For fans of the unconventional, if you’ve never delved into the epic wisdom of Carl Jung, I highly suggest checking out his work! To pique your interest, we’ll chat about one concept he proposed that'll likely provide you with a mind-blowing ah-ha moment--or set of a chain reaction of life-changing ah-ha moments! This concept definitely did the latter for me!
A quick background on this 20th Century change-maker: Jung, born in the late 19th century, shook up the worlds of psychology and psychiatry, providing a move away from rigid scientific structure to include more open-minded, even mystical approaches to these fields. The research he did made way for the transformative practices of mindfulness, meditation and positive psychology to enter the modern psychology world. Today, Jung’s theories help us understand personality, behavior and the mysteries of the unconscious mind more deeply.
The main nugget of wisdom I want to share here is one that truly has the power to transform and empower your life.
Just understanding this concept and seeing it at work in your life can change the way you relate to yourself and others--if you give it the chance to.
Prepare for some mind-warping, head tripping goodness, called “Perception is Projection.”
If you've heard of this concept, cool! There might still be some impactful learnings here for you to unearth!
If you’ve never heard of this concept, here it is in a nutshell: Jung found that everything our mind perceives as “reality” is actually a projection of our own experience, not necessarily a representation of what is happening in the physical world.
Our psyche projects onto other people and our outward experience everything that’s happening inside us...
Just let that soak in for a second.
Your mind might enter a confused state. When I learned this, it almost filled me with an anxiety. I thought okay well what’s really real then?! Nothing?!
To an extent, that’s true. But it doesn’t mean you don’t have connection with other people or that everything you experience is some sort of lie. It means that usually what we perceive is not exactly as we perceive it. It’s the whole saying: “There’s more than meets the eye” and this concept encourages us not to take everything we experience at face value.
This can be helpful certainly in times of conflict or misunderstanding or when someone says something hurtful to you that is really just not about you. It encourages us to widen perspective and expand our own awareness.
Once you get past that confusion stage, there's clarity. You realize this also means you have so much control over the reality you perceive and create. There’s a sense of empowerment and freedom in knowing how much power you really have over your experience.
Why are we projecting outwards?
Humans are so complex! We project for a few reasons. For one, projecting serves as a defense mechanism known as cognitive dissonance.
Often, as we’re growing up, some part of our true self conflicts with what the world wants of us or who we’re told to be. Our minds get confused with this input, not knowing what is true or how to behave.
The mind doesn’t like this ambiguity so it compartmentalizes, tucking away parts of you in order to “fit in” with what’s expected. When we stifle our own qualities, they don’t just hide away. We start to project these qualities outwards and onto other people. Oftentimes, we’ll project our best qualities outwards because it doesn’t feel safe to own them.
These are the qualities of our light side, but we also project so we can shy away from our shadow side, or our “darkness.” When we project, we don’t have to take responsibility for our darkness and we can play small or stay in our comfort zone by not owning our light.
In projecting both our shadow and light, we don’t need to take ownership of either. This is again, safe. It’s scary to own the shadow and perhaps even scarier to own the light because the light can seem harder to identify with. We tend to be overly identified with all the things that are “wrong with us” and refuse to believe we can be that person we actually aspire to be.
The light projections are the qualities that we admire or even hero worship in other people, but again often refuse to own as qualities of our own. You may not believe me on this one. I had a hard time really believing that myself at first.
But one of the most powerful things I heard when I was learning this concept was: “You wouldn’t be able to recognize this [quality, trait, behavior] in someone else if it didn’t already exist in you.”
WOAH. Talk about mind-blown. I believed that I could be those qualities if I wanted to be. I believed that through dedication and practice, I could make these qualities part of my life. But I definitely wasn’t thinking I could own them as an inherent, natural parts of who I was. Somehow this idea gave me a newfound permission to actually own these qualities, reclaiming those parts of myself that I so admired in others and had thought existed inherently in them, not in me.
The same is true for our shadow selves, which we may not want to hear! The ugly qualities we name in other people are actually the disowned or rejected parts of ourselves.
These are the things that irritate you the most about other people.
We also project these aspects outwards so we don’t have to own and accept these parts of ourselves that feel unworthy of love or acceptance.
And believe me, I know it might completely strike a nerve to hear someone say that you embody the exact thing you despise or are irritated by in others. You may initially react with denial and defensiveness. And that’s okay. It may take a bit to process.
But as you process, there may be a little part of you that knows this is striking a chord for a reason. Likely, you’ve enacted the same behavior at some point, shown the same trait, or are capable of doing so in certain situations.
But before you beat yourself up: This is not meant to bring on the guilt or shame. I think that is a common, human reaction once you realize all the things you think are so awful about other people actually exist in you.
You may feel like woah, so I’m really the crappy one--or the one to blame? Which is so not the point! Blame doesn’t even need to go anywhere or be assigned to anyone.
The point is that knowing what’s really going on gives you the ability to own the situations you face and take power back instead of putting it outside yourself. Instead of assigning blame, you can take responsibility for everything you experience and open the door to a greater freedom.
Not only is this realization humbling and freeing, but it can also generate greater compassion for yourself and others when you realize that the way people treat you in fact has nothing to do with you, but very much to do with them and how they’re processing the world.
Jung suggests then, that to know ourselves completely, we look at our views of others, the interactions we have with others and the world around us and ask ourselves: What does this mean for me?
Jung says: “The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely.” And that’s what a huge part of this practice is: finding true, whole self-acceptance by owning and integrating all your parts, light and dark.
Once you’re able to start doing this for yourself, you can do the same for others. Judge less. Understand more.
When you understand your own projections, you can find understanding amidst conflict, find compassion for yourself and others and invite greater peace, joy and freedom into your life. Not to mention, relationships can get a whole lot more fulfilling!
So how do you make this shift? How do you know your own projections?
Here are some practices to help you get started:
To awaken to the projections you create, practice knowing yourself: What makes you tick? What are the things that others do or say that annoy you or that you feel envious of? Often the things we feel envious of are actually parts of us we may be denying. Does this ring true for any part of your experience?
When something happens that bothers you, upsets you, annoys you, ask yourself: What does this have to do with me? Is it an expectation I have--or that I am placing on another person? Is there a need I'm looking to be met? To be seen, heard, loved, etc.?
Think about five people you admire most. Write down the qualities you admire most about them. See what qualities they have in common and start the practice of embodiment. You can start with one quality and write what it would look like, feel like, sound like for you to own and embody this quality in your own life. Write about how owning and embodying this quality will change your life. Finally make a list of actions you can take every day to help you embody this quality. Once you act, you'll start to own it--even if you're taking only one of these actions each day.
Keep finding the courage to face the things you may not want to, taking responsibility where you may be blaming others or blaming yourself for things that go wrong. And be kind to yourself through this entire process.
Jung says: “Your vision will only become clear when you look into your heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens."
We’re all on this awakening journey, which is really an awakening to self: integrating shadows and light and knowing that all we are is inherently good and whole.
Where are you on your awakening journey?