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Fighting the Good Fight? Don’t Get Burned (Part Two)

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As promised in Part One, I'd like to expound a bit on how understanding the concept of psychological projection can help you manage and even avoid burnout.

Projection, as the name implies, is essentially the process by which we cast our own internal issues onto those around us, allowing them to reflect back to us something about ourselves that it would benefit us to learn. You may have heard the common example that when someone is making us angry it is likely that they are revealing something to us about ourselves that we don't want to look at. You may or may not have found this to be true for yourself. But what does this have to do with burnout?

Over the past 25 years, in my work as a psychotherapist and now as a coach, I've had many opportunities to observe the factors which lead people to exhaust their emotional resources and burn out in their careers as well as in their personal relationships.

Common causes for this exhaustion include:

  • failure to set appropriate limits and waiting too late to set boundaries
  • maintaining boundaries inconsistently once they are set
  • poor or non-existent self-care practices to manage stress in terms of exercising, proper nutrition and sufficient sleep
  • misdirecting the focus of negative feelings away from the true source on to something "safer" (e.g. poor morale regarding the workplace more readily expressed and acknowledged than feelings about floundering marriage)
  • failure to set limits in one area of life in order to avoid another (e.g. overworking to avoid going home to unhappy marriage)
  • confusion over whose issues are whose

    I will address a number of these issues from this (non-exhaustive!) list in future columns. For now, I'll focus on the last point, where projection plays a considerable role: confusion over whose issues are whose.

    At its most simple level, you can recognize projection whenever you fall into the "best defense is a good offense" strategy of managing relationships. For example: I feel upset. I convince myself it is because my husband is mad at me. I think I know why. I make my case against him. He walks in the door, and BAM! He gets an earful.

  • If I was taught that it isn't okay for me to express anger and that my feelings don't matter, I need to project them on to someone else (as in this example of my husband) in order to justify what may be very real, natural and expected feelings of anger for something he did. Projection gives us the permission to feel things that we have decided, for whatever reason, are not okay for us to take direct ownership of.

    There is a far more subtle way that projection operates, however. I think it is far more likely to lead to burn out, hidden resentment, confusion and frustrations in relationships. It's the Myth of Commonality.

    How does the Myth of Commonality work?

    It's very simple. We assume the whole world is like us. If I'm broke, I believe everyone is struggling. If I don't like what I do for a living, I assume everyone is desperately counting their days until retirement. If I think teenagers are hard to relate to, I assume no adult can have a serious conversation with one. It's a kind of prejudice in a way, but a prejudice more of inclusion than exclusion.

    The problem is a failure to recognize our own myths. If we believe what we project onto others as truth, we start to base our actions and decisions on our perception and can paint ourselves into a box without meaning to.

    Let me illustrate with a couple examples:

  • A self-employed person is struggling to cover expenses. She has to set rates for her services. She believes no one will be able to afford her since "everyone" is broke. She under-prices her services. She overworks to justify to herself the money she found the courage to ask for, yielding a very low return on her investment of time and effort. She starts to doubt she can really succeed in business and ultimately abandons her venture.
  • A businessman eight years from retirement continues to arrive at work every day despite a lack of investment in his career and disillusionment with his employer. He just has eight years to go and he wants to make it to the finish line. He believes no one is happy after so many years working at the same job and that anyone who would leave this job so close to retirement would be crazy. With only three years to go he suffers a heart attack, exacerbating a sub-clinical depression.

    Whenever we perceive others as equally trapped as we feel, we can convince ourselves that failure is inevitable if we try to make fundamental changes to restructure our lives. And if the whole situation of our life is essentially defined, even making small changes can be very hard to do.

  • I spoke with a woman recently who is having a heck of a time reducing her intake of soda pop and junk food despite weekly proclamations that she desires to lose weight and perpetual complaints of low energy. Why? She cannot name a single peer in her social circle that is enjoying life or who has energy. If soda pop seems to be the only source of enjoyment, why give that up? Again, the Myth of Commonality. Every woman in their 50's has a big butt, low energy and a husband who is going to get on their last nerve come retirement, right?

    Even subtler, and like flypaper for caregivers, is another variation on the Myth of Commonality. The idea is that everyone has the same needs. That's a myth. Maybe not everyone does need to talk. Maybe not everyone does need a hug. Maybe not everyone shares the same fears. We don't all feel the same way about Christmas presents or how our birthdays are acknowledged. We all grieve differently and for different things. We get angered by different things and to different degrees. We become joyful for different reasons.

    Trying to anticipate the needs of others based on what you imagine you might feel in a situation is not a bad thing to do. It's a way of developing empathy. However, assuming you are right in your assessment and then acting upon it is a whole different issue. If you try to meet needs that aren't actually there, depending on how aggressively you do so you can set yourself up for disappointment at best and potentially damaged relationships at worst. Don't slave all day baking from scratch for someone who doesn't like dessert. (It's true. . . we don't all like dessert.)

    Before making someone's happiness or salvation or just general improvement your personal mission, ask first. Even if you are right and you do have something they could use, the question you always have to ask is, "Will they?"

    Learn to watch the projections you cast and take ownership of them. Your relationships will be richer for it and you will develop a deeper understanding of your own needs and limits. With deeper understanding of your own motivations and needs, you'll seek far less permission to make changes in your life and have far more self-confidence when you do.

    Thoughts, comments, differing perspectives, requests to hear more in detail about any of the points? Let me know in the comments section below.

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