Projection is one of the most important concepts to understand when you’re stuck in relationship anxiety or any manifestation of anxiety. It’s a psychological term that essentially means we’re stuck in a story about someone or something else with the belief that it’s true, and that if the person or thing would change we would feel better. Everyone will, at some point, find themselves stuck in a projection; it’s part of being human. Projections are a bit challenging to define and even more challenging to see when you’re in one. In Wikipedia’s words:
“Psychological projection or projection bias (including Freudian Projection) is the unconscious act of denial of a person’s own attributes, thoughts, and emotions, which are then ascribed to the outside world, such as to the weather, the government, a tool, or to other people… Projection is considered one of the most profound and subtle of human psychological processes, and extremely difficult to work with because, by its nature, it is hidden. It is the fundamental mechanism by which we keep ourselves uninformed about ourselves.”
In plain-speak, here are some common ways that projection manifests:
I’m not attracted to my partner. That must mean I’m with the wrong person.
I hate being a mother.
I hate my baby.
I would be happier if ….. (I had a different job, house, partner, car).
My friend must be thinking something awful about me otherwise she would have called me back.
My partner doesn’t love me anymore because she hasn’t wanted to have sex in a while.
You can see that with many of these examples there’s an initial fact – like your partner didn’t feel like having sex – and then there’s the story that you overlay onto the fact. That story is the projection.
“The more unconscious we are, the more we project,” writes Jungian analyst James Hollis in his book The Middle Passage (my current bible). This isn’t a judgement on one’s spiritual or psychological evolution but merely a statement to help us see where we’re stuck. The gift of projection is that it’s an invitation toward consciousness, but in order to accept the invitation we must be willing to take full responsibility for our well-being. That means that we stop blaming others for our pain and expecting others to make us feel alive. No small task, to be sure. It’s a hero’s journey, a monumental transition in itself, when we make the leap from blame to responsibility. For some people, it never happens, and they will remain stuck in the stories that others are responsible for their pain. But for many others that leap into responsibility – and it’s not usually a one-time leap but a choice that happens daily or monthly – signifies the moment or moments when the projection falls away. Another way of saying Hollis’ quote is, “The more conscious we are, the less we projection.” Again, the gift of projection is the gift of consciousness.
Relationship anxiety is, fundamentally, a form of projection. Projection is the doorway into consciousness, but if we refuse the call and insist on remaining stuck in the projection we will remain stuck in the original manifestation of anxiety for a long time. As long as you’re still projecting onto your loving, available, caring partner you’re missing the opportunity to embrace your wounds and your gifts. As I state in one of the most frequently read pinned posts on the e-course forum entitled, “The Crucial Difference Between Those Who Transform Their Anxiety and Those Who Remain Stuck” (over 9,500 views):
It’s the degree to which you pull the projection off of your partner and detach from the thought that your anxiety is because you’re with the wrong person.
Those who detach from this thought and take 100% responsibility for their anxiety inevitably do the deeper work of excavating what lies underneath the anxiety.
Those who are addicted to the thought that they need to leave in order to find serenity will remain stuck.
It’s as simple as that.
And, yes, I understand it’s not simple at all. There are good reasons why people remain addicted to the projection, and that’s where the work needs to begin. But you will not transform unless every time you think, “I’m with the wrong partner. I don’t really love him/her. I need to leave,” you counter those thoughts with, “I’m scared. This isn’t about my partner. What am I really scared of? What feelings are these thoughts covering up? What needs attention inside?”
When I say “doing the work”, what I mean is doing the work of taking responsibility. Journaling about how annoyed you are at your partner, for example, will only entrench the irritation, but dialoguing with this part of you that is projecting your inner restlessness or boredom onto your partner in the form of irritation will be a fruitful endeavor that will lift you once notch out of unconsciousness into consciousness. There are many other elements to doing this work, which is what I teach in depth in the course.
The gift of projection is that when we’re triggered we’re given the opportunity to see our blind spots, or our places of unconsciousness. If we take projection at face value and assume that it means what ego thinks it means, we remain perpetually stuck at first-layer living, never moving beyond the mindset that others are responsible both for our pain and our joy. But when we catch the projection by calling it onto the mat by it’s true name (“I’m in a projection right now. It feels real but I know it’s not”), we harvest its jewels, which are fundamentally the jewels of consciousness.
This phenomena – that we need others in order to see our stuck places and blind spots – illuminates one of the beautiful truths about being human: we need each other in order to grow. Other humans are our mirrors, and just like we can never see our faces without a literal mirror, so we can never see the true nature of our souls in their light and darkness without other humans.
Of course all of this hinges on adopting a mindset of growth instead of remaining fused with the ego-based characters of Perfection, Helpless Victim, and Resistance. We all have these characters inside of us, and they assume dominance in varying degrees at different stages of our lives, but if we’re going to grow beyond our pain and see anxiety and projection as the messengers that they are, we must reach down into the river that runs beneath these fear-based characters – the river of Soul – so that we can get on top of them and connect to our desire to grow. When the desire to grow overpowers our fear of change we can push the blocks of resistance out of the way and walk through the doorway that leads to our next notch of growth. This can happen in a moment or over time, but happen it must. One moment at a time, one dialogue at a time, one decision at a time, we take the reins from fear and decide to take full responsibility for our well-being. The projection bursts and we can then harvest its gems, bathe ourselves in the light of consciousness, and continue on our path of learning how to love.