The dictionary defines Projection as the unconscious transfer of one’s own desires or emotions to another person: We can project our inner struggle onto our partner who may show up to us as a demon who is tormenting us with relentless criticism. When we identify our partner as the source of our misery, our goal is to eliminate their influence. We may accelerate our manipulative strategies in hopes of silencing or changing them, but these tactics rarely work. The manipulations that are fueled by our discomfort brings forth similar responses in our partner and the cycle escalates.
In the midst of the stress, it appears as though our partner is the source of our pain. The truth is that they are actually the trigger that illuminates what is already there. It FEELS like “she is making me feel bad” but what is really going on is that I am allowing myself to open more fully to the feelings that my partner is awakening within me.
Every unwanted part of the self that is denied, results in feelings of anxiety and loss of energy. Over time these feelings can lead to physical and emotional breakdowns, depression, stress-related illnesses, and relationship problems. To the degree that we do not come to terms with our inner life, the overall quality of our life experience will be reduced. Most people who do not recognize the source of this diminishment, so they project blame for their feelings onto others. Those to whom we are most closely related are the most likely to be targeted.
We project our disowned parts of ourselves onto others, often try to change them believing that we’ll be happier if they are different. Not only are these efforts unsuccessful, our attempts diminish the quality of our relationship. Underlying our efforts is the message that we don’t accept this person as they are and they must change in some basic way in order to qualify for our approval. We are not speaking of unacceptable behaviors such as lying, stealing, or deliberately harming others. We are referring to character traits, feelings, or inner qualities that we deem unacceptable, such as exuberance, shyness, anger, sadness, grief, fear, or sensuality.
As we come to recognize our projections, the tendency to automatically attack or withdraw begins to diminish. The ability to remain open, alert, and connected to ourselves even in the face of perceived danger becomes more fully developed. This stance allows for a kind of response that can diffuse conflict through understanding rather than amplify it through resistance.
To take ourselves less seriously, we need to remember that we all have strange and parts (even those people who you think don’t). If we can learn to befriend what we consider to be our inner demons, we will be less afraid of them, they will have less power over us, and we won’t be so tempted to project them on to others. When trying to create a favorable impression, we exaggerate aspects of our personalities and conceal others. Whatever we seek to conceal begins to fill a tiny little pouch into which the five-year-old may have put rage and helplessness. Thirty years later has become a huge, weighty bag overflowing with rejected qualities that the adult has decided must be denied in order to maintain their desired place in the world. The fuller the bag becomes, the more our experience of life is diminished. When we do not recognize the source of this diminishment, we project blame for our feelings onto others.
A surefire way of uncovering our projections is to identify specific qualities about which we have strong negative emotions. Generally, the stronger our reaction, the more likely it is that this quality we resist is actually within us. Although it may appear to be obvious why “anyone in his right mind would agree that their behavior is obnoxious”, try to go deeper into what it is about this particular characteristic that you find offensive. Often when we inquire deeply into these questions, we discover that there may be fear, envy, sadness or some combination that is underneath our judgmental reactions.
Taking back our projections is possible and necessary if we are to ever find peace within ourselves and within our closest relationships. Until we have come to terms with ourselves, our relationships are at risk of relentless wounding. The opportunity in this work is that no other situations provide us with as much feedback as our closest relationships because it is there that our strongest needs, fears and desires are expressed.