The Slippery Slope of Projection
"Here, put on this costume — I know it fits you perfectly...."
by Bina Breitner
When Carol's husband Quentin came out of the sexual closet after 31 years of marriage, she and both of their grown children accepted his being gay. Quentin was a well-intended fellow. He'd apparently struggled to not-be-gay, or at least to keep it secret, for many years. The family knew it wasn't a choice — he was gay. They were shocked, but they made an effort to adapt.
What infuriated Carol was Quentin's subsequent behavior. He got a boyfriend quickly, put lavish, sentimental gay-group photos on his Facebook page, texted his lover (Sam) during family events, told everyone how happy they were. He was riding high on new love.
She didn't mind too much that he had a boyfriend. She didn't mind that he was happy (even if she was still reeling from the changes to her "family"). What offended her was his public noise, what she called his "I'm Gay Show." She felt disrespected. He wasn't thinking at all about how his behavior might be affecting her, and, apparently, he didn't care.
She understood this was all new to him, and he was feeling wonderful being in love — and finally being able to drop the pretense of being heterosexual. But she kept feeling angry. She thought it was the hurt of being rejected, and that was real. Anyone who's dumped for a person of the opposite sex feels slugged.
She thought perhaps it was the degree of surprise she felt. Shouldn't she have seen this coming? How could she be married to Quentin for 31 years and not know he was gay? Were her perceptions that dumb and numb? Sure, they hadn't had sex for years, but she'd figured they'd passed into a new phase: the middle-aged couple who still sleep in the same bed but whose relationship has evolved into that of co-parents and pals. Her trust in her antennae was suffering a serious setback.
When she'd recognized all these distresses and more or less worked through them, she still was enraged. What else was going on?
Projection! She had slid into Quentin's view of her: She was yesterday's news, unimportant, invisible. Since she hadn't identified the process, she was still reacting, and she was furious.
Here's how it works:
Someone has an opinion of you, conscious or unconscious. They treat you a certain way. Maybe they worship you and think you're beyond most other human beings. You're going to save them, make them happy, teach them wisdom, cure their acne... whatever power they project onto you. Something they need, or something that fits into their world view.
Or maybe they think you're inferior, not a player. Or you're "too old" or "too fat" or "just a housewife." Not productive enough. From a "second-rate" social, racial, religious or ethnic group. Too much of a show-off. Or maybe they think you're in love with them and interpret every greeting as a sexualized message. The options for projection are infinite.
The point is, they have this costume, this opinion, this "clothing" hanging around their closet, and they dress you in it. In his own mind, Quentin had taken away Carol's "wife" clothing and dressed her instead in the rags of a cast-off. Carol was no longer relevant to his emotional life, so she wasn't relevant, period. He was now excited about his new group and being with Sam, so she didn't matter any more.
To some degree, his self-involvement was understandable, given the upheaval and heady freedom of his new life. But that was still about Quentin and didn't help Carol. What made the difference for her was recognizing and isolating his opinion (or lack of opinion) of her. She'd become almost invisible. (So had the children, which troubled them and her. Dad was riding high, and they'd gone into the shadows of his earlier life, too.)
The central question for Carol was: Did she agree? Quentin now saw her — if he saw her at all — as irrelevant, a minimal presence. Was she irrelevant in her own opinion? Or were those the clothes he'd dressed her in? She'd been sliding into his view of her, continuing to adapt to him as she had during their 31 years of marriage.
There's a simple way to think about projection: "mirroring." We know that the reflection of ourselves in other people's "eyes" (minds, perceptions) has a huge influence on how we perceive ourselves. If you want to sort out a projection, you can start by asking yourself how you are mirrored in the other person's eyes. What image of yourself do you have when you look at yourself from inside their mind? How important are you? How interesting? How trustworthy? How seriously should you be taken?
Then you can decide whether that image is accurate — according to your sense of yourself, your intentions, your behavior, your beliefs, your character. Oh, and what is your perception of them? Are they given to rigid judgment? Excessive flattery? Indifference to others? How reliable a mirror do you think they provide?
One of the delights of adulthood is being able to make such an evaluation. I've seen a quote from Euripides, "Man's [and woman's] most valuable trait is a judicious sense of what not to believe." I love that quote. Don't let everything in.
Children don't have that option. If an authoritative adult says X is true, it must be true. But an adult can listen and ask, "Really? I don't think so." Or say, "I agree with only part of what you're saying or implying." There's an "I" with enough experience and sense of self to provide a context.
When I asked Carol if she agreed with Quentin's implicit demotion of her, and whether she deserved it, she immediately realized she didn't. It was his, not hers. She was actually being a good sport about his jumping the marital ship, making every effort to stay courteous and understanding. He, on the other hand, was making almost no effort to help her through his transition out of their marriage. That clarification of boundaries felt somewhat better — there was his view, and there was her view, and they weren't the same.
Another way to understand projection is by way of the more complex business of people's inner stories. You have one, I have one, everybody has one. We all try to transform life (messy) into a narrative (coherent, meaningful). We tell ourselves stories about ourselves, about other people, about the world, about the significance of life, about the past/present/future, about justice or the lack thereof, about hope or despair, about what we can expect, how to be safe…. The story is everywhere in our minds, like the air we breathe, and we notice it about the same amount. It's just "there." It's "reality." We're all trapped inside our own minds.
Carol got through Quentin's disappearance from the marriage, from the family (to some extent), and from their commitment by clarifying the difference between his story and her story. He had left "their" story. He'd probably been itching to leave their story for years, because it didn't give him the environment he needed. But Carol was stunned. She was still telling their story, but it only made sense if they both told it. When he left, so did their story.
I had a friend in Boston whose mother used to say to him, "I'm cold. Put your coat on." She never understood, he said, that he didn't feel the cold the way she did. She was cold; he wasn't. You could see that as an illustration of poor boundaries (she didn't understand the separateness of their two unique persons).
You could also see it as evidence of her love and concern for him. That's where projection gets tricky. Especially with parenthood, you take the child into your heart. His well-being is often more important than your own. And that's as it should be, because you can take care of yourself and the child can't. You're supposed to be feeling whatever he (or she) feels, so you can respond to his needs.
But as he grows, he becomes less a part of your mind and more a part of his own. One of the (many!) challenges of parenting is to keep up with that evolution. (I loved the title of Anthony Wolf's book on coping with teenagers, Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Take Me & Cheryl to the Mall.)
Outside of parenting, we still are members of many groups, and people "feel each other out," empathize, try to understand what others are going through. We do that in part through projection: "How would I feel in those circumstances?" Then I respond as if you feel the way I would feel. That's a healthy kind of projection. I imagine I'm you or you're me, as I try to figure out what you need.
But when I slip you into my narrative, the ongoing story in my mind, that's less healthy. Say I've decided the world is a terrible place and people are selfish, indifferent and untrustworthy. You're not feeling very well today and I see the tension or irritation in your face. I decide you're "another one of those people," so I'm rude to you.
I've just projected onto you a role, a character quality, and intentions. You have no idea you've just wandered into my movie, but there you are. If you're not clear about boundaries, you'll be hurt by my rudeness to you. Maybe you'll be angry. ("Who the heck does she think she is?!")
That's when you'll want to look at the costume I've just dressed you in (for your part in my movie) and think about whether it suits you. The more familiar you are with the energetic confusions of projection, the more quickly you'll learn how to get out of my costume and put your own clothes back on. They probably fit you better.
Bina Breitner is a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT)
in private practice at 808 W. 8th St. in Silver City.
She can be reached at (575) 538-4380.
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