The people around us are our mirrors: they show us where we are in our stage of personal evolution. It’s something we hear all the time. But I notice that people, me included, tend to use others rather as movie screens onto which we project our reality, instead of looking