Hot Potato – how to offload troublesome emotions

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Ow! ow! hot hot! Here you have it, catch!

Suddenly you are feeling cross, or anxious or guilty about something and yet you weren’t a minute ago. In fact you were perfectly content a minute ago and then your other half started a seemingly innocuous conversation and there was something in how they said it, in the edge to their tone, the way they phrased things, in what wasn’t said explicitly which has left you infuriated, or worried when you weren’t.

Job done.

You have just been a participant in a game of pass the hot potato.

Or as psychologists call it, projective identification. Let me show you how it is done and then you can spot it in your narc family-in-law and dodge that potato whenever anyone tries to lob it your way.

Basic Projection

Everyone has parts of themselves which they are familiar and comfortable with, these parts are the bits we see in casual acquaintances and could list as character traits in our friends. Then there are parts which emerge on closer inspection, we know the dreams, fears or anxieties of our close family and best friends which they don’t reveal to just anyone. These parts are the delightful discoveries that come with greater emotional intimacy. And then there are parts of ourselves which we may only reveal to a close lover or in a secret diary. But what about the parts we find too hard to acknowledge even to ourselves? What about the emotions that are stirred in us which family or society says we shouldn’t have.

In the movie American Beauty Kevin Spacey plays a man having a mid life crisis who has fantasies about his teenage neighbour. This sort of thing is not what we are supposed to feel, it would be viewed in a very dim light by those of a judgemental nature. Where do these thoughts and feelings go if we struggle to hold them in our minds before pushing them out as unacceptable?

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Freud, Jung and the other early psychoanalysts all agreed that there is no “disappearing” when it comes to emotions and thoughts of this nature. There is a law of conservation of feeling in operation inside us all. What cannot be faced is suppressed, repressed, diverted and deformed out of our conscious awareness, but it is still there. We feel the residual charge of these emotions which we have squished out of sight whenever our buttons are pressed by someone. Realising that you simply do not like that person but you can’t say why exactly is a sign of unconscious feeling around a trait or characteristic that they possess. Jung called all these unconscious, unwelcome parts of ourselves our Shadow. I read a short introduction to this idea, becoming aware of and working with our shadow in the book “The Dark Side of the Light Chasers” by Debbie Ford which is a great book for anyone wanting to investigate their own shadow parts. Here are some ways in which you may see projection in action…

I hate that Mr Blogs, he is so uptight! Nope, you hate the part of yourself that can be uptight as your chilled out hippy dad always sneered dismissively at people less spontaneous than him.

She is such a slut! Nope, you have repressed your own sexuality to fit into what society thinks is right for women and she reminds you of what you won’t allow yourself to do.

You aren’t thinking about our finances! Nope, you are labelling your partner as financially irresponsible because you spent a lot on a new laptop and this doesn’t fit your view of yourself as a conservative spender.

These are examples of projection, where you accuse someone else of a trait, feeling or behaviour which you yourself need to disown. It is a form of blame shifting. Not me! it cries, it’s HIM!

This is common or garden projection, we all do it. We imagine good qualities we fear we don’t have on people we admire (projection) and bad qualities we fear we do have on our enemies (projection) all of which is completely normal. It is an internal process, an interaction I have with myself which may then colour how I interact with another.

There is a more potent kind of projection which takes this one step further and is sufficiently damaging to interpersonal relationships that for many years it was deemed pathological and indicative of a serious character disorder. Introducing projective identification, projections bigger, badder, mofo brother.

Projective Identification

What if instead of accusing someone of having a trait you disowned you were able to manipulate them into actually feeling the emotions you didn’t want AND by watching them live out your unwanted emotion you got relief from those shitty feelings yourself? With the added bonus of being able to criticise the subject of your emotional hot potato game for having those/your feelings in the first place. Woohoo that is a triple whammy jackpot of projection. Ahhhhhhh, sigh and relax as your unconscious mind fucks up those around you so you don’t have to deal with your messy emotions. Look how superior you are to them, those helpless fools grovelling around acting out anger (tut tut) and fear (oh grow up) and shame (well you ARE at fault aren’t you).

