Prove Them Wrong: Projection and Despotism

Have others dictated your future? Does your family provide zero support for your attempts to better yourself? If you doubt yourself, don’t try because you fear failure, or feel like you are not capable of success, you’ve been lied to. Here’s why.


You can’t do that.

Over time, this became my favorite challenge.

Story of my life. I was told what I was going to be and why from birth. At home, they doomed me if I refuted my parent’s views. If I failed to believe as they did, they barraged me with a heavy dose of mocking and belittlement. Feelings were never real, since every time I had one they told me I was too emotional, too selfish, wanted too much, aimed too high, or some other too much they could conjure up to obstruct my path forward.

I am vocal about these tragedies to illustrate a point, not garner sympathy, or attention. The past occurred and it cannot be changed. I stay out of it and in the present as much as possible. I am grateful all of it happened. I wouldn’t be the person I am today if it hadn’t. I stayed there plenty of time during my 20s. That hyperfocus ruined my life then.

I witness and hear about this same manipulative behavior in both my professional and personal lives. The underlying message of telling another person what they should be or can/cannot do is a style of thinking based on one’s personal beliefs. This is defined as projection, a form of impaired thinking that people use in order to make their own world make sense and to feel comfortable or safe. It’s the “I’m ok, you’re not okay” relationship with others.

Projection is an unconscious process and a severely distorted way of seeing the world.

Everyone projects at times. Toxic projection occurs in individuals who have rigid beliefs. For them, it’s like talking at yourself in a mirror while conversing with another person. Expecting the image to follow along as you do, the reality is you are mirroring your own beliefs and trying to convince yourself how the world should be. Every person you talk to becomes a reflection of yourself. You tell every self you see exactly why you’re right.

woman holding mirror against her head in the middle of forest
Photo by Tasha Kamrowski

Despotism, an extreme form of projection, refers to those in positions of power over others using that power to force those others to conform to their worldview. This may be motivated by extreme selfishness, desire for power and control over others, deliberate malevolence, or sociopathic behavior.

I allowed others to tell me how I should look, act, think, and be, in order to be loveable and belong. Whenever I wasn’t, I’d be punished with dehumanization tactics.

light man people woman
Photo by Mikael Blomkvist on Pexels.com

I learned how to mask my symptoms in order to fit in. Humans have an instinctual drive to belong and be accepted. Mobbs et al. (2015) explain this process in depth. People learned to survive in groups. This is why when you are outcasted, it feels like death. You experience physical pain from rejection thanks to the evolutionary process of mammalian adaptation for survival. Mammals and early humans developed defenses from rejection because if you were exiled from your tribe early on in human evolution, you would die. A single human would be subject to predators, elements, or sickness.

Parents are the source of survival for children. Children will do anything they can to be accepted and to belong, even when there is abuse. They don’t know differently, and they internalize these events. As children experience the world through their parents and their witnessed interactions with the world and others, they form their own ways of responding through that modeling. Children also adapt by finding ways to avoid mistreatment.

There are few other choices for a child in an abusive environment. A child cannot choose another family to live with, choose to move out into an apartment (until they’re a certain age), go to school and never come home, or change their family. They’re stuck, with limited options. Survival mechanisms drive us to stay in the pack no matter the cost. That child will conform to those family rules in order to stay alive, or run away. They will either learn to keep their perspectives of the world, or adopt those same viewpoints and carry on the distorted ways of thinking and behaving.

This is where the gifts of trauma saved my life. I had a strong urge for survival.

I often comment I’d like to live on a mountain with the only way in a helicopter. The reality is: I’d probably die from caffeine withdrawal.

When my husband and I were looking for properties, I found the listing of my dreams: mountain cabin 6-7,000 feet up, with a one-lane dirt road that ends 10 miles before the trail. To get to the cabin, it’d be a steep hike up, or we’d have to snowmobile in. As my husband crushed those dreams with insistence our children needed socialization, and the added difficulty obtaining coffee beans, I had to agree he was right. I resisted: bears make for wonderful friends!

Over a lifetime, I received hundreds of projections that focused on how I could or should not move higher than my allotted work or social status. As a woman in science, peers in this male-dominated field made sure to let me know why and how I wouldn’t graduate. Misogyny has infiltrated my familial, work, and social environments countless times. Religious zealots handed unsolicited advice from those whose practices I refuse to conform to (the family’s full of them). Other forms of input from those in social settings let me know that my fashion, hair, or general way of being were not socially acceptable. Taking people at face value, not understanding social cues or intent, and misinterpretions of my body language/facial expressions caused nasty exchanges at times. I do have a great RBF.

unrecognizable people punishing sad black girl
Photo by Monstera

These discouragements sounded like this:

“Why would you want to do that? Nobody cares. There are many people better at it than you are. You will never graduate. We need the money more. You should pick a more friendly career. Why don’t you try some other work, like nursing? Who’s going to give you a job? You’re not that kind of able. Research is for men. That’ll take years! Who’s going to mother while you’re gone? Your husband won’t like you to work. Why would you want a career when you have such a great spouse that supports you? What would HE say about your decision?”

I understand the difference between discrimination and critical feedback. I am open to feedback that is meant to improve performance. I believe anyone has room for improvement. Oppression sounds like: you’re a woman and you don’t belong here because women aren’t as…..as us. You can’t be served because you’re gay.

Initially hurtful, I learned to separate what others viewed me as and to push forward with normal goals. Sure, I failed. countless times. We all do. I have also learned from those mistakes and do the best I can to not repeat them. You’re done a great disservice if you aren’t taught how to conquer defeat.

When comparing input from outside sources, I do my best to consider the advice. Despite all my antisocial, I need people and connections. The world will teach you through consequences, others’ reactions, and opportunities. It’s necessary to be flexible.

If I had never tried, I would not have achieved. I certainly wouldn’t be content and likely would have become very resentful and powerless. I am not perfect, and I have had to start over in adulthood.

Perseverance and learning are key.

I never aimed to become a CEO, famous researcher, or actor. I had simple dreams of peace, a family, and work that I loved.

It is with this same perspective and lifelong experience that I motivate others to chance success. I am no more deserving or capable.

Toxic projections cause their behavior to turn abusive when others fail to meet that authority’s expectations. We’re free to believe as we wish, but we are not free to force our will onto others.

Watch out for people’s intentions. Their advice is not always given in your favor.

References:

  1. Mobbs D, Hagan CC, Dalgleish T, Silston B, Prévost C. The ecology of human fear: survival optimization and the nervous system. Front Neurosci. 2015 Mar 18;9:55. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2015.00055. PMID: 25852451; PMCID: PMC4364301. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4364301/
  2. McWilliams, N. (2023, March 2). projectionEncyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/science/projection-psychology
  3.  The National Center on Family Homelessness at American Institutes for Research. (2013). America’s Youngest Outcasts Fact Sheet (PDF). Washington, DC.
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