After breakfast, I complain about people’s rudeness and their insensitivity, invoking a gentler, kinder, more respectful world in which everyone is as kind, sweet, and mindful of others as I.
Later that day, in the kitchen, my husband extends his hand to gently touch my shoulder and get my attention. In the middle of making dinner, I impatiently shrug at his touch and turn a frowning face in his direction, “What do you want?” I ask irritably.
My daughter laments that the household is too large and noisy, and that she craves peace and quiet and can’t get it here; that it’s impossible to be happy when she’s surrounded by such noisy, difficult people.
The next morning, while the rest of us are still waking up, reading quietly or just sitting, enjoying the morning light, this same daughter clomps downstairs noisily, her hands full of clinking, dirty cups and glasses from her bedroom. She slams open the dishwasher, noisily loading dishes, calls loudly to her dog, opens and closes doors forcefully, and calls across the room to a sibling. She moves briskly from one end of the room to the other, house slippers slapping against the floor, scattering papers and energy as she goes. She is oblivious to her own manifesting dervish, her personal lack of peacefulness, quiet, and calm.
These are just a few examples of projection, the compulsion to attribute to others the feelings, thoughts, and attitudes present in oneself, but to which one seeks to remain unconscious. A primary mechanism of the psyche, projection literally means “to throw before or ahead of oneself,” from the Latin pro+jacere. As Jung often pointed out, what we refuse to look at consciously manifests unconsciously: or, as Jesus taught, what is hidden will come to light.
I’m reading a book about the middle passage of life, the passage from what the author, James Hollis, calls the first adulthood and the second adulthood. During the first adulthood, he writes, we are little more than children in grownup bodies. We’re attached to fantasies, roles given us by others, dreams, and projections. Who we are, what we do, our happiness and unhappiness, all arise outside of ourselves in the first childhood. To whatever degree we are unconscious, sleepwalkers in our own lives, to that degree we project our energy onto others through blames, longings, wishes, expectations, judgments, “shoulds” and demands.
I call this the “if only. . .” life:
- If only I could leave this job, then I’d be happy.
- If only she would stop persecuting me, then I’d be happy.
- If only I could take a vacation, then I’d be happy.
- If only I could have my own house, then I’d be happy.
- If only I hadn’t married him, then I’d be happy.
- If only I had children, then I’d be happy.
- If only I’d never had children, then I’d be happy.
- If only she would stop carping at me, then I’d be happy.
- If only I could get away from my parents, then I’d be happy.
- If only I’d gotten that degree, then I’d be happy.
- If only they liked me, then I’d be happy.
- If only I could have that new _______, then I’d be happy.
- If only I could have more money, then I’d be happy.
- If only I could finish this project/assignment/job, then I’d be happy.
Happiness is just around the corner, down that path, over that hill, en route with Prince Charming and riding on a white horse, to wisk us off our feet and to save us from having to take personal responsibility for our own selves. It is never as near as my self, inside me, or “. . .very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it” (Deuteronomy 30:14, NASB).
Jungian psychologist and writer Marie-Louise von Franz identified five stages of projection:
- The person is convinced that the inner, unconscious experience is truly outer.
- The person gradually recognizes a discrepancy between the reality and the projected image.
- The person is required to acknowledge the discrepancy.
- The person is driven to conclude that he was somehow in error originally.
- The person must search for the origin of the projected energy within himself.
Only by “rendering the contents of the projections conscious” does a person take “a large step toward emancipation from childhood” and into the real, conscious, adult self (Hollis 32).
My question today is: What’s your fairy tale? What story in your life begins with “Once upon a time,” and what happiness depends on a Prince Charming to manifest? What was the last event that made you seethe, and what story did you tell yourself about it?
Hollis, James. The Middle Passage: From Misery to Meaning in Midlife. Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books, 1993.
von Franz, Marie-Louise. Projection and Re-Collection in Jungian Psychology: Reflections of the Soul. LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1988.