If you could write an advert for projective identification it would go like that, but possibly with some very small smallprint on the bottom of the screen which hurriedly mentions the possibility of permanent and irreversible relationship damage and the development of a reputation for emotional abuse.

I’m exaggerating somewhat, projective identification is not always as pathological as originally thought, it was found to be quite common in longterm married partners where part and parcel of the couple bond formed between two people is the managing of difficult emotions between the two partners. In this context, an otherwise functioning, healthy relationship, it works because it goes both ways so each partner benefits from being able to see some of their emotions provoked in and crucially then managed by the other person. It is a way of learning how to manage those feelings you personally struggle with by stimulating them in another and them holding and transforming those feelings into a form you can then take back.

Horrible feelings I can’t deal with –> provocative actions –> those feelings in the partner –> they can deal with it –> containing/holding actions –> I take my transformed feelings back –> I learn how better to deal with horrible feelings

This is a lovely thing, it happens with parents and children, therapists and clients and between spouses. Done fully it leaves both people feeling closer and better understood.

BUT and here’s the big but, it is horribly damaging in relationships where there is no reciprocity. The to-and-fro of this interaction isn’t possible if one partner has a very limited ability to process difficult emotions from others and also has a limited capacity to manage their own feelings or maybe has a large number of emotions which they deem to be unacceptable (they have a limited emotional range) and so find they can’t contain the volume and have to dump on others.

Worse what if you refuse to allow the other to process and return your feelings, what if you point the finger at them and start attacking them for having the feelings you put there?

Worse still what if the emotions you try to transfer onto your partner trigger past trauma so they are now overwhelmed by your feelings in a way they have no hope of coping with?

If this is a regular pattern in a relationship it is abuse, no ifs or buts about it. It is an action which uses the other person’s emotions to manipulate, denigrate, control or harm them. It is abuse.

How does the person with the difficult feelings manage to offload them on another? By clear and identifiable actions. They actually do something or say something knowing (even unconsciously knowing) that it will provoke the other. Consider the example I gave above of projection, you aren’t thinking about our finances! The emotion the person struggles with is guilt at having breached an internal sense of what is reasonable spending and possibly shame from thinking that this somehow makes them a flawed frivolous person.

I feel terrible guilt and shame –> I accuse my partner of spending too much, look aggrieved, mention how hard I work, sag my shoulders, exude a certain hopelessness and plaintively ask why did you do that? –> my partner now feels concern, questions themselves regarding their spending, takes my complaint seriously (after all we are married) and begins to feel bad about their spending –> now they have guilt and I can work on it to exacerbate the feeling into shame. Seeing their reaction allows me to feel self-righteous as I am correcting their silly spending so clearly I must be someone who knows not to be thoughtless with money. I no longer feel bad, my partner feels awful.

Projective Identification and Narcissism

A narcissist has by definition repressed all their feelings of worthlessness, inferiority and shame out of their conscious minds and if for any short time they sense those emotions they react quite dramatically with an outburst of rage at the person or situation which has exposed them consciously to the unmanageable feelings.

It should come as no surprise to realise that projective identification is used repeatedly and frequently by narcissists. If they cannot manage these feelings then someone else must have them. Someone else has to be made to feel worthless, shamed, guilty, a failure, unattractive or whatever it is they are trying to offload.

When your narcissistic MIL makes a dig about your parenting it is so you feel bad and she doesn’t have to.

When she turns her nose up at your new house/haircut/dress is it to make you feel bad so she doesn’t have to.

When she hogs the best seat in the room and dominates the conversations with me-me-me it is so you will feel small and she doesn’t have to.

Do you see?

