your advice. Harvey

    • When you sense that she’s projecting, the loving action is to say, “It doesn’t sound like you’re talking about me right now,” and then peacefully disengage. To try to convince her beyond stating your truth is your way to try to control her perceptions, and that never works. Keep focusing on taking loving care of yourself, which will usually mean not engaging with her when she’s acting out on you.

  17. Dear Sheryl,

    I am in a dark place in my life at the moment and I came across your website whilst looking for answers.
    Your website is my go to place when I feel down.
    I would love for you to tell me if you think I am projecting/having intrusive thoughts or if these thoughts are real.
    I have been with my husband for 8 years and have 2 amazing little boys. Everything was great in our marriage until last year when I ran into my ex. We had a coffee and spoke about our lives. My dad is an alcoholic and my parents are getting a divorce so this is a major issue at the moment.
    My husband found out and hit the roof. Was upset and angry for a while but has assured me that we are fine and he wants to move on with our lives together.
    For the last 7 months I have been suffering from extreme anxiety and depression regarding my husband leaving me/divorce and now I’m having thoughts of ‘do I love him?’ ‘Is he attractive enough?’ It’s like I’m on a hamster wheel and I’m convincing myself that I don’t love him.
    It got so bad that I took an overdose. It was a cry for help.
    I have been to a psychotherapist a few times but this hasn’t helped either.
    Deep, deep down I know I love my husband but these thoughts feel so real.
    Please could you give some advice as I don’t have anyone to turn too.
    Thank you Sheryl x

    • Rachael: I’m so sorry you’re suffering. Please please seek support from a psychotherapist who you trust. It can take a while to find that person but when you do it will be life-changing. It sounds like a deep and painful wound has been triggered and this is the time when we need a therapist to see us through and help us heal the wound.


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