Projection is a very common thing that we all unconsciously engage in, and depth psychotherapy is very concerned with how it colours relationships. What does psychology mean by “projection”? Jungian analyst Andrew Samuels writes:
Projection may be seen as… a defence against anxiety. Difficult emotions or unacceptable parts of the personality may be located in a person or object external to the subject.
Samuels, A., et al., Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis(London: Routledge, 1986)
Seeing Me in You
So, basically, if there’s something about myself that I don’t like, or don’t want to acknowledge, I can unconsciously start to see it in other people, and that makes me feel less anxious about myself and the situation. Although, depending on what I’m “projecting”, it may not make the other person feel very good… and it likely will not help the relationship between us.
Jung has some choice things to say about our projections upon others:
We are still so sure we know what other people think, or what their true character is. We are convinced that certain people have all the bad qualities that we do not know in ourselves, or that they practice all those vices which could, of course, never be our own…. If you imagine someone who is brave enough to withdraw all these projections, then you get someone who is conscious of a considerable shadow…. He has become a serious problem to himself, as he is now unable to say that they do this or that, they are wrong, and they must be fought against.
C. G. Jung, “Psychology and Religion” in Collected Works, vol. 11
And, in relationship, such a person would also not so easily be able to say “you do this”, “you are wrong”, or things of that sort.
It is mind-boggling what we project on others, and how ready we are to see in them those “shadow” parts of ourselves that we don’t wish to acknowledge. We also project the characteristics of others — mother, father, sibling, etc. – on others in our lives. On top of all that, we make purely archetypal projections: for instance, we can easily project the anima, the animus, the Wise Old Man or the Wise Old Woman.
A Big Challenge
One major challenge in psychotherapy is getting past the projections,and actually seeing the real person in front of us, instead of our unconscious illusory constructs. This takes some doing! To recognize, for instance, that I may be misconstruing my boss as my hyper-critical father (real life Brian-based example here!), is something that takes quite a bit of work to understand — and more to get beyond.
Similarly, recognizing when I have projected aspects of myself that I have difficulty acknowledging on another person, and actively accepting those parts of myself, may take real psychological stamina. I may see aspects of myself — pettiness, intolerance, stubborness — that I don’t like at all. Seeing these, understanding how they came about, and then having compassion for myself while acknowledging that these traits genuinely are part of me may take quite a bit of doing. However, when I can do it, energy for living my life, and a sense of completeness, are liberated within me.
When the Movies Stop: Ending Your Own Projections
Taking back projections is a key part of the work of psychotherapy. While it is demanding, and we often resist it, it brings real vitality, and a deep sense of having been really honest with oneself. Have you ever had the experience of suddenly realizing that the way you have perceived someone else is completely wrong? How about the way that you perceive yourself? In my own experience, acknowledging that certain attitudes or inclinations are part of me has at times been particularly tough, but also full of genuine growth. Entering into real psychotherapy brings this into our lives, giving us a healthier, more authentic relationship with our deepest self and with others.
I welcome your inquiries and comments.
Wishing you every good thing on your journey to wholeness,
Brian Collinson, Psychotherapist & Jungian Analyst
© 2011 Brian Collinson