Projections: falling in love with ourselves through what we see in others

Updated Sep 19 2018
I bought this original drawing from Aussie artist Ouvra, but you can buy a print here.

A year after my divorce, I found myself on my phone with my father, folding laundry and whining about my breakup with my rebound boyfriend. Sure, this might not be where I thought I'd be in my 40s, sniveling at my dad over my bruised heart like a 16-year-old, but whatever: here we are! Pull up a chair.

"It wasn't working at all," I was telling my dad. "But there were some things about him that I really liked that I'm really sad to lose access to."

"But you're not really losing access to them," my dad said. "In fact, you've got this amazing opportunity now, where you get to look at all the things you projected onto this other person, and recognize that those are the things you value in yourself and want more of."

"Value… in… myself?" My mental wheels started turning, as I folded a pair of my son's jeans against my chest.

"Sure," my dad said, ever patient. "In the grand scheme of things, you barely knew this guy. Sure, he had some innate and unique qualities he brought to the table, but what's most telling is which of qualities you saw in him and found attractive. Chances are that most of the qualities that stood out the most for you weren't really about him at all — they were things that you either value in yourself, or things you aspire better embody.

"You might have ended the relationship with this person, daughter… but that doesn't mean you ended the opportunity to learn from the qualities you projected onto the other person."

This was a mind-blower.

The unkindness of blind projection, the insight of self-aware projection

I know this about myself: I am an expert projectionist. A storyteller by nature and by trade, my brain basically parses the world as an ongoing narrative. This is sort of lovely (I can extract profound multi-dimensional metaphorical meaning out of the most mundane daily bullshit!), but it's also a bit of a burden because it means I'm connecting dots that may not exist, seeing plot lines where no story is necessary, and building characters for people I barely know. It means that my mind is often rushing ahead to the denouement, while my body is still walking through the first couple chapters. I call this kind of blind projection "futurecasting," it's not cute.

Projecting on people, when it's blind, is pretty unkind. It can be non-consensual and gross thing to do to other someone. "You're my guardian angel!" my mind thinks desperately about some bit player… and inside their head they're like, "Woah woah, why is she looking at me like that?!" Blind projection also fucks me over by blurring my vision around what I want to see versus what's actually happening. (I'm starting to think that most of my marriage was basically a really lovely, elaborate projection I created for myself and then sold to the entire planet. Oof, I'm sorry, world?)

But here's the thing: as long as you're self aware, and can catch yourself projecting — it's actually a hugely useful tool for self reflection. If you can be awake enough to the illusion to understand that the real issue isn't really about the other person, but WHAT you're projecting on that person… then you gain access to some remarkable insight into your own values, your own growth edges, and your own story.

In other words, when you see your projections for the fictions that they are (instead of thinking they're the reality of the situation), you can learn a ton about yourself as the projectionist.

When you can be awake enough to know that you're projecting, you can pull that projection off the person you're using as a screen, thank them for their participation, and get to work learning from the super important story you're telling yourself. The things you notice and get heart-eyed over in other people are the things you adore about yourself. Or they're the things you desperately wish you had more of. Or they're the qualities that you know you're missing in your life, that you'd love to have more of — and here's the secret: other people aren't the only way to get more of something in your world.

Basically, instead of blindly falling in love with someone else, you can fall in love with yourself, with open eyes.

Another drawing from Australian artist Ouvra. You can buy her work here.

Spotting the projections, and learning all the learnings

Of course romantic relationships are everyone's favorite place to project, but projections show up in all sorts of places — the dream job, the friend crush, the social media icon. Each of these entities are giving you mission critical indications of what you're aspiring for, what you want more of, who you want to be. Even if you can't gain or maintain access to them in your life (repeat after me: control is an illusion, control is an illusion, control is an illusion), you can find ways to integrate those qualities into your daily life.

