Friday, July 22, 2011

Understanding Your Projections and How They Block Your Spiritual Growth

I know that I make up a lot of definitions, and I always encourage you to comment on blog posts or contact me with questions or clarifications. I think clarifying definitions is probably something we should all do a lot more of in general. It would go a long way towards clearing up potential misunderstandings. So often words do not carry the same meaning for different people, and that can lead to a lot of hurt feelings and frustrations.

But one term that I'd like to spend some time teasing out is the term "projection."

Projections: The Stories We Tell Ourselves About Others
I don't know where I first started hearing this term, and I can't remember when I first started using it. When I use it, I mean that you are projecting an idea or set of stories onto someone about what you think are or want them to be. It's a kind of box that we put people into, and then we expect all of them to fit in this box. You could also consider it a lens through which we see people, but the lens only shows certain parts and hues of others.

This happens the worst in romance, I think, but it is relevant to all of our relationships. You probably can think of an instance where you were dating someone, and they seemed absolutely awesome. They just glowed for you. You couldn't find anything wrong with him/her if you wanted to. Then one day, that person did something: ran a redlight, punched someone out, lied about something, or did something that otherwise stopped you dead in your tracks. You're like, "I never thought s/he'd do something like that."

Whoops. Your projection--your story about who that person is--just got broken.

The Wide Range of Projections
Of course, it doesn't mean someone did something bad to break your projection. Someone could do something very nice, and it would be just as jarring if your projected story on this person is that they're heartless and cruel. Then that person donates a million dollars to a charity, and you're floored. Of course, your ego is quick to rush in with a fix on the projection. You'll say, "Oh well, he's just using that as a tax write-off" or something to that nature. Because you wouldn't want to admit that you're the story-maker here or that you just might not see the whole picture, right?

Still it goes on to more benign situations. You see the kind, sweet 6th grade teacher to your son partying like a rock star out at bar. Your football star son suddenly professes an undying love of Emily Dickinson poetry. Your high school sweetheart who was a total ladies man suddenly becomes interested in men. I could write this list for a very long time, but you get the picture.

How Projections Inhibit Your Spiritual Growth
Projections are a problem because they aren't real. They're just stories. They're ways we categorize people and put them in boxes. It's how our egos make themselves feel safe in the world. Now, it's not to say that certain definitions aren't helpful, and a lot of people buy into their own categorizations. You're a stay-at-home mom, so you go and do things that other stay-at-home moms do to feel included. There's a lot of power in living within your categorization. Almost all of us saw this in high school with all the cliques that formed up: jocks, nerds, music geeks, skaters, and so on. Remember when it was a big deal for someone from one group to talk to someone in another? Ooo, the scandal. =)

Of course, it kinda sucked that there was this scrutiny to talk to someone in a different group. You probably didn't feel as free to connect with some people as you would have liked, and this is precisely the problem with projections. You're limiting and confining yourself to certain ways of being with others and with yourself. One of the greatest discoveries people can make is when they start to expand their own views of others and see more of what's right before them.

Discovering Your Projections and Breaking Them
Okay, so do you follow me now? You've got a lot of stories about others, which are built off of the big story you have about yourself. While I typically like to focus internally, let's deal with your outward view for now. You can pick a couple people in your life and journal out who you think they are. You may be right on a lot of points, but the idea here is not to get stuck on those points. We are all so much greater than any set of stories, ideas, or bullet points. As you go, it may be interesting to see what topics and conversations fill up the lion's portion of your conversations. Those are usually the ways that we further reinforce the projections and the story about the relationship that you're having.

I like to talk about how relationships have their own intelligence, but that intelligence can't really come forth until you get some of the projections out of the way. It's like in some of those romance movies where two people are absolutely in love, but one person has a projection about the other as being only a friend. The great revelation in the storyline is when the projection breaks, and that allows the two to join in a romantic relationship (which most likely is filled with a whole string of awful projections, but that's Hollywood).

Deepening Relationships on the Spiritual Path
It's always amazing what starts to step in to a relationship when we get these projections out of the way. In many respects, it allows both people to start to change. It may mean some relationships end, but others will evolve into deeper spaces because you're not trying to hold onto someone in some way that doesn't suit them. Parents often struggle with this as their children grow up. They try to hold onto their projection of their baby girl as a Starburst chewing, jump-rope-hopping 10 year old. But she's 18 now, and she's got a boyfriend. Other big milestones are on the way, and you'll want to be there for those. You have to let go of who she was to embrace who she now is.

In committed long-term relationships, this is a powerful tool as well, and you may be surprised what pain points surface. You may tell your partner (if your relationship is strong enough to handle it--I hope it is) some of the things that you see about them, and you may find out how wrong you are about a number of things. It may even be a relief for your partner to feel like s/he no longer has to be a certain way for you or that you can see that you were wrong about something. It makes space for more intimacy because it makes space for more of the fullness of a person to be present in a situation.

Don't Throw Out the Baby With the Bath-Water
Not all of our stories are useless, but they need to be put in their place. I have a story getting projected on to me by people--that of the spiritual teacher. It's useful because people know what kind of advice and help I can offer, but it's also enormously problematic because people don't really know what a spiritual teacher is because of a long history of abuses. So it's often one of the first projections I tackle with students to break down who they think I am. Heck, for some of you, you might be a little surprised at how loud, profane, and down-right ridiculous I can be if you ever met me. You're like, "But his blogs sound so serious and loving." Well, maybe not. I think I've sworn a couple times in past blogs, but you get the picture. I am so much more than a term like "spiritual teacher," and you and all your relationships are so much more than any set of words, stories, and ideas. As you come to know this and make space to see the broader context of the people around you, your whole vision of your world will start to shift. Undoubtedly, you'll see things you've never seen before. Prepare to be surprised.
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