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How Projections Mess With Your Relationship

The idea of projection is often banded about these days but what does it really mean and how does it affect your life and personal relationships?

Whether you realise it or not, we have all been at the other end of someone else’s projections - whether it be a work colleague, partner, family member, or a random stranger in the shop. When we are trying to move towards our own authenticity though, learning to be curious and aware of those moments when we are projecting, what it means for your relationship and what you can do about it.

Projection is a defence mechanism that happens when we try and get rid of something about ourselves that we don’t like by attributing those characteristics to someone else. Think of it as chucking our flaws into a trash bin - except the trash bin is another person - and then trying to jam the lid shut.

In order for us to understand how projection works we first need to take a look at Jung’s idea of the unconscious and our Shadow. The human psyche organises ideas, images, sensations and emotions. Jung believed that our psyche is split into two parts: the conscious and the unconscious. Sometimes our memories stay in our consciousness but sometimes they are pushed into our unconscious because they are unpleasant, traumatic or painful - we effectively move them into another room and lock the door but they are still there.

Jung said that the collective unconscious is a much deeper layer of the unconscious which is not made up of personal experiences but is instead a layer of the psyche which is universal and present in each of us. Basically, we are all born with this inherited unconsciousness where universal experiences, patterns, images, symbols and mythological associations are stored. In here you will find what Jung referred to as the the archetypes which are viewed as a deep background of the psyche, a shared perspective of meaning about, for example, mortality, love, aggression and human connection. Jung claimed that we have dominant archetypes: the shadow, anima and animus, persona, earth mother, maiden, witch, wise old man and the organising dominant archetype - the Self.

So now that we understand how Jung thought our conscious and unconsciousness was organised, and what it contained, we can look at one of his main archetypes - the Shadow. If it sounds a bit like something out of a Victorian novel, well, you’d be right, because it’s what the famous book 'Jekyll and Hyde' is based on. Your Shadow is made up of the undesirable/unwanted parts of ourselves, which perhaps we feel shameful about, and therefore they get pushed into our unconscious. Our Shadow is normally regarded as the darker parts of the Self and they can appear to us in our dreams, often in a threatening form. So the next time you dream of being chased by something scary, consider that it may not be a person or thing whom you’re afraid of, or because you watched a scary movie before you went to bed, but that it could in fact be an aspect of yourself that you are finding hard to accept. Our Shadows can influence our behaviour, feelings and thoughts about ourselves without us even realising it, and because it is in our unconscious it can also cause us to project the undesirable characteristics of our Shadow on or into another person.

When we project ‘onto’ someone this means that the partner who is being accused refuses to accept these accusations and probably an argument ensues - if you're partner is the vending machine then the accusation is the money, you keep spitting that money right back out at the person putting it in. Projecting ‘into’ another person means that the partner being accused begins to question their own behaviour and starts wondering whether they really have done something wrong! They question their whole moral fibre and…bingo! The accuser has got rid of their own yucky, guilty feelings and attributed them to someone else to deal with as if they were their own.

So, I can guess what your next question will be - If this all happens unconsciously how do I make sure that I don’t project my undesirable parts onto someone else and how on earth do I stop people doing it to me?

Well, Jung believed that the ‘Self’- the person we show to the world - is our persona, which in Latin means 'mask'. It is the social part of our Self which we direct outwards, in order to fit with societal norms and protect the ego (Jung, 1983). An over-identification with the persona can lead to a disconnection with our cohesive whole selves.

The Self is the central archetype of the psyche and matures through the integration of the conscious and unconscious, and can be regarded either as a return to, or process of constructing from new - '...a numinous image of psychic wholeness.' (Gullatz, 2010). Similar to Maslow's concept of Self-Actualisation (Rowan, 1998) the path towards individuation is a journey of growth towards a cohesive Self; it requires the confrontation of that which lies within our unconscious - 'It is a path of resurrection of the true self ...finding the ‘missing other’ within and facing the shadow...' (Shellinski, 2014:207). The hero inside each of us must answer the call of individuation (Hollis, 1993) but a feeling of being stuck at a certain point of the process is caused by the inability to bring certain parts of the personality, including the underdeveloped archetypes, into consciousness.

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