mwotw withhold withdraw project

Withhold, Withdraw, Project

There’s a guy in my community I haven’t liked much. 

The first time we met, he came in for a hug hard and fast.

In doing so, he interrupted a sensitive conversation.

I said No to the hug, but it still felt bad.

A few weeks later, we shared a tender experience with one of my dearest friends, who needed to process a hard diagnosis. 

I thought The Guy dominated the conversation that night, and my dislike for him grew.

Months went by.

Every time I saw him, he did something or other that added evidence to the case I was building against him.

“He’s domineering, unattuned, full of himself, and unpleasant to be around. See what he just did?!” 

I felt righteous, and right about it. 

Then I got a golden opportunity.

Recently, at a community gathering, The Guy himself invited people to step into an exercise that involved revealing their projections about each other.

Projections meaning stories, inventions, judgments.

Our ideas about who the other person is.

(In psychology, these are called “projections” because we use others outside of us as the projection screen on which to play the movies of experiences actually happening inside our own minds.)

Part of me wanted to run away.

But I was also curious about what might happen if I leaned in. 

I joined the group.

A few minutes in, I looked right at him and said, “I have a projection you think you’re better than everyone else. And I hate it.”

He was quiet as he took it in.

My heart raced. 

But I also realized the most important thing had already happened: I’d broken the Cycle of Disconnection I’d been stuck in.


One of the most useful models about human relationships I’ve learned from my mentors at the Conscious Leadership Group is the Withhold, Withdraw, Project cycle (aka the Cycle of Disconnection).

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It’s a map of a cycle that’s extremely common once you start to notice it.

And I was running it hard with my nemesis.

Here’s how it works:

Step 1: Withhold

Something happens that I don’t like. Instead of candidly revealing my experience (thoughts, feelings, sensations) directly to the other person using inarguable language, I withhold. 

I say nothing,

I stuff it, pretend it’s fine, and/or decline to engage.

Step 2: Withdraw

Next, my energy starts to pull back and away from the connection. 

It’s like I’m recoiling away from something stinky, subtly going out of my way not to go near it. 

I avoid closeness, as there’s now a withhold in the space.

This is even more notable when the cycle is happening in a close relationship, but it happened with me and The Guy too.

Step 3: Project

Next, I start to place judgements on the person of all the ways I think they’re doing things wrong.

This becomes a filter through which I view them and our interactions. 

I start to see exactly what I’m looking for, because that’s pretty much how brains work.

Step 4: Repeat

Soon I’m in a self-reinforcing loop.

They do something “awful.”

I judge it silently, pull farther away, and strengthen my filter of how I see them.

Eventually, inevitably, the evidence piles up as my case gets stronger and stronger.

Drama ensues.


I’ve been paying attention to this cycle in my own life for about 7 years now, and it’s come to the point where I can feel it in action.

I catch my stories before they get huge.

I catch the feeling of the pull away just as it starts.

Usually, I make the choice to ask for a conversation and I reveal whatever the withhold is.

Almost always, something shifts — quickly.

Closeness ensues. 

I breathe a sigh of relief.

But in this case, with The Guy, I somehow let the cycle fester for months.

I could see it happening, but I honestly didn’t care enough to break it.

If I’m honest, I kind of enjoyed having a villain to dislike.

Plus I didn’t think he’d care or listen to me anyway. (That’s part of the withdraw/project part of the cycle.)

All this is why I was so surprised about what happened after I revealed my projection to him.


He didn’t respond. 

He didn’t correct me.

He did, throughout the course of the group, share some other vulnerable insights about himself that had me soften a little. 

But the magical thing?

Even just the REVEAL itself changed something for me.

I wasn’t holding a story inside.

Something loosened.

And by the end of the night, all the charge I’d had towards him just… disappeared.

We’re not best friends or anything.

But I was once again reminded about the incredible power of candor, and about the vice grip that the Withhold, Withdraw, Project cycle can have on our relationships (and psyches).

I’m not saying revealing is easy.

I’m just saying it’s magical. 

And almost always worth it.

Are you willing to give it a try?

Candidly yours,


PS – There is a bit of an art to revealing effectively. It involves taking ownership of your own experience. Nonviolent communication (NVC) is a great starting point for this if you’re new at it.

PPS – This model applies to all relationships, including clients, vendors, bosses, employees… Are you in the cycle of disconnection in your business somewhere?

This post was originally sent as an email to the Magic Words of the Week newsletter list. Every week, I share reflections on a word, quote, or phrase I think will help you thrive in your life’s work.

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