Projections, the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly – Part 2

In part 1, I discussed the general concept of projections and went through and example to illustrate the good and the bad. If you haven’t read it, I recommend doing so, because it will make this information more meaningful. Check out part 1 here. Now on with…

The Ugly:

The ugly is what happens to relationships when projections are accepted as facts, yet they are actually not true from the other person’s standpoint. The sudden realization that people are not on the same page they thought they were, typically leads directly into unhealthy communication dynamics.

When someone doesn’t agree with the way we see or experience things, it’s natural to have a negative internal response, especially when the person is a close friend. All sorts of thoughts can come up in our mind, such as “maybe we are not as similar to me as I thought” or “you don’t understand me as well as I thought you did” or perhaps the even more dysfunctional, “you’re supposed to be my friend and take my side,” etc. 

The reality is none of these thoughts are probably true, it’s just that different people have different experiences and everyone is entitled to have their own experience. Nothing we feel or experience for ourselves should change that. One of the hardest and most important things we can do in connection with other people is to allow them to have completely different experiences from us.

More challenging is that we have to avoid making them wrong for having the experience they did, even if it’s so different from ours that it may not make any sense to us. Telling someone that what they experienced is wrong or that they have the wrong interpretation of what happened (and they need to see it your way) is an incredibly painful experience for a lot of people and often causes a strong defensive or negative response. 

That doesn’t mean you have to accept their experience as true for you, just accept that they believe it’s true for them. Both interpretations, no matter how different they are, are both true to each person, yet we have a very hard time accepting someone else’s version of events as true for them, without feeling like our version is wrong. This is especially true if emotions are high or the experience was triggering.

This conflict so often causes people to feel like they have to defend their experience and make the other person accept their view of events. Even worse is when people try to make the other person admit in some way that their view is wrong, as opposed to allowing both to be true. I won’t go into the specifics here as it could be an article on it’s own, but simply say this is one of the most effective ways to destroy any relationship. 

The Big Picture:

Projections are a part of life. We all do them in positive and negative ways. Also, you can project positive or negative traits and beliefs onto other people. You can just as easily project a positive intention onto a negative behavior as a negative intention onto what was actually a positive one. The important thing is to always remember they are projections and assumptions and we never really know how accurate they are, unless there is open and honest communication about them.

To give you an example of how much projections and not talking about them can blind us from the truth, I want to share an experience from my life. I was in a relationship for over 20 years and by all accounts it seemed like a wonderful relationship. I think we both probably thought it was, especially for the first 15 years or so. 

A friend who knew me back then told me (after the relationship was over) he remembered thinking we were probably the most in sync couple he had ever seen. Either we were going to have a lifelong relationship with minimal problems or something would happen to throw a wrench in the system and everything would fall apart. Well, the latter happened.

I won’t go into details, but I will say that for most of our relationship we basically never fought or argued about anything. We loved, cared for, and were there for each other and we wanted to be. We both had a very logical and practical approach to decision making and things were easy and just made sense. We felt like we were always on the same page and everything just seemed to flow. 

Naturally, we both assumed that we felt the same way about pretty much everything. The problem was this was never true. However, there was so little conflict, that we didn’t have the conversations that would have given us clues that we were definitely not on the same page, even about the most fundamental things that we valued and desired in our relationship .

It just so happened that our lives changed enough that we couldn’t function the same way we did in the past. We both focused on keeping up with the things that we believed the other person valued most in our relationship, the things we each valued most for ourselves. Unfortunately, we eventually figured out that what we valued in relationship was almost completely opposite of each other. And while we each did what we thought was best, we ended up being hurt and confused, because we were doing the wrong things to support each other.

It didn’t make any sense, because we were so similar. How could the things we each wanted be so different. In hindsight, it became clear that our relationship was built on projections we had of each other that became incredibly ingrained and constantly reinforced over time, since there was no evidence or experiences to support any contrary views of each other. 

By the time we realized how different we were from each other, it was too late. There wasn’t any direct or intentional harm done from either of us to the other, but the reality (or at least my reality) was that we couldn’t accept each other for who we really were. It felt like a giant betrayal or perhaps the other person was lying about who they were. Of course neither of those are true, we simply couldn’t perceive the truth, because of the strength and history of our projections.

Most likely we were much more similar when we were younger, but people can change a lot in 20 years. I guess we just assumed we were both changing in the same way, but we certainly weren’t. When you have an experience where you realize that a relationship that lasted over half your life was primarily formed by projections you had of each other, it certainly teaches you not to blindly accept the way you think things are in your relationships.

Fortunately, I have learned a lot about relationships and connecting with people at deeper levels since that experience. I now strive to see and accept others for who they really are, not for who I think they are or want them to be. In truth, it takes more time and effort to have deeply connected relationships of all types, but I believe it’s well worth the effort. I can easily say I have the most fulfilling relationships I have ever had in my life and I desire for the information I share to help you do the same.

