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Rejecting Projecting: The Hot Potato Strategy

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February 28, 2015 by Treina Aronson


Anxiety, anger and other dark emotions can be contagious.
The natural response to uncomfortable emotions is to try to get rid of them.
When our partner is experiencing painful emotions sometimes they attempt to give their feelings to us. This is often an unconscious action and not one of deliberateness. It can feel very compelling to take on the emotion without even knowing you have accepted this unwelcomed ‘gift’.

This phenomenon is called “projection”. Projection is when we deny our own feelings and attribute those feelings in others. It is an attempt to rid oneself of an unpleasant emotion so we don’t have to feel it.

I am not selfish, you are selfish. I am not angry. You are angry.

If your partner does this, it does not necessarily indicate he/she is a bad partner, what it does mean is he/she is a human partner. All of us are guilty of projecting.

Why do people project their emotions? Quite simply, to seek relief from pain. Momentary relief is experienced when their pain becomes your pain and therefore your problem. However, this relief is short-lived because the only real way to process and decrease emotion is to take ownership.

How do you know when this is happening? You can generally understand this is happening when what your partner is saying or accusing you of doesn’t make sense or seems irrational. In the absence of a true emergency, it is also often accompanied by a sense of urgency. This is your clue to get curious, because there is likely something deeper going on than the stated criticism. 

Example: You get home from work and shout “Hello!” to your partner who is in the kitchen. Your partner responds with irritation, “Hi. Have you finally made up your mind about this summer’s vacation plans?” His/her tone of voice is filled with urgency and the question sounds more like an accusation than an inquiry. Not only did this come out of nowhere, the vacation is months away so your partner’s exigency is bewildering.  Because you not only feel confused but attacked, your gut reaction is defensiveness.

You can respond in a couple different ways. You can respond defensively or you can respond productively, with what I call the “Hot Potato” strategy.

Remember playing the game called “Hot Potato” when you were a kid? In this game, the “hot potato” is typically a ball. Because the potato is “hot”, once received, you immediately toss it back. This is the metaphor I want you to keep in mind when attempting to give a productive rather than a defensive response. The emotions your partner is attempting to project onto you is the “hot potato”. It is his/her hot potato, so rather than cling onto these emotions, give that potato back to its rightful owner. 

To show you what this looks like, I’ll give you an example of a situation with both a defensive and a hot potato response.

Defensive response-
“What is your problem? You know how busy I am. Maybe if you helped more around the house I would have time to think about things like vacations! Don’t you think I need a break too?”

Here is what this type of response will accomplish:
After your response, the conversation turns into a competition about who works harder at their job and in the house. You even argue over which one of you is more deserving of a vacation. Both of you are now elevated and filled with intense emotions. Now you are anxious about finding an immediate resolution to what now feels like an urgent problem. Because of this intensity you begin to think you may never be able to rectify the situation. This leads you to question the longevity of the relationship itself. Both of you are confused as to how this argument became such a catastrophe. It ends in an miserable evening with one of you sleeping on the couch. 

Productive “Hot Potato” response-
“No I haven’t decided. I can see you are upset. Please give me a moment to settle in then we can talk.”

Here is what this type of response will accomplish:
Since you did not accept the hot potato of emotions, you are able to give yourself a moment to soothe your own defensiveness ignited by the attack. Because you know curiosity is the key when presented with an irrational situation, you are also able to critically think about what just happened. You remember that your partner has been dissatisfied with his job for several months now. Although he has identified some options, one of the options would require him to return to college. He cannot decide which option is the best decision and because of this he feels stuck. From this you surmise his impatience and irritation is not about you. Rather it is how he feels about himself. In essence he is not mad about your indecisiveness but of his own indecision.

In conclusion…
When you have an immediate and defensive response you keep the hot potato and accept it as your own. Now you are as “hot” with emotions as is your partner.

When you take pause, resist the urge to react defensively and instead respond with curiosity, you have given the hot potato back.  Now your partner’s emotions stay with him so he may work out his own issues and you have the opportunity to be a supportive partner rather than a reactionary one.  


*Note: If at any time your partner’s language becomes derogatory or feels abusive, you have the right to end the conversation and ask that it be resumed when their emotions have cooled.

Tags: communication, conflict resolution, couples, defensiveness, marriage, projection,