Today, I will discuss Relationship No No #3: Projection. My goal, is to bring this defensive strategy to light, and offer alternative routes to strengthening versus destroying bonds. If this article has caught your interest, you can likely relate to the experience of someone projecting a person or an experience onto you, or you have been told that you are projecting onto another. We all do it. Whether it’s conscious or not is another story, and part of the solution.
How do projections form?
As children, we are raised in conditional environments. Our caregivers teach us through words, actions and feedback, what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. Children strive to gain the most love possible, so they formulate personality patterns in the process. Traits or parts of themselves that are celebrated and rewarded are developed and strengthened, while traits and parts of self that are rejected, are suppressed and dissociated from.
Another form of repressing parts of the self, comes from witnessing a family member embodying traits that generated negative attention, such as alcoholic behavior, acting out, getting bad grades, etc. If a person witnesses this negative feedback from other family members or society towards their parent, sibling or an extended family member, they will likely repress that part of themselves to avoid the same.
As adults, unaccepted traits dwell in the subconscious or unconscious. For example, if someone grew up in a family where being down or depressed was not ok, they would work hard to be happy, joyful or up most of the time. If a wave of depression emerged in daily life, that person might feel shame and deny that part in themselves. If someone asks if they are down, they would most likely deny it or not relate to it at all. These unconscious parts are what Carl Jung described as the shadow.
The shadow is simply the dark side of someone’s personality. And what is dark is always known only indirectly through projection. That is, one discovers his dark side as something belonging to others: friends, relatives, fictitious characters, etc. This is why the meeting with the personal shadow is considered to be a moral effort. The difficulty of integrate the shadow is huge, if we have to face alone this powerful figure.https://www.carl-jung.net/
Shadow aspects can show up also show up in dreams. We might dream about someone we know, that represents a repressed and unacceptable part of ourselves, or as archetypal characters. In the example of the person who hides from being down, an archetype could be Oscar the Grouch!
How does a shadow express itself as a projection?
Let’s stick with the ‘no depression allowed’ example. Let’s say that person is in relationship with someone who just lost their job and becomes very down and depressed. While their happy-go-lucky partner might be understanding, the depression in their partner is likely hard for them. They might be constantly suggesting ways to cheer their partner up and feel frustrated with them when they are not shifting their mood. They might criticize them for ‘getting down in the dumps’ or ‘not taking enough action.’ Their partner is representing their shadow side of being depressed. Even though it is circumstantial and will likely pass with the security of a new job, their partner is subconsciously or unconsciously uncomfortable feeling this shadow within themselves.
Family of Origin Projection
As mentioned, another form of projection is from one’s family of origin. This style of projection is imagining unconsciously, subconsciously or consciously that one’s partner is acting like their primary caregiver, sibling, etc.. This attribution of characteristics can be positive or negative traits. For example, my partner tells really corny jokes just like my father (yes I am conscious of this) and I react with adoration or irritation just as I did with my father. I project the experience of my father into present time. An unconscious example of this is a woman accusing her partner of being a scary monster when he gets angry and she withdraws as a result. Her father was scary when he got angry, yet she is not making the connection in that moment. Her partner becomes a scary monster, even if his expression of anger is less so than her father. It is only with awareness that we can recognize the projections and utilize them towards healing.
Projection is like a camera lens: it changes what and how you see what is in front of you
When we are dissociated from the part that is shadow projecting, it’s hard to even recognize that it’s happening. It is the lens we are looking through, and it can feel merged with our inner state. Just making yourself aware of what projection is and how it works, is the first step.
Recognizing the Projection can be a powerful healing tool
The gift in it all, is activating shadow work within one’s self as well as in partnership. To make the unconscious, conscious and have freedom of choice.
Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.
― C.G. Jung
- Step 1: Self Assess: If you can recognize that you are feeling triggered with your partner, and the response is EXTRA LARGE size versus just irritation, you are likely on the verge of projection whether you turn it inwards or outwards.