Once you see it you can fight back. First off take a check on how you are feeling before you meet your MIL. Are you calm today, a bit giggly, kind of chilled out, slightly rushed, irritated or whatever. This is your baseline for measuring any changes as you won’t experience a sudden shift in mood unless provoked by something. Sudden shifts in mood all on their own are generally signs of a mood disorder like bipolar disorder. Then when you are with your MIL notice if you suddenly feel stung by a remark of hers. Once you see it or feel it as that barb strikes pause for a second and sit with that sting. Ask yourself, how do I feel now? Hurt? Belittled? Dismissed? Once you can name the feeling DROP IT LIKE A HOT POTATO.

It’s not your feeling and you don’t have to hold on to it. It’s her feeling she is trying to offload on you. Reject it. Tell yourself mentally this is not my feeling, I am not small/silly/worthless. You don’t actually have to do anything else like give a response. Holding constant in your own emotional state is enough as she will feel from the atmosphere between you that the comment hasn’t stuck. This is the real knack you can develop through practising medium chill with your NPD MIL. If you brace yourself right from the start not to discuss emotive topics and not to rise to any bait just keep it bland and business like she has much less chance of snaring you in this trap.

Projective Identification and Your Spouse

Now your partner has been raised by someone who uses this tactic to manage their emotions rather than model healthy projective identification between an upset child and a loving parent who is able to contain their upset and transform it for them. Your spouse doesn’t know how to do PI correctly. They know how it is used to offload not how it is used to care for another. They are used to squashing down and then expelling their unacceptable feelings and thoughts not managing them themselves. Narcissism in a primary care giver leads to immature or even completely missing emotional coping mechanisms in the adult child. Therefor your spouse will use projective identification on you and may very well be unable to accept your difficult emotions to process in return.

If this is a stuck pattern in your relationship I strongly recommend you see a couples therapist. If your partner struggles to be conscious of their feelings, has a limited range of emotions and shows discomfort when certain emotions are expressed in front of them they should work individually with a therapist to get help with this.

It is wholly unreasonable for you to be expected to carry the burden of your own emotional baggage and difficulties AND process your partners considerable baggage from childhood. That would be a very unbalanced and exploitative relationship. If you can work together to create a safe way to hold each others difficult emotions you will have created an important element of a loving caring relationship. If you are left baring the brunt of someone else’s emotional refuse and become a landfill site for their discarded, despised feelings you will be worn down and your relationship will become damaged by bitter resentment and disappointment.

The absolute key to using PI effectively is to have each partner psychologically robust enough to take on another’s deep distress at one moment and sit calmly and fully present in that feeling, then it can be transformed and taken back. This will never happen with your MIL. You need to spot what she’s doing and refuse to play pass the hot potato.

My therapist told me doing this effectively is really hard, black belt emotional ninja skills, that even therapists have to work on constantly and be aware of as they use it in their sessions to uncover what is going on with their client. Don’t feel like you have to be an instant expert at this. Even if you spot the projection later in  the day, or later that week after it has happened you can still use this awareness. Write about it, talk about it and be more conscious of how it works. Soon you will see it quicker and be able to nip it in the bud.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Hot Potato – how to offload troublesome emotions

  1. Thank you for the insight. I’m NC with my family as well as my inlaws. Two years now.

    This article gave me a lot to think about regarding my sister, actually. I only recently went NC with her. I guess I wanted to see how to would be with me without the influence of my mom. In many ways I realised that she was really the source of a lot of the hurt and pain. My mother pretty much left me alone (neglect) and it fell to my sister to do most of the practical stuff for me, so there was a time when a 13 year old was looking after a 7 year old. Not good. She could also get pretty nasty and has continued to be down the years. Sometimes she was on my side, sometimes she and mom would gang up.

    I noticed she would do something to provoke and it would set off a situation where I would get the blame. For example when I was living at home saving to go to college, she would come home for visits and would immediately bust a few boundaries like go into my room without asking and take my stuff. Or if I had an exam the next day she would play music really really loud the night before and invite a few people round, that kind of thing, almost taunting me, and knowing whatever happened Mom would not defend me. When she came home she would be treated like the Golden Child for a little while by Mom, which I guess was a break from being used by her, and it kind of went to her head and she would turn on me. She was really inconsistent, I never knew if she was friend or enemy. When I tried to protest anything she did it would turn into world war 3, she would get mom involved and it would escalate. It happened all the time.

