Here’s one example of how I’ve experienced projection. After years of dreamwork I learned that I have a harsh inner critic who loves to lambast me with negative self-talk. I call him my Spiritual Bully. He says things to me like, “That was a stupid remark! How thoughtless can you be?” Or “You think you’re so smart but nobody else sees things the way you do.” Or, “Did you hear that mean thought you just had? What a hypocrite you are, Miss Compassionate Person!” He gained his power over me by feeding off the self-doubt of my inner wounded child who believes she is basically unlovable and unworthy. How she got that way is another story.
So several years ago I was working on a project with some unusually spiritual, accomplished and intelligent women. Over time I noticed that one whom I particularly admired had a tendency to say things to me that felt like mean, personal put-downs, especially about my thinking, writing, and teaching on psychological and spiritual matters: subjects I considered my areas of expertise. Her comments hurt me very much and it became increasingly difficult to contain my anger.
Feeling this angry at a casual acquaintance was a new experience for me. I knew from my Jungian studies that my strong response to her meant there must be a part of me that was like a part of her, but I couldn’t imagine what it was. One day when we were alone I finally told her how angry I was about a comment she had made in response to an observation of mine. She was flabbergasted! She had no idea she had said something hurtful and asked me if I would let her know the next time it happened!
That’s when I finally got it that she was as well-meaning as I was and we both had a somewhat intellectually proud and spiritually critical shadow of which neither was aware. Ouch! Others saw these tendencies in her too—no doubt they likewise saw them in me—but no one I knew seemed to have the problem with her that I did. Why was I so sensitive? Because her comments confirmed my Spiritual Bully’s criticisms of me. Since I couldn’t see him in myself I couldn’t get angry at him for causing me so much pain, but I sure could get angry at her! As you can well imagine, it was tough accepting the truth about this particular inner space alien!
Another example. The family of a man I once knew told me he was very controlling. One day he attended a workshop I led on the shadow. After an exercise in which attendees were to list 5 people they had problems with and why, he said the people on his list were very controlling. “This can’t be right,” he said somewhat defensively and indignantly. “I’m not the least bit controlling and everyone knows these people are, so how could they represent a part of me?” See?
So how can we discover our projections? By noticing our emotions. Anything that evokes a strong emotional response in us is related to one of our unconscious issues or complexes as Jung called them, and we project parts of these onto others! We love who we love or hate who we hate because in them we see qualities we suspect might belong to us as well. The stronger the emotion, the more unconscious the projection. We don’t want to believe in projection because we don’t want to see the shadows lurking in our inner space. But there are several very good reasons why we should learn to recognize them. I’ll share some next time.