By Suzanne E. Harrill
As the holiday season is here, we have extra opportunities to socialize with family and friends. I just spent Thanksgiving with my three daughters and their families. Even when family gatherings are a good time, it can be stressful with more things to do adding to our busy calendars. To stretch our time we usually give up our free time and get lax about paying attention to our own needs. Then again, it is inevitable that certain personalities will rub us the wrong way at times and conflict will arise. The extra time demands and the way others are can’t be changed, however, we can use these situations to grow in self-awareness.
Why not use the things that show up in your life that you do not like as an opportunity for growth? For example, when we do not like something about another we can use them as our mirrors reflecting our own hidden issues. The mirrors can be a direct match with one of our traits or the other person may act out a polarity that is one of our own habits, attitudes, behaviors, or issues. Even if we do not see these things in ourselves, we would not react unless we had something in common with the person or situation triggering us. I’ve talked about projection before. It is one of the most important methods of doing inner work on myself. Let us review projection and see how we can learn about ourselves by seeing our reflection in others.
What is projection? It is a psychological defense mechanism where a person subconsciously denies his or her own attributes, thoughts, and emotions. They are then placed on someone else. Through imagining or projecting, the belief, attitude, or behavior seems to originate in another. This protects us from having to own these in our own personalities. If for example, I may overreact to a family member that I see has controlling behavior. I see their control issues and as I have labeled that trait as “bad.” I prefer to see myself with the opposite “good” traits of being flexible, allowing, and not having high expectations. Since I now know about projection I can use this reaction to look at my own issues of control. As I do this (not during the Turkey Day gathering), I find over time to be less upset and short with the person I view as controlling.
Mirroring from others can also show up in a polarity. When we react to annoying behaviors, words, or issues seen in another, it does not have to be a direct reflection. We might be acting out the flip side of the same coin or issue. For example, you may like that you are a neat, tidy, and organized person. Preparing for a family holiday dinner held at your house reminds you that your partner has different standards when you ask for help setting the stage. You asked for help in setting the table and loose your temper when the table setting is disorganized and not up to your standards. Again, this is a perfect opportunity to see something about yourself that you are unaware of have forgotten. Start by seeing there is an issue for you involving neatness and tidiness. Take it further and see that both you and your partner are acting out extremes of the same pattern. You may need to consider lowering your standards when you turn over a task to another. This will limit the usual argument between you and your partner that usually arises in similar situations because you will not be setting yourself up for disappointment. By seeing a middle-ground with your side of the pattern may give you a more comfortable place to live. Also own that you may be disorganized in another area of your life such as your business filing and record keeping. I should mention here that this is a gradual process and usually takes time.
Let’s look further. What is the purpose of the psychological defense mechanism of projection? Projection reduces anxiety. It allows a person to express the unwanted unconscious patterns, behaviors, attitudes, impulses or desires without letting the conscious mind recognize them. Sometimes one is not ready to own their whole personality make up. There may be too many issues to heal at once or they may be dealing with other stressful events in their life that takes precedence with their time and attention.
Imagine a person blames another for their failures. Their mind avoids the discomfort of consciously admitting personal faults and self-failure. By keeping those feelings at bay and unconscious, she redirects and attaches the same faults onto another. It takes the pressure off themselves. Those of us who ware on the healing journey want to take responsibility for our lives and that means being brutally honest with ourselves.
A short history is that Sigmund Freud developed this theory of projection as a defense mechanism. One of his students, Carl Jung, developed his own theories on the subject and coined the term “the shadow.” It is part of the unconscious mind, consisting of repressed weaknesses, shortcomings, and instinct that are denied and then seen in other people.
There are three main ways to know when your shadow is operating and therefore giving you the opportunity to look at self and grow more aware. Notice when you are reactive, when you are stuck in life and don’t see options, or when you are surrounded by others who all have a similar issue in common.
If you want to read more, I recommend two books: A Little Book on the Human Shadow, by Robert Bly and The Dark Side of the Night Chasers, by Debbie Ford. Both can help you understand ways to take responsibility for your own life and lessen the need to project things outside of self.
Author Harvel Hendrex applies projection to relationships and he developed Imago Theory. He has two books that explain his theory, How to Find the Love You Want for singles and How to Keep the Love Your Find for couples. He explains that we project our ideal image onto our partner, especially in the beginning of a relationship. When we become disillusioned with the other person it is because we begin to see the other for who they are and not who we made them up to be.
Many new relationships try to be and fulfill each other’s wishes. Over time this image (projection from the other) cannot be maintained. The power struggle stage in a relationship may include trying to get partner to return behaviors expressed during infatuation times. To build self-awareness, we can release staying stuck in our ideal or imago. We can choose to see our own issues and wounds from the past showing up in the mirrors of our close relationships that need to be addressed and healed.
Notice when you make assumptions about any one during the holidays. Assumptions are projections too. Any time we assume anything about another without checking it out, it is a projection. The Third Agreement in the book, The Four Agreements by Miguel Ruiz explains this well. He says:
1. We make assumptions about what others are doing or thinking and then take it personally. Then we blame them and react as if our projection is true. As we misinterpret and misunderstand it can cause major rifts in our relationships.
2. Many times in a relationship we assume our partner will do what we want because they know us so well. Therefore, we feel we do not have to say anything about what we want or are feeling. Wrong. You must express yourself to have a healthy relationship.
3. Why do we make assumptions? Assumptions answer the questions our minds continually make up. The assumptions make us feel safe. It replaces communication. Not good.
4. How do we move past assumptions? Ask questions when do not understand. Take risks to find your voice and ask for what you want. Allow the other to say yes or no to your requests. Allow others to ask you for what they want; remember you have the right to say yes or no also. Asking questions creates clear communication.
Here are some points to ponder as you grow in understanding projection and mirroring. You can grow in self-awareness by studying your reflection in the mirrors provided by others’ behaviors and attitudes, both positive and negative. Remember it sometimes is a direct mirror and sometimes a polarity.
When two people meet, a process of engagement occurs to determine whether the two have anything in common worth exploring. Characteristics that you respond to in others reflect existing or potential parts or issues within yourself, though often at the unconscious level.
Partners in a relationship have reciprocal patterns and issues that “plug into" each other. The opportunity for growth is to heal and grow past the patterns from the conditioning of the past. Close relationships mirror unfinished business — from childhood, from former relationships, from belief patterns and from unprocessed feelings. When you stay unaware and stuck in the past relying on the perceptions of the wounded "inner child," then people currently in your life are apt to trigger negative responses.
In summary, Qualities and behaviors we like and dislike in others can be used for inner work to give us feedback about our own psychological makeup. Close relationships are the perfect ground on which to heal projections. Mirrors can be positive too. We also disown such qualities as powerfulness, the ability to create money, nurturing tendencies and certain emotions. Once the door of awareness opens and we stop denying what is inside of us, we can begin to accept and transform our shadow side. We are then ready to live a more mature life and experience more mature loving relationships.
Mirroring can be an inner game you use to expand self-awareness. You never have to be bored if you observe others to see what you can learn about yourself. Learn where you protect yourself from yourself by projecting your issues onto others. It feels good and is more relaxing to limit the need to project. The goal is to take responsibility for your own life and well-being and not to take others too seriously. Remember clear, clean, communicate builds good relationships - ask questions in to avoid assuming anything that is not true. It is empowering to know yourself and have healthy relationships that match us. Allow the holiday season to be the perfect milieu for self-discovery.