    Anyway the upshot is, in the two years we saw each other after NC with mom things didn’t improve. My sister thought it was ok to invite people to my wedding without asking us and then acting all butt hurt when I stood up for myself. My wedding was the only time she came to visit me in two years, though she drove right past my house on the way to see her friends. I went to see her as much as money and time could afford. It was a mistake, I was always on her turf. The last time I saw her she stood in the kitchen of her detached house in a rich neighbourhood with her two cars in the driveway and told me how poor she is. I am poor, not her, I rent and barely make ends meet, she knows this. I saw it for what it was, a provocation, and you have just put a name to it. I challenged her on it, even pointing out to her that in 5 years she would be mortgage free, and she didn’t like that, because the object was not to discuss her finances but to make me feel bad for being poor.

    But Mom is not here anymore to be judge and jury and take her side, and join her in blaming me for her uncomfortable feelings. It was interesting. Sister didn’t know what to do with this new me, and without her sidekick. She asked me to leave her house, which I did, at 10pm after driving 300 miles to see her. She didn’t actually expect I would, and came tearing down the driveway yelling as I was shutting the door of the car.

    That’s the last time I ever want to see her.

    Thanks for this article. Happy new year FCW.

    • Hi Fran, it does sound like your sister has a knack for provoking people. It must have been very hard for her to be left looking after you and it sounds like she has picked up traits from your narcissistic mother. Triangulating as you describe by bringing another person into a fight is a typical tactic used by people trying to avoid being accountable. Well done for spotting her methods of snaring you and standing up to it. I hope things are more peaceful for you now.

  2. Thanks a lot for responding. Yeah, this one hurts, a lot. Because when she is kind she is so amazing. We bonded a lot when we were both at college and visiting each other 20 years ago, adult to adult, not parent to child like it later became (again).

    So, we had some good times and and it hurts that she never felt we could sort out things between each other, ever, she had to pull in the toxic mom and we both knew what she was, discussed her toxicity between us many times. I never went crying to Mom, not once. I am many things but I know I didn’t do the hot potato the way she did. It was not safe to! I knew the repercussions.

    I feel everything she has had to sacrifice especially in her younger years when she was cooking dinner for me while my parents were who knows where, I feel it in my bones and I made my gratitude clear a lot when we got into our 40’s. I saw her position, empathised with it. I can feel compassion to her from a distance, but I can’t be around her anymore, my health won’t allow it.

    It is sad FCW. It was the next to the final straw when she got up in my wedding reception and made a speech (wasn’t asked to) and told my husband “Good luck because Fran is a difficult person”

    Another long post in response. Thanks so much for reading, especially as it wasn’t really about mother in laws. Have a fabulous day.

  3. CH

    Thank you for your blog overall and this post in particular. I’ve been dealing for 8+ years with an NPD MIL and so much of what you’ve written over the years resonates with me. The experience of Cassandra sounds like much of my first 7 years in the family. Although my husband found my MIL annoying, he did not always see the full picture. However, that has been changing over the last 18 months, especially when she sunk to new lows such that more people can see her true face: Cassandra no more. My husband is not the oldest, he was likely the lost child growing up. He has anxiety, but he’s working through that with help. He now sees the NPD and calls it by name. He’s always been comfortable with going no and limited contact. Mostly just to keep them quiet. Not me. No, I’ve always accepted the hot potatoes and the third degree burns that come with them. I’ve often thought that I needed to work harder or just explain things better. Maybe then she’d change. Then she’d see… But no more. With her new lows, I’m more comfortable in my perception; it’s not me, it really is YOU. No amount of effort on my part will change her. And these negative feelings, yeah, they aren’t mine– they are hers. She is jealous of my life and that is not my fault. These feelings of shame are hers. So, I’m gonna drop ’em like they’re hot. Thanks!

