Abusers and negative projection

TW: discussion of how abusers provoke and blame their victims.

Many abusers project their behaviors onto others to take the heat off of themselves. They may preemptively strike, and start accusing you of something before you’re able to accuse them. They may twist things around mid-argument, and start listing examples of all the times/ways you have said/done the same thing.

Regardless of tactic, the goal of negative projection is to shift the conversation from them to you. It can look something like this:

Example 1: “You do it, too! [List of lots of examples.]” Suddenly, you’re faced with a catalog of all the times you’ve done it too, and your knee jerk reaction will likely be to defend yourself.

Example 2: “I was only reacting to what you did first! [Explains how you actually started it and it’s all your fault.]” Again, this tactic will likely result in you feeling like you have to stop and defend your actions.

Example 3: The abuser accuses you of having certain faults/failings/issues that they themselves have. My mother used to tell me all the time that I’m lazy, yet she expected to be waited on, would give me lists of chores to do while she sat and watched tv, never pumped her own gas because she didn’t want to have to get out of the car, etc. Yet failing to respond to her needs/requests immediately resulted in her yelling at me for being lazy.

I’ve had to deal with this a lot in my life in different ways, and here’s what I’ve learned.

What NOT to do:

  • Justify, Argue, Defend or Explain. The moment you start JADEing, you’ve given the abuser exactly what they want – they’ve triggered you into feeling like you have to defend yourself. Instead of them being held accountable, you are. Instead of their behavior being the focus of the conversation, yours is.
  • Become overly confrontational or angry – that just gives the abuser ammunition and allows them to make themselves into the victim.

What to try:

  • “Right now, we’re talking about your behavior, not mine. I will be happy to discuss your concerns after we’re done discussing mine.” This has worked well for me with people who are not entirely unreasonable, as it acknowledges that you are willing to listen to their concerns as well. It depends on what sort of abuser you’re dealing with.
  • As projection is a derailment tactic, try having everything you want to say written out in front of you in an easy to read format. That way, when an abuser attempts to derail you by accusing you of something, it’s easier to get back on track and continue with the conversation. I also recommend that you keep your notes to yourself. Telling someone what you want to talk about is fine, so they have some time to prepare in a more general way, but don’t hand them your notes up front, as this will likely only make the situation worse.
  • Don’t address the projection at all, address other issues in the situation. (Example of this below.)
  • Ignore the projection. I admit, this is usually terrible advice – you can’t ignore abuse away. However, if someone is using projection as a tactic to upset or derail you, and you simply refuse to respond, they will likely stop. The down side? They’ll probably just find a whole new tactic.
  • Walk away. Sometimes you’re going to encounter people who just flat up refuse to listen to you and will not admit to any wrongdoing. If you’ve attempted to let them know that you won’t be triggered into changing the subject, and they simply refuse to have a conversation that requires them to listen to you and/or acknowledge bad behavior, it’s likely time to just leave the conversation.

Here’s a real life example: My mother used to expect me to wait on her, but would call me lazy if I didn’t respond quickly enough. This started in childhood and continued into adulthood. As an adult, I finally realized that allowing her to upset me by calling me names when she was the one being unreasonable was essentially just giving her what she wanted. Not only did she get waited on, but she got to demean me in the process. Double win for her!

I did what I recommend in the third bullet point above – instead of addressing the fact that she was projecting her own laziness onto me, I came at it from a different angle. My mother never asked for things, she demanded. In fact, it got to the point that instead of greeting me when I walked through the door, she’d immediately start making demands. That was the hill I chose to die on – I informed her that I would be happy to help if she asked me politely, but that I was an adult, and expected to be treated with respect.

This was a battle that went on for two years, because my mother did not take kindly to the idea that her adult daughter deserved to be treated with respect. She tried a lot of different tactics to get me to give in before she finally gave up and began making requests politely. During this time period, I continually reiterated that I would not respond to demands, yelling, name calling, sarcasm, rudeness, or the silent treatment. I shot down every tactic and every reason why I should wait on people on demand – including that I was the youngest. I didn’t JADE, I simply responded to “You need to wait on people because you’re the youngest” with “No, I don’t.” Three simple words, over and over, with no further explanation.

The phrase “So what?” is also a helpful one to learn. You need to wait on us because you’re the youngest. No, I don’t. But when I was your age, I waited on my mother. So what? So now I’m older and you need to wait on me now. No, I don’t.

See how well that works? Let them go in circles by refusing to engage. In situations like this, brevity is your friend. Short-term, you’ll piss them off more (my mother got worse before she got better), but long-term, they’ll eventually realize that they’re getting nowhere.

Because my mother was unable to get me to give in no matter what tactic she used, and unable to draw me into an argument or make me JADE, eventually she gave in.

That said, one of the many reasons why I have no contact with her now is that I don’t have the energy to fight all of her bad behavior for years on end. That was one of many issues, and I don’t want to waste my time dealing with her many negative projections and other abusive tendencies – nor should I have to.

So in the very end, I walked away. When someone’s self-awareness is so deeply buried that they not only project onto you, but genuinely believe that you’re the one with the problem, that’s not someone you can easily reason with or change.

I’m not saying don’t try – but definitely pick your battles, measure whether the outcome was worth the time/energy invested, and consider whether removing this person from your life is ultimately the healthier option.




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