Everyone’s reality is different, we know. But what does that mean, really? For famous Swiss psychologist Carl Jung this translates to: “Just as we tend to assume that the world is as we see it, we naively suppose that people are as we imagine them to be.” This, in a nutshell, is the very definition of the art of projecting, which Jung goes on to explain: “There is no scientific test that would prove the discrepancy between perception and reality…we go on naively projecting our own psychology into our fellow human beings. In this way everyone creates for himself a series of more or less imaginary relationships based essentially on projection.”
Of course, our relationships with others aren’t completely imaginary, and Jung isn’t suggesting that. However, in our very real interactions with others, we have an unconscious tendency to take our own thoughts and feelings and assign them to those with whom we interact. The kicker? Because we don’t generally recognize we’re doing this as it’s happening, we start to believe our own story about the other person.
“We’re not given a lot of tools to help us learn to acknowledge and accept our own uncomfortable feelings,” says Ryan Dawson, a psychotherapist in Boulder, Colorado, and adjunct professor at Naropa University. “When we don’t have those tools, we’re more likely to project our feelings outward rather than acknowledge them.”
While we often project onto strangers and acquaintances, it can be especially easy to project onto those who are closest to us. Everyone can admit that our loved ones are usually the bearers of the brunt of our bad moods. Dawson says projections we make onto our partners and family members is what contributes to a lot of conflict in relationships.
“We have habitual ways of relating to those who are closest to us,” he says. Take, for example, a family dinner, when you and your siblings are all back at your childhood kitchen table. Because your interactions with your family are so engrained, it’s easy to slip back into old roles that feel familiar—which makes it tougher to pull back and notice that what you’re feeling isn’t actually about your brother or mother; it’s that you’re feeling vulnerable, perhaps, or angry. “When there are familiar or habitual ways of relating, that makes noticing that we’re projecting our own feelings onto others harder,” says Dawson, warning that this sets us up to stay in that pattern of projection.
While projecting our own “stuff” onto others isn’t exactly ideal, it’s important not to beat yourself up for doing it. After all, at the heart of this unconscious tendency is a defense mechanism. It’s simply us trying to protect some part of ourselves, and that’s inherently OK. “It’s just that a lot of times, this defense mechanism doesn’t actually serve us,” Dawson says. So, instead of avoiding projecting, which may be impossible, Dawson recommends you learn to notice and own what you are feeling in the present moment, and have compassion for yourself when the tough emotions comes up.
“We all do this—often. The more we can slow down and notice when we’re hooked into a story about someone else that feels especially charged or emotional, simply look at it as a sign to take a breath and ask yourself, ‘What am I actually needing right now? What am I not willing to feel that’s uncomfortable?’” says Dawson. “When you can acknowledge that you will project—and work toward developing a practice that helps you slow down and notice when you’re doing it—it gives you a chance to reflect inward instead of projecting outward.”
Here, Dawson outlines a few signs that can help you notice when you’re slipping into a pattern of projection.
1. You feel especially charged.
Do you feel hyper-emotional? Are you having a visceral reaction (i.e., heart racing) to someone or something that others can’t quite understand? One of the signs that you’re projecting something onto someone else is if there’s intensity around your experience, says Dawson. If this is the case, ask yourself if what you’re experiencing is really about the other person—or if your own feelings and thoughts are at play.
2. A situation feels “sticky.”
Most of the time when we have a reaction to someone, we have our experience and then it dissipates quickly. Sometimes we’re even able to recognize that we’ve misjudged someone, and after we acknowledge that (possibly even directly to the person), we’re able to move on. However, if an interaction feels “sticky,” says Dawson—when it lingers long after you walk away—or if you feel rigid or stuck in one idea of how another person is, it can be something to look at. “The difference between projection and common error is that an error can be corrected, without difficulty, by better information—and then dissolve like morning fog in the sunlight,” writes Marie-Luise von Franz in the book Projection and Re-collection in Jungian Psychology: Reflections of the Soul. “In the case of a projection, on the other hand, the subject doing the projecting defends himself, in most cases strenuously, against correction.”
3. You’re putting someone on a pedestal.
While we often think of projection as negative, there’s also positive projection. For example, you might have an interaction with someone and think that person is amazing, marveling at how he or she is able to “have it all” or come across as so intelligent and charismatic. While this kind of positive projection may seem harmless, it can also be tricky, says Dawson. “A lot of times when we’re projecting something positive, it’s because we’re not willing to own our own greatness, or to see something wonderful within ourselves,” he says.
So, How Can We Start to Look Inward?
Breaking down your projections takes attention and self-awareness, which is why it’s important to look at this as a practice, and not something that you can master immediately.
The first step toward understanding when you’re projecting is to ask yourself, What’s my piece to own in this?
“We are all responsible for our own emotions,” says Dawson. So, if you notice yourself blaming something on someone else or projecting your own thoughts or feelings onto another, take a step back: What are you needing right now or not acknowledging? The goal, says Dawson, is to bring the focus back to your experience rather than focusing on others.
To do this, try to remove yourself from the situation when you find yourself projecting. You might take a walk, or simply go to the bathroom. Creating physical space will help you dive inward. Next, do anything that brings you into the present moment. “The quickest way to do that is through your body,” says Dawson. You might shift your attention to something you hear or see, or bring your mind into connection with your breath. “Focusing on your own experience of the present moment will help you get off the train of focusing on other person,” says Dawson.
Finally, ask yourself a few important questions:
What am I needing right now?
What do I not want to feel right now?
What feels familiar to me about this situation?
Once again, your answers to these prompts can help you see what’s really going on for you underneath your knee-jerk reactions.
Overall, Dawson stresses the importance of being kind to yourself as you develop this practice of looking inward and start to work through the thoughts and emotions that come up. “Recognize that this is something we aren’t taught how to do,” he says. If you can begin to get curious about your patterns, bring your focus inward and start to own your own experience, that’s a big win.