  4. Struggling in America

    Sorry for the long post, but I feel as though I may burst.

    As always your blog posts help unscramble my foggy brain in dealing with my husband who has been raised by a NPD MIL and an emotionally absent father. I feel as though I am in hell in my marriage. I have personally been NC with the inlaws for about a year with the exception of my husband handing me the phone in front of others last Thanksgiving so that I could say hello to my inlaws. I have been married 20 years and the Projection Identification in spouses hit home. I feel like I am often going mad. I am seeing myself behave in ways that I don’t even recognize and often like they do.

    I really need to get out of this marriage as despite counseling for years, both for couples and individually, it ends up getting nowhere. The lies, manipulation, forgetting memories, denial, gas lighting etc is unbearable. I feel like I am caught in an undercurrent in the sea and can’t get my bearings. I have three children in their long and mid teens. I am starting to my daughter turn against me. Her dad treats her like the wife. I am so disgusted in his behavior I have zero respect which looks terrible on the outside. I have found women’s underwear three times either in his luggage or my laundry. He left me during my cancer struggle. I have an autoimmune disease from all the stress I believe. I am fearful for my health. I can’t eat or sleep and i need one more surgery then I can get out and attempt to save myself so that I am there for my children.

    I have been a stay at home mom with the kids and I am terrified to change that for the children but the chaos in our marriage and home is toxic to them. While I am sad beyond words to break up our family I feel this is imperative for survival. Has anyone dealt with that. I am so incensed and enraged with anger the past two years once I woke to the emotional manipulation, guilt, control and projection. He now tells the children I am paranoid, ( i have been searching for proof of infidelity), abusive, etc etc. I have declined mentally and physically so much in the past 2 years after the cancer and his response and lack of compassion and empathy on his part and his families. He told our counselor “i wasn’t going to die so what was the big deal to move two states away for his job.” he so desperately wanted. he was fired from that job and told himself, his children and everyone around him he came home to be with his family. HE WAS FIRED!!!!! Them he hired attorneys to change the wording on a press release about the new job he found after so it didn’t look like he was fired. He even got featured in a publication from his University and he used my story of the cancer to bolster his career change and how he personally feels a calling to help cancer patients which is why he takes the jobs he does.

    He knows I am stategizing to leave as my behavior and actions are hard to hide when he has kept all access to financial data and such closed from me. I feel as though I am battling to save my life. Now that he knows this he is cozying up to the children, won’t allow me to be alone with them when he is around, controls my every move and action, etc etc. He cooks dinner now, grocery shops, and says the nicest things to me in front of the kids. He saves text messages where he is so kind and words things in such a way that benefits him. He comes to all doctor appointments unless strategize to go without him or with a friend. I am suffocating. And by the way, he is back in business with his family. i have managed to keep the kids and I away during the holidays as the counselor said it is in our best interest. now that is being held against me as someone who breaks up families.

    In any event, has anyone gotten out of their marriage and found some sense of peace, just by simply getting time away from the smother and lies and gas lighting.

    • Hi Struggling in America, yes lots of people have found peace by leaving abusive relationships even longterm ones with children involved. I have heard of several people specifically with narcissism in the mix who are so relieved to have got out and over a few years are able to release the cloud of self-doubt and confusion to become much happier and more emotionally stable.

      Your husband is being abusive. He is also being abusive to your children if he is parentifying/spousifying your daughter.

      There are many support groups online, helplines and depending on where you live you may find local groups for people in abusive relationships. They will be able to offer information about your legal rights and steps you can take. It is very difficult to see a way out when you have worked for your family rather than for a wage out of the home as you have financial dependence on your abusive partner. With a serious health problem in the recent past as well you are in a vulnerable situation. That will make things feel worse and you will probably feel more helpless than you actually are.

      Every piece of advice I read about your kind of situation emphasises the need for external support (your friends, family, therapist, support group, women’s shelter) and the importance of your emotional and mental health. You sound like you are taking slow, positive steps with non contact, marriage counselling, addressing your finances etc. Keep going.

