Thus far in this series about projectizing, a deeper form of perfectionism, showing up in a tendency to anxiously fix ourselves, we discussed how important it is to refrain from making ourselves a project to be fixed or a problem to solve, rather than a person worthy of love and compassion. We also explored Sarah’s story of shame around her singleness and confusion around her faith as well helpful ways to overcome chronic overthinking and how to break free from obsessively trying to control our circumstances and relationships.
In today’s post, I am sharing a personal story of healing and breakthrough and how the defense of projectizing was creating unnecessary suffering in my life. I went through a season where I experienced chronic migraines. I was confused why I had them because everything else in my life seemed normal and fine. I reached out to my doctor, who prescribed medication for my migraines. The migraines always occurred in the early morning, so after I took the meds, they were gone after a couple of hours of lying in bed. Then I could go into the office to counsel clients. This pattern happened on and off for about eight months. I spent an inordinate amount of time, money, emotional energy, and overthinking trying to figure out why and how I had developed these migraines. I conducted a great deal of research on migraines. As a result, I scheduled an appointment with my primary care physician, met with a neurologist, did a sleep study, had an MRI, met with my dentist, saw an orthodontist, and started seeing a chiropractor to figure out the cause of my migraines. All of my results came back as normal. I was completely fine, and, in fact, very healthy, but I was frustrated. There must be a reason! I was scared. I feared the migraines would never go away or that eventually they would worsen and affect my counseling practice and my life. I anxiously thought: What if my migraines worsened so I couldn’t meet with clients? What if I couldn’t pay my bills? What if my social life is impacted?
In reality, this never was the case; it was my anxiety speaking. In addition to the anxiety, I felt ashamed. Somehow I falsely believed these migraines were my fault, so I had to fix them and find a reason. I was embarrassed to tell people I had them because I felt I had done something wrong. I was suffering. A couple of months later, I was at church and bumped into one of the pastors there. She asked how I was doing and I explained I was having migraines. She sat me down and said, “Let’s pray about this and see what Father God has to say.” As she prayed over me, she saw a vision of God turning on a faucet, which represented my emotions, which I had unknowingly turned off while I was experiencing the migraines. That resonated deeply with me, and I told her, with tears streaming down my cheek, that I was angry with myself for having migraines. Sounds silly, but that is what I was feeling deep down. She said, “I feel you need to ask your body for forgiveness.” That was the last thing I expected her to say! It felt odd and awkward, but I trusted her. She led me through a prayer, and I asked my body for forgiveness for being so mean and cruel to it, for judging it, trying to fix it, and being angry with it for the pain I was experiencing and for trying to control it. My migraines ceased completely and I’ve never had one since!
A Fear of Pain Rooted In Shame
After that miraculous day, I was in awe, yet I developed an intense sadness. As I sat with that emotion and processed it, I realized the sadness was associated with how I treated myself during the migraine months. I grieved over the way I shamed and attacked myself. I was operating in the defense of projectizing—making myself a problem to be solved rather than comforting a hurting person. This shame manifested in expending so much time and energy trying to find a reason for my migraines instead of being compassionate and loving during a painful time in my life. I created unnecessary suffering by being cruel and mean to myself. I judged myself for having migraines. I treated my body as if it was a machine or a robot that wasn’t working properly and I wanted to fix it. Beneath the surface I was sad and angry. Instead of feeling my feelings, I developed anxiety, which fueled my need to know why, because if I knew why, I could stop the pain. But instead of stopping the pain of my migraines, I wanted to stop the shame of believing they were my fault, that I had done something wrong, and I feared they would never go away. I realize now, looking back at all my research, doctor appointments, time, and energy, that everything was being fueled by fear in an attempt to control my pain. Control is rooted in fear, and I was operating under a fear of pain. For me, pain equated to shame. I had failed. And it was my fault. Additionally, for me the pain equated to feeling responsible. I felt a heavy, oppressive, mentally tormenting, and exhausting burden to fix it. It was isolating and lonely. So pain in this case created much anxiety for me due to this false pressure I was placing on myself.
For those reasons, it was not the actual pain of the migraine that was creating such suffering; it was both the shame and the burden of trying to fix it that was the issue and the real source of my pain.
When Past Pain Becomes a Present Reality
I developed this shame based mindset due to my painful childhood; it was an all-too-familiar narrative that was occurring subconsciously beneath the surface of my migraines. It was not because I had failed or done something wrong; it was an old pattern trying to subtly manifest itself in a new way. Anytime I experienced the unpredictable rage of a close family member as a child, I was ashamed because I was told I did something wrong, even though I didn’t, or I wasn’t told anything at all and was punished for no logical reason. I learned a valuable truth through this experience about my fear of pain and how it was causing me tremendous, unnecessary suffering. Avoiding my emotions and overthinking when I experienced pain that I did not understand or have a reason for was my pattern. This pattern caused me to ignore and dismiss my body, not have compassion on myself but rather try to force it to stop hurting. Releasing my anger, shame, and sadness was healing and freeing for me because it was a moment of beautiful conviction. Experiencing these emotions opened the door for truth to dismiss the lies I was believing, to be comforted by God and others, and to hear him speak to my heart. I made a promise to refrain from being mean or cruel to myself when I experience pain, physical or emotional. To feel my feelings. Instead of demanding an answer or a reason, I will choose love rather than making myself a project to fix, and I will nurture myself, believing the truth that the pain is not my fault. I am a person worth of compassion, not a prblem to solve. The most interesting truth of all was recognizing what was actually occurring during those months of migraines. When I felt a migraine coming on, I would take my medication and rest in bed, and within a couple of hours it was gone and I was back on my feet. All of the fears and what-if statements of not being able to counsel my clients, enjoy a social life, or pay my bills one day because I feared the migraines would never go away was not my reality.
The reality is that I was OK and my life was not severely disrupted as I had feared. The suffering I put myself through was the result of not giving myself permission to have pain, such as migraines, that most of the population has experienced at some point in their life. The humbling truth is that I was not an exception to experiencing chronic pain (or any kind of pain) and it was not my fault.
Essentially, my need to know why and to fix my migraines anxiously consumed my thoughts, exhausted me emotionally, stole my joy and peace, and created shame. I was trying to fix myself because of what I made my migraines mean: I did something wrong.
It was this breakthrough experience that led me to create the psychological term projecizing as a defense mechanism in treating my clients so I could put a name to what was creating unnessary suffering for so many. The defense of projectizing is the most common yet most subtle of all the defense mechanisms I witness in my clinical practice.
Heartbreak and a Crisis of Faith
In my clinical practice, many people apply the defense mechanism of projectizing to their emotional pain such as a broken heart due to a relationship ending. They beat themselves up because they feel they should "have known better" or "seen it coming" - when in reality, we cannot know the future. Nor can we predict the outcomes of our relationships and prevent heartbreak, rejection, abandonment, or betrayal.
Projectizing also applies to our faith and relationship with God. Spiritually speaking, people experience a crisis of faith when an emotional injury occurs such as divorce or being fired. This evolves into anxiety, unrest, and eventually shame: Did I not follow God's will? Did I not hear from him correctly? What if my relationship with God has never really been what I thought it was?
Obsessing about these questions leads to inner turmoil and develops into unnecessary suffering. Healing happens when we give ourselves permission to be human. Rather than seeing ourselves as a failure and trying to fix what is wrong with us, have self-compassion. Facing our pain uncovers the deepest truths of our lives so we can be healed and live free. I'm living proof!
Life is hard enough without being hard on 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.