Relationships, Part 20: Projection

Here’s an obvious truth: when you first meet someone, you don’t know them. Even when you’ve met a dozen times, you still don’t know them. Oh, you pick up a few things, many of them subliminally; but most of what you think you know, you’ve projected on to them.

This is how it works. When you experience people, you burn images of them on to your brain. Then, when you encounter a stranger, a blank screen, you project those images on to it. You do this so that you can try to predict what the stranger will do. This is important for reasons of safety. You may need to react to this stranger very quickly. Those images that seem to match are very significant. We’ve got a match! shouts the subconscious psychological profiler in the back of your brain, and he files it away. He thinks he knows the unknown. Sometimes he’s right, sometimes.

Sometimes he’s making a sampling error, drawing premature conclusions from insufficient evidence. When you first meet someone, all you have is insufficient evidence. Then, when you’ve known them for a while, a good portion of what you think you know is actually your projections. A lot of times, projections seem dead on. That’s when they’re the most enthralling, when they blind us to the exceptions.

In some cases, early in a relationship, there are long periods of time between contacts. A romance grows out of long distance correspondence; a soldier meets a girl and goes off to deployment; a man spots a woman from afar and it takes him a long time to ask her out. These situations are most apt to be complicated by projections. You know so little about them, you fill in your own material. That man with the nice smile that you can’t get out of your head. Do you have a crush on him, or the idea of him?

Everyone should know what they have in their collection of images that they project, but often they don’t. This is one thing that long term psychotherapy is good at: identifying what’s in your collection, you’re introjects, they’re called, from your past experiences.

If you can’t afford long term psychotherapy, try the do-it-yourself version. Make a list of all the powerful people in your life. Start with your parents. The girlfriend who dumped you and broke your heart. The bad boyfriend who beat you. The bully in the schoolyard. The teacher who saw your potential. Fictional characters can be introjects, too; movie roles, powerful myths, maybe even that Playboy Centerfold you kept under the bed. Most of your introjects will be from your childhood because that’s when you were most impressionable. If you’ve dreamed about him or her, it’s an introject.

Now’s the tricky part. Identify when you see these introjects projected on to new people. You might start by looking at a situation that angered you. Most of the time, when we are upset, 80% of our emotions come from something that happened in the past, 20% has to do with the present. I’m not saying that the guy who ticked you off didn’t deserve your anger. I’m saying he deserved 20% of it. That other 80% is a projection. What’s in that 80%? That’s in your collection of introjects.

Here’s the majorly tricky part. Sometimes when you’ve been with a person for a long time, you project their past onto the present. Take that recovering alcoholic who disappointed you so many times in the past. You will expect him to disappoint you again, no matter how strong his recovery. That’s a projection. Take your devoted mother who always took care of you. Certainly, she wouldn’t mind watching your kids on a moment’s notice. Well, maybe she’s got a hot date with someone she met at a single senior’s dance. People change and when we don’t see it, that’s a projection.

So, you see how hard it is to sort out your projections from the person you actually have in front of you? That’s why people do long-term psychotherapy.

Oh, but your therapist projects, too! That’s why therapists have to go through therapy, themselves.

Next week, what happens on the other end? What happens when someone projects on to you?

Click here to go to the entire Relationships series.

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