      Being nice to you now he suspects you are thinking about leaving him is hoovering, a manoeuvre which temporarily changes the abusive person’s behaviour to waylay their partner into thinking maybe they have changed. It is part of something called the abuse cycle. This is not necessarily a conscious, planned move. People who behave abusively, verbally, emotionally or physically, feel out of control within themselves and are often unable to square how they act with their self image. So they hoover after an abusive episode or when their partner threatens to leave. This convinces THEM as much as you that they are not really like that.

      He may also wish to remain in the marriage, it is possible to be trapped in unhealthy and abusive behavioural patterns without realising the harm or knowing how to change especially if you have dysfunctional parents modelling really appalling behaviour your whole life. It is hard to understand but his own feelings of security may be being rocked as he considers you leaving and he could be trying hard to placate you. Have you flat out told him you want a divorce? He should be told how serious you are about leaving and how unhappy you are with his behaviour including the lying and covering up suspicious behaviour (underwear in washing etc). I know you said you had spent years in counselling (me too) but even then it can be hard to bluntly spell out what you think and feel. I repeatedly pulled my punches in therapy sessions as I thought that being very honest would be destructive and that it was part of my job in therapy to not cross a line where I potentially blew the whole relationship up. I was wrong. Being utterly clear and brutally honest is imperative.

      I am concerned that the counsellor you are seeing has not specifically addressed the abusive behaviour of your husband. Relationship therapy with an abusive partner is often unsuccessful unless the partner is also committed to working on themselves in one-to-one therapy and fully faces up to their abusive behaviour. Please do speak to your counsellor by yourself and ask about this issue. I have found some resources on the web which discuss this, I have been in the situation where my husband used information I revealed in marriage therapy sessions against me so I know a bit about this problem.

      Psychology Today – short article explaining why some therapists fail to correctly interpret the situation:
      https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/anger-in-the-age-entitlement/200905/emotional-abuse-why-your-marriage-counseling-failed

      This entire website is very helpful and addresses emotional abuse (what you are experiencing) as well as domestic violence. It explains exactly why some abusive partners use counselling against their partners while looking as thought they are working hard in front of the therapist:
      https://www.abuseandrelationships.org/Content/Survivors/couples_therapy.html

      This is from the National Domestic Violence Hotline and neatly summarises why therapy can be ineffective:
      http://www.thehotline.org/2014/08/why-we-dont-recommend-couples-counseling-for-abusive-relationships/

      Similar tale here, all these articles say the same thing, unless the ABUSIVE BEHAVIOUR is being addressed any other problems cannot be sorted, abusive behaviour IS the relationship problem.
      https://pro.psychcentral.com/why-couples-counseling-doesnt-work-in-abusive-relationships/009203.html

      If your kids are old enough to take care of themselves for a few days/week you may like to consider giving yourself some time away from all of this with family or at a spa or retreat of some kind. Looking after yourself is so important with everything you are having to deal with. You are correct that being away from the lies and gaslighting will help you think and feel more centered.

      • Struggling in America

        Yes, the counseling has not worked in fact it made things worse to the point I said I can’t go, and yes he is now in counseling with a different person in the same practice and telling tall tales I can’t even speak about it, it is so upsetting.

        I have been brutally honest in our counseling sessions which has helped and the therapist sees me as honest and caring, with the sole intention of saving my family to the point I have nearly lost myself. I need to get out, pure and simple, if I hope to maintain any dignity, integrity, relationship with kids and my physical and emotional health. I have an incredible support system in place for which I am eternally grateful and count my blessings for that daily. YouTube videos by Melanie Tonia Evans is keeping me sane.

        Do you have any specific ideas on how to combat “spousifying” and saving me and my teenage daughter?

        FCW, I don’t think you can ever know how incredibly helpful you have been in my life. You are an angel across the pond to those of us in America, or should I say “Hell”. Bless you FCW. I will look up your links you suggested.

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