In the case of me and this rebound relationship, I loved the way he managed to be both a huge nerd and total jock. I loved his experimental mind and willingness to be GGG about almost anything. I loved the way he could put me into an altered state. Armed with this knowledge (as well as the knowledge that almost everything else about the guy was a complete mismatch), I looked at my life and started working to integrate those things for myself, in myself. Nerd/Jock crossover hit? I can totally be that, even if I've never been in a gym in my life. Experimental mind and willingness to try almost anything? I can recraft my fixed mindset to be more fluid and open. That altered state? I can meditate and jack-off and put my fucking self there.

Over the year that followed that conversation with my father, there were so many people who introduced me to my own values. The Brooklyn multi-disciplinarian artist/historian/rapper/philosopher who was as comfortable talking about systematic racism as he was talking over his collection of fishnet underwear. The champagne-sipping choreographer who had a spiritual awakening while dancing to Led Zeppelin. The 47-year-old admin on a budget who has more personal style than any C-level executive I've seen. The queer former cheerleader who manages to make the people around her magically feel more empowered to be their truest selves. The boss-ass bitch who is unlearning it all, and finds herself laying on the floor and crying when she needs to.

Now when I meet people who thrill and excite me, part of the thrill is taking a tiny step back and noting, "Ok, what's especially exciting here? These are important clues that transcend this specific situation!" These days, I'm thrilled by open-heartedness and emotional intelligence, style and embodied soul. I'm excited by people with clear spiritual access points and vast vulnerabilities. I'm thrilled by people who are equal measures highly capable and highly raw, people who are grown-ass adults who know trust is a risky endeavor and dive in anyway. I'm thrilled by intellectual intensity and curiosity, communication with kindness and reliability.

And I look at that list and I think… yep, those are all things I am or aspire to be.

And I think, isn't it a joy to discover myself through the hearts of others?

And I think, I'm a vagenius.

  1. This was a really great article and one I really needed. I'm also prone to elaborate, internal narratives which is great since I make my living as an artist, but not so great when it comes to trying to interpret human behavior. Lately, I've been struggling socially, and part of the struggle is projection. Reading this really makes me think and I'm going to look over my latest batch of projections and see what I can learn from them about myself. This may help me with feelings of loneliness and hopefully help me better connect with people. Thank you for writing this!

    • You're so welcome! I've spent a lot of time in my head hating myself for my projections (why do I do it? it causes me suffering! it sometimes even causes suffering in the people around me! it's self sabotage! it's awful behavior!) but of course hating yourself isn't a great recipe for making any kind of change in your life…

      For me, I can't stop the projections (it's just how my brain works!) but when I'm able to be awake enough to recognize them for what they are, and reflect on what my projections say about me and my values (instead of what my projections say about someone else or the situation or whatever), I can ease up on the self-loathing and start to just learn some shit about my values.

      I guess what I'm saying is that it's more productive for me to transmute my projections into something self-contained and useful, than it is to hate myself for my brain working the way it does. Once I can stop believing the projections are reality, then I can get some space to learn from them.

  2. Thank you for taking us on this journey with you! This sounds like really important work .

    It also have me wonder about storytelling… After all, narratives help us make sense of life and the world. So where is the line between creating a narrative and projection? Probably it's blurry…

    Do you find that having gone through this with work of awareness, that you are better able to also meet people on their terms, where they are at, hearing their narratives? This is something I've been musing about lately. How to make this level of self awareness, and my need to create community (also political community), and meaningful relationships and interactions all work together.

    On another note: Inspired by the studio haaay videos, I find myself taking breaks to move through my office or house with intentional, slow movements as a way of making my brain slow down and reflect on it all! (I know that's not necessarily what you are doing but it's what they've inspired me to do. Sort of self created movement meditation?)

    • I love this! And I especially love that my self-created movement meditations over at Studio Haaay have inspired you to find your OWN self-created movement meditation. That makes it all feel worth it! xo

  3. I find that I have to examine the opposite, too: if I deeply, deeply dislike someone who I honestly barely know, I gotta look at that. There's always a truth about myself hiding in that. Some dislikes (and projections) really do pick up on and amplify a truth about them, but more often than I like to admit, it's just a reverberation from something in myself that I want to sort out.

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