February 4, 2018
Like a butterfly,
Flitting here, there.
Touching hearts but
Never being touched.
This is a poem I wrote in high school about a friend with whom I didn’t feel an emotional connection. At least not in a way that was meaningful to me. I was anguished, as only an adolescent can be. We no longer communicate.
I blamed her. Today I know about projection. I now understand that I was writing about myself.
Projection is a theory in psychology in which humans defend themselves against their own unconscious impulses or qualities — both positive and negative — by denying their existence in themselves while attributing them to others.
Projection has at times been the bane of my existence. Understanding it has become a salvation of sorts.
Before I understood it I thought annoying people were standoffish, or ignorant, or simply obnoxious.
Here’s how projection created the troubled relationship with my adolescent friend.
I grew up in a family that was sort of vagabondish. On the surface, we looked good. We wore the right clothes, used proper grammar and my sister and I got good grades. My dad was a dreamer and we moved depending on his whims. Sometimes in the middle of the night, sometimes with a little more warning. I learned early on not to ask a lot of questions, and to blend in to new environments. And to do it without being too standoffish, or too visible.
That ability to blend in turned out to be one of my greatest strengths and one of my greatest weaknesses.
As a strength, it allowed me to fit in almost anywhere.
As a weakness, it has been deeply challenging. A little girl can only suffer so many middle of the night departures without learning to protect herself from the next loss. Knowing that without a moment’s notice I might be leaving wherever we were, I protected myself behind an invisible coat of armor.
Which brings me back to the last line of my poem, never being touched. I thought I was writing that poem about her, but it was really about me! That’s projection.
It seemed to help me feel better if I thought it was her making me feel awful! It took me quite a long time to learn that attributing my fear of closeness to her only made it worse.
In projecting our discomfort onto others, we make it impossible to address something only we can solve by turning our attention to ourselves.
Pema Chodron said, “If we learn to open our hearts, anyone, including the people who drive us crazy, can be our teacher.” You can find her eloquent explanation of projection, Be Grateful to Everybody, here.
Turns out that it hasn’t been as easy as you might think to see my own projections. I hope that this will make it easier for you to see what might be some unfinished business on your end.
As with all my suggestions, I encourage you to be gentle and play with the idea rather than use it as a knife in your back. It’s simply one more tool to better know yourself.
There’s a huge benefit to knowing yourself. When you see that all your judgements are simply a reflection of how you feel about yourself, consciously or unconsciously, your judgements of others fall away. You can see them more clearly. When you stop blaming them for your discomfort, it’s much easier to see their strengths and to remember the reasons that you appreciated them in the first place.
Once I understood projection I realized that I never really knew my friend. I’m glad I didn’t give her the poem. If I had it to do over, I might simply ask her if she experienced me as defending myself from being close. I wonder if that might have saved our relationship?
If you haven’t already, I hope you’ll read Pema’s Be Grateful to Everybody guide to growth. And then sit back, take a breath, and see if you can think of a time when you were projecting. Maybe it’s happening with someone in your life right now. No blaming or shaming of yourself required. Just an opportunity to notice that there may still be a sore spot inside you that requires some loving attention.
If you think of a projection, or have thoughts about this, please comment below. It really helps to know that we’re not alone in this stuff.