Projections: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly – Part 1

Projection has many definitions, so to make sure we are all on the same page, I want to start by quoting one of the definitions by Merriam-Webster: “The attribution of one’s own ideas, feelings, or attitudes to other people or to objects.” I’m going to discuss this more in my own words, but a simple way to look at this is projection is when someone assumes that another person’s experience, beliefs, etc. are the same as their own.

Every person perceives and experiences the world in at least slightly different ways and sometimes in ways that are so different, they can be almost impossible to relate to. It can be challenging to understand why another person had such a different reaction from you to something that happened. 

For example, let’s consider a comedian telling jokes. A person can tell a joke to a large audience and get a wide variety of responses, especially if the comedian is telling jokes about sensitive or taboo topics. One person might think a joke is hilarious, while another person might find it highly offensive, and another person might not have much of any reaction at all. Any number of other reactions are possible too.

The joke is the same, so obviously the difference is in the people hearing it and how they perceive the joke and what they make it mean. Each person applies their own assumptions, implications, and judgments.. Often not just about the joke they heard, but they make about the person telling the joke as well. 

A person who thinks the joke is funny might believe that the comedian is a nice guy who would be fun to be around, while the person who was offended by the joke might perceive the comedian as a horrible person with poor morals and values. Of course, their responses are all projections, based on their own personalities and life experiences.  

Each person perceives the world based on so many different factors, that the easiest thing to say is simply that each person experiences things that happen in a different way. It’s easy to assume that the other person feels exactly the same about something that happened as you do, especially if you are close friends, but the reality is not that simple.

In truth, every time we think we know what someone else thinks, experiences, etc. we are projecting. We are taking our experience of a situation and placing it onto someone else, calling it the same. This is what we do, because it’s what we have to do. As much as we try, it isn’t possible to completely experience the world in any way other than our own, so we do the best we can, we project.

Projection in itself isn’t inherently good or bad, it’s a fact of reality. It’s how we use it and what our intentions are with our projections that really matter. This is the real difference between good (healthy) and bad (unhealthy) projections. Spoiler alert, we all do both, depending on the situation and how we are feeling at the time.

The Good:

Let’s start by looking at healthy projections. I think of good projections as assumptions we make in order to learn more about another person and their experience. Instead of simply assuming we know exactly how another person feels about something, we talk to them about it from a place of curiosity. Knowing that our assumption could be very wrong or at least not completely accurate and we avoid looking for confirmation of what we already believe.

To make this more clear, I’ll give an example from a recent experience I had. I was part of a group conversation with five or so other people. One person being one of my closest friends and the other people I didn’t really know (they were friends of my friend). When one of the people was talking about a particular subject, I started feeling uncomfortable with how she was speaking. I had no idea if anyone else was feeling the same way as none of us responded negatively. That said, I had a feeling that my friend might be having a similar response.

Later that evening, I spoke to my friend and asked her about her experience during the conversation and if she was feeling something similar to what I was. I did not know if it was just me and there was something about the way she spoke that triggered an unexpected response or something else. Additionally, since my friend knew her, I wondered if she would have a different perspective from which I could view the conversation than I had, which wouldn’t have led to my negative response. In short, I was open to learning other perspectives from my experience at the time.. 

As it turned out, she was also feeling uncomfortable during that particular portion of the conversation. Then we spoke a little about why we each felt what we did. In the end, be both learned a tiny bit more about each other and ourselves.  I received confirmation of our similar experiences and my projection became more of a truth, with some minor modifications, based on the conversation. But what happens when that’s not the case?

The Bad:

Sticking with this same situation, let’s look at what happens if I already believe and feel that we had a similar experience. Instead of asking a question about her experience, I might have said something like, “Can you believe what ______ said? That was a terrible way to discuss that topic.” 

A best case scenario would be a response like “I know, the way she spoke really bothered me.” This would sort of be an indirect validation that my projection was correct, although that’s not necessarily even true. What if she only agreed with my comment because she wanted to avoid any potential conflict? 

Her actual experience could have been that she had no problem with what the other person said and didn’t understand why I did. Since the start of this conversation assumes she feels the same as I do, it doesn’t leave as much space for discussion, learning, or understanding.

Let’s take this one step further, what if after I said, “Can you believe what ______ said? That made me really uncomfortable.” and the response was, “What do you mean, I didn’t think she said anything wrong.” The dynamics of the conversation then become very different.

After that exchange, I would instantly realize my friend and I did not have the same experience and my projection was wrong. Also, since there is more of a confrontational dynamic, one or both of us might feel like we have to defend ourselves or our individual experiences. Then things become more personal, which leads to the ugly side of projections. But that will have to wait until part 2.