- Step 2: Ask yourself: Who am I imagining my partner to be right now? What archetype or role are they representing? Who in my family do they remind me of?
- Do some journaling about it, let yourself know what your mind is saying.
- Step 3: Bonus Points Relationship Challenge: Be brave enough to ask your partner, what role they feel you have cast them in. Let them be a helper to identify the shadow part at play. For example, he might say ‘I feel like I have been cast in the tight money guy role.’ If you are open, that could enlighten awareness of your shadow piece, like ‘oh ya, I am projecting that you are my dad who is always afraid about money.’
- We are most equipped to help each other in relationship, because we have a front row seat to our partners when they are centered and when they are off. While it can be hard to hear it from those who know us best, partners can be incredible advocates to shadow work.
- The KEY here, is to make sure you enlighten your partner’s shadow in the most KIND and RESPECTFUL manner. Tone and delivery is everything.
- Step 4: Share Your Lightbulb Moment: When you can recognize what you might be projecting, be willing to share this vulnerable strength with your partner. Opening up at a deeper level is sexy and can build trust in the relationship. It is important that you ask your partner for listening and receiving, rather than any commentary on your awareness. It can be so deepening and powerful to share at this level with your partner.
The defense of projection has an intention to keep us safe
Like any defense, projection wants to protect us, by using warning signals of past events, negative feedback, or dangers. It is an innocent attempt to mitigate damage in the now. The distortion in projection, is thinking that by casting our partner in a familiar role we are somehow safe from the pain of that. The opposite is true, in that we instigate more of that role that we initially didn’t want. It’s like a self fulfilling prophecy. Your partner’s only choice is to defend themselves or call out for a pause to detangle the dynamic.
What if we are both projecting at the same time?
Oh my, this is a tough one and all too common. You are seeing her as your angry mother and the more withdrawn you get, the more frustrated she gets and really seems like your angry mother. She sees you as her passive father who can’t stand up for himself. You are caught in a double projection, yet it might be buried in unconsciousness. It is a tug of war between shadow characters. This requires the emotional intelligence to recognize that you are caught in a double projection and to name it. Not in blaming your partner, but in simply naming that you are in this paradigm. If you recognize it together, you can both turn towards yourself with the same inquiry as above. Be sure to take a pause to process internally first. It could be 10 minutes, 4 hours or a whole day before you come back together. Give it space to breath.
Write down the top 5 ways of being that bother you most about your partner (ie. negative moods, overspending, sarcasm, etc)
These are your shadow parts, parts of yourself that you reject. They might also be aspects of your family of origin.
Write down the name of the person who fits each characteristic from your family or origin.
Reflect on these. When your partner is in a negative mood for example, you might be projecting what it was like for you when that was the case with your mother. How does that feel? Likely you feel stuck with the mood since you were a child and couldn’t fix it even if you wanted to. Now you can’t fix it in your partner. Making this conscious connection, you can untangle the projection, empathize with your younger self, and perhaps communicate this vulnerable aspect with your partner so they understand you more. They can potentially help reassure you that it is not your job to lift their mood and you can find something to do when they feel down for yourself rather than for them.
The benefits of recognizing and communicating about projection
The benefits are two fold. First, you will have an opportunity to more deeply empathize with the rejected parts of you and potentially free them. For example, if one of your shadow parts is being lazy, it is likely that you could use some laziness in your life if you have been avoiding it up until now. It can be relaxing! My favorite quote is:
Until we become that which we have demonstrated against, we will have made no progress
The other benefit is that you will feel closer, more trusting and freedom with your partner.
We must integrate the shadows to progress, to free ourselves and become whole. All of us have all of the parts and that is why we are constant mirrors for each other in relationship. The more unconscious and unowned a shadow part is, the more it will trigger us in relationship. It is a gift to have those triggers because it just highlights the area for awareness we are seeking.
Artwork by Clark Tate http://clarktate.com/
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