The Project of Projection | Emily Hightower

Issue# 41

We all live in a hall of mirrors, projecting our own realities onto what we see. What gets reflected back to us is just what we already believe. It takes a certain special state to learn anything new or to see beyond our own reflections to even begin to understand anything or anyone past our own illusion.

Projection is an unconscious act. We often project our own feelings, emotions, narratives, and ideas onto others. We transpose ourselves onto each other in an effort to make sense of ourselves and to justify our own experience. An easy example of projection is when we look at our dog laying on the couch in the middle of the day, not interacting with anyone, and someone says “She’s SO bored right now”.

Really? Is she bored? How do you know? What if she’s in complete bliss, just relaxing in the ray of sun on the couch, dreaming of steak falling from the sky into her mouth? To see boredom in her is to admit boredom in the Self at the idea of doing nothing on the couch.

What’s actually happening?

In projecting boredom on the dog, we are unintentionally stealing the moment. We can’t wonder at her experience or learn anything new beyond what we already believe; that doing nothing on the couch is SO boring. This isn’t a big deal, until it is. 

Projection is an unconscious and common affair, but sometimes our projections can develop into painful relationship projects that call us to awaken from the dream of ourselves.

What stories do you tell about the people around you? Think of your primary relationship patterns. What have you decided someone’s actions mean? He’s not doing X, she always or never thinks X, he doesn’t care, she thinks she’s being helpful, he’s lazy, she doesn’t listen….

While your experience of the other person is valid, are your ideas about what’s really going on with them true? How do you know? Is there any part of what you’re judging that applies to yourself? If we don’t take the time to check our projections, we end up creating projects out of our relationships; things we need to fix or work on that might not even be real. The real project is looking at our own reflection around our assumptions, where they come from, and what we really desire in the situation.

What we lose

When we’re lost in a projection, we lose objectivity and curiosity, which create that special state that allows us to learn and grow. This means, if we do engage in material with another that is muddled with projections, it’s hard for us to see past our own illusions to create real understanding. When we can check ourselves and our projections, we can begin to create space for another person to have their own experience, and in so doing create new understanding.

This might look like sharing what we notice without judging the other person, and taking ownership of the story we are telling ourselves as we notice them. Then identifying what desire our story points to in ourselves, and if available, making a request of the other person to work with our desires. 

Let’s look at an example

Let’s look at an example. Your partner clams up every night when you ask how their day went. Maybe in their reality, they talk all day at work and enjoy silence as a forom of intimacy. Silence makes you feel like something’s wrong and you feel defensive. You project that they aren’t interested in sharing themselves with you, and they don’t emote well. (really you’re not sharing yourself with them, and not emoting well) This dynamic has become an uncomfortable project where silence, snappiness, and judgment enter an otherwise kind and quiet scene. The next opportunity, you could drop the illusions and communicate your reality without projecting anything onto them. 

“I notice when I ask how your day went, you don’t say much. I realize silence makes me uncomfortable, and tthe story I’m telling myself is that you aren’t interested in me or in sharing your emotions. Is that true for you? What are you experiencing when I ask how your day went?” They might answer that they talk all day at work, and really enjoy comfortable silence with you, or your fear might be true, and they don’t enjoy sharing much with you. Well, now we’re in some territory beyond assumptions and projections. You’re now exploring connecting and maybe understanding instead of blaming and story-making. Without the distortion of projection, you’re able to look at the blueprints of your relationship to decide what to build, what to renovate, or even demolish. It’s scary to let someone have their experience. It’s much easier to project your own reality onto it. 

Beyond projection

When this works, it’s like having the mirror momentarily shatter. We get a glimpse into another’s reality. This is a form of intimacy that is rare and not defined by the false security of our own narratives. It means we are willing to loosen our attachment to our own stories about people long enough to ask questions, be objective, and own our own stuff in the process. 

Setting our dog free to have her own experience without my version of it is the same as setting the person you love free from having to fulfill your version of them. Catching projections can open up a new moment, and revise the project of relationships to be one of mutual respect and curiosity, instead of pushing someone to live out our versions of them. 

What would life be like if the hall of mirrors could shatter into one watery mirror between you and you, and you could poke your head through that surface to glimpse another person’s experience with an open mind, a new moment, and a chance to really ‘see’ past the dream of yourself? I sense that the mirror can only be transcended through the still waters of neutrality, curiosity, and true courage.

I’d like to find out.