I ended up writing a lot more about this topic than I expected to, mostly because I wanted to look at the concrete example and discuss some of the many ways projections can affect conversations and relationships. Part 2 will go more into the relationship dynamics and I’ll share a personal story about the incredible impact projections had on my most important relationship at the time. 

A Simple Tip to Improve Your Relationships

There are numerous things we do that can sabotage virtually any chance of having healthy long-term relationships, romantic or otherwise. One of the most common and destructive ones often happens before we even meet the other person. 

We’ve all experienced moments when we notice someone for the first time and soon feel we want to get to know them better. It could be as a friend or possibly more. There is something that happens at this moment and it affects how we see and interact with that person from then on and we may not even realize it is happening.

If we are honest with ourselves, when we are emotionally drawn to someone, it’s usually because we notice something special about them and it excites us. It could have to do with their physical appearance, a skill or talent, confidence, presence, etc. Whatever those things are, they affect us. So what do we do in response?

Typically, the excitement and whatever positive feelings we experience in response to a person cause us to only see or at least highly focus on those specific aspects of the person. Perhaps the most stereotypical example would be a man who sees a stunning woman and instantly feels desire for her. That man then only really sees her as a desirable woman and may not even be able to perceive all the other wonderful qualities she has.

So often, the next step is for the object of one person’s desire, to become viewed as just that, an object. There is a dehumanization that occurs and the primary goal becomes figuring out how to get what they want (the other person). So often people pretend to be who they think the other person wants them to be, but then any relationship starts with deception and trust is much harder to build. 

This can happen between any two people, whether there is a romantic interest or not. It happens with celebrities and famous or powerful people of all types. When one person wants to have any type of relationship with another person simply because that person has or represents something they desire, the relationship is destined to be unfulfilling.

Another big thing that causes this type of dynamic to occur is when a person wants a relationship with someone because of how the other person makes them feel. This usually happens later, after some shared experiences occur. While people don’t like to admit this, if you are in a relationship with someone simply because you feel better about yourself or your life when you are with them, you are in an unhealthy, self-centered relationship. 

Of course, healthy relationships make you feel good and enhance your life, but for different reasons. Valuing someone for who they are is very different from valuing someone for how they make you feel about yourself. Simply stated, one is healthy, the other is definitely not. 

The best relationships are ones where people consider and treat each other as equals. The foundation is built on trust, mutual appreciation, and consciously working to create a relationship that is fulfilling for both people. Open and honest communication is of course critical as well.

Unfortunately, so many relationships still function from the dynamic of two people consciously or unconsciously agreeing to use each other to get their individual needs met. The relationship works as long as both people’s needs are being met, but once one person becomes unhappy or the initial excitement of the relationship fades, things soon begin to fall apart. 

So what then is a healthier alternative?

In my opinion, it’s rather simple, although can take some time and energy to put into practice. If I simplified things to a single word, it would be curiosity. 

The next time you are drawn to someone, stop and focus on your experience. Fully acknowledge your feelings and then see if you can figure out why you are feeling what you are feeling. Can you figure out what aspects of the other person are causing you to have such a positive reaction?

If so great, if not, that’s completely fine too. The important thing is to acknowledge your feelings and then put them to the side as much as possible, so they don’t cause you to fixate on whatever attracted you to that person in the first place.

The next step is to go to a place of curiosity and look to find what other positive qualities the person has. This also helps you be able to see negative qualities, which is very important too. We all have positive and negative qualities and the goal isn’t to only see the positive and ignore the negative ones.

That leads to putting the other person on a pedestal. I won’t go into this much in this article, but putting someone on a pedestal prevents healthy relationships from being possible. It creates relationship/power imbalances and makes it impossible to see the other person for who they really are. 

You will only see your idealized version of them, which most people don’t actually desire, at least not in a healthy relationship. In a deeply connected relationship, people want their positive and negative qualities to be seen and they desire to be accepted for all of who they are, not only for their positive qualities. Putting someone on a pedestal prevents this and many other healthy things from ever happening.

Stay as much as possible in a place of curiosity about the other person, as opposed to trying to be with or claim them for yourself. Being curious and really learning about the other person allows new relationships to begin more from a place of appreciation and less from a place of coveting the person or their qualities for yourself. 

In other words, avoid having an agenda when meeting new people, especially ones you are drawn to. Keep your mind as open as possible to seeing the other person exactly as they are. See and acknowledge as much as possible so you can make the best decision about whether or not you would be a good fit for each other and what type of relationship would be in each of your best interests. 

Of course, this is an ideal and no matter how much we try, our emotions will affect our judgment and how we are able to see others. In any case, making an effort to acknowledge our emotions and not completely give into them will help you begin and develop every relationship in a healthier way.