A Single Woman’s Story of Shame: The Defense of Projectizing, Part 2
Updated: Aug 4
Last week we discussed a common defense mechanism, projectizing, a deeper form of perfectionism, by making ourselves a project to be fixed or a problem to be solved rather than treating ourselves as a person worthy of love and compassion. In today’s post, I will be sharing an example of how the defense of projectizing shows up in our life through Sarah’s story, a single woman desiring marriage who is struggling with shame around her singleness and suffering with confusion around her faith. Sarah was tired. Her anxiety was keeping her awake at night. Deep down she felt ashamed. Intelligent, well-educated, and articulate, Sarah came to my office with a common complaint. She had been seen by multiple therapists to treat anxiety and bouts depression, without success. She was restless sitting on my sofa as she shared her chronic disappointment both in her dating and spiritual life. I asked Sarah about her spiritual life. She acknowledged that one reason she had come to see me was that she had been told I was a believer. Her relationship with God was bringing her more confusion than comfort. Sarah is in her late thirties desiring to be married who is told by her friends, family, and faith community that she is too picky and not doing her part. Although these people are well-meaning and only trying to help, she feels shame that her singleness is her fault. Therefore, she vacillates between compromising her values because she falsely believes they are too rigid, although she fears she will end up marrying someone she doesn’t truly love. Or she spends an inordinate amount of time on dating websites and exhausts herself dating every man who shows an interest in her when she could be enjoying her life more fully.
The reality is that Sarah is single because she has not yet met a man she wants to be with. Period. The truth is this: she is a strong woman who sticks to her values, and she is patient, confident, and content within herself. Before Sarah could receive these truths and begin the healing process, she had to face her pain and her feelings of anger, sadness, and fear that she was avoiding. Understandably so, the complicated grief of having unmet heart’s desires during this prolonged season of singleness and having to wait longer than she had hoped is difficult and hard enough. Weekends were especially painful for her, especially after church on Sundays, when she heard couples discussing their fun plans of how they were spending the remainder of the day together. She longed for companionship. She was lonely. Through her counseling sessions Sarah learned there was more to her singleness that was causing her so much suffering. It was that she felt shame about her loneliness driving her need to "fix" her singleness. During her treatment we discovered, at a deeper level, she felt intense regret for past relational mistakes and believed it was her fault that she was single. Therefore, she feared feeling her painful emotions and buried them as a result. This avoidance pattern kept her stuck in a continuous cycle of shame and suffering. Once Sarah allowed herself to experience her anger and sadness surrounding her singleness, she learned not to fear those lonely moments especially during the weekends. Instead of projectizing her singleness as a problem to solve and seeing herself as a broken person who needed to be fixed, she allowed the waves of intense emotions to pass through her and had compassion on herself for the first time.
Experiencing her grief made room for hope to shine through and allowed her to trust her gut instincts and drown out the voices of distraction. Her newfound convictions and confidence overshadowed her doubts. Her dating choices came from a place of want to instead of have to and were driven by fun rather than fear.
Am I Too Picky?
Toward the end of our treatment together, Sarah shared, “It’s amazing to me how simple—not easy—it is to sit with my sadness. Yes, it is painful, but it does pass and I am OK! I’m incredibly grateful we identified the real culprit of projectizing so I no longer have to go through these tormenting mental Hula-Hoops trying to figure it all out. Now I can get back to living my life! I believe the right person will come along at the right time. After all, God knows my heart and I trust him, not just with my future husband but with my moments of loneliness, anger, and lack of faith. Most importantly, I no longer believe I am too picky, I am a strong woman who knows what she wants. I’ll be saying a lot more no’s, but it only takes one yes and I’d rather be waiting for my future spouse than in a marriage where I feel alone.” All in all, Sarah's issue was not the fact that she was single; it was believing it was her fault and therefore exhausting herself to fix it, do her part, and put herself out there. All statements that left her feeling fearful she would miss out and ashamed she wasn’t doing enough. At the close of her session, she said, “I have never heard of the defense mechanism of projectizing before. My other therapists have never addressed this core issue within me. This is incredibly eye-opening and life- changing to be able to name this. I’ve struggled with making myself a project to fix all my life and never knew what it was. What freedom!”
What had begun as a false belief that Sarah's singleness meant that something was wrong with her had evolved into a crisis of faith. Yet she didn’t see the connection between her anxiety that kept her awake at night and her conclusion that her singleness was her fault. As one who has had a prolonged season of singleness in my life along with its fair share of doubt and uncertainly, I was empathetic to her real experience of inner turmoil. Especially her ache of desiring to be married. In fact, for Sarah, it was now beyond what she would describe as turmoil and had developed into what could easily be called suffering.
Her anxiety grew as her conversations with fellow believers were providing her with answers that left her feeling confused, judged, and inadequate that she was not doing enough. This upset her, but even her emotional distress was something she did feel the freedom to mention to them. She didn’t want to risk being told, “You’re not doing your part" or "You’re too picky.” I suggested that her problem was more complex that anxiety around being single.
To help Sarah understand the root of her anxiety, I helped her understand her coping strategy of making herself a project to fix and her singleness a problem to solve instead of believing she is a person worthy of love and compassion. Rather than focusing on what she was or was not doing, I invited her into a relationship of being known and sharing her story. This helped her stop obsessing about all her questions related to her singleness and she felt her feelings as the tears began to flow down her cheeks. Her shame was replaced with an inner strength and deep conviction.
The Truth For Single People
I have worked with many single men and women in my clinical practice. The path to finding a spouse is not straightforward nor is it black and white. It is complex and nuanced. Assigning meaning to what is right or wrong in dating is harmful. People oversimplify very complicated, personal issues. Placing assumptions on such a life-changing decision can create shame, doubt, and uncertainty among single people desiring to be married.
You do not need to be fixed because you are single. You are not a problem to solve or a project. You are a person. You are not broken, you are hurting.
Sarah’s singleness was not a sign of weakness, failure or a lack of action and faith on her part. It was an unmet desire of her heart that she felt ashamed about. Despite her singleness, her desire to be married was no longer a place of shame, but a place of self-acceptance. Our humanness, Christianity, and marital status is not about performance, being right or demanding answers. It’s about grace and being loved and accepted.
Like many of us, Sarah knew things, yet she hadn’t been known by anyone in such a way that she felt encouraged, understood, and unashamed. Not by people closest to her and not by God. The desire of her heart to be married was no longer a burden weighing on her reminding her of inadequacy, it brought her closer to God and she found peace in the midst of waiting, contentment within herself, and joy pursuing her passions.
What are you longing for? Though it feels as if your painful, confusing season of waiting for your heart’s desires will never end, it is possible to walk through your uncertainty, fears, and tears to discover hope again. The way to freedom is closer than you know. It begins with surrendering the need to know the when, the how and the why and learning accept your life as a story unfolding moment by moment.
In next week’s post we will look at steps to overcome chronic overthinking and how to break the pattern of our intense need to fix ourselves.
**The content for this blog post has been taken from chapter 8 (When You Become A Cuckoo, Making Yourself a Project to Fix) of Andrea’s book, The Cuckoo Syndrome: The Secret to Breaking Free from Unhealthy Relationships, Toxic Thinking, and Self-Sabotaging Behavior
The photo accompanying this article was sourced from Unsplash and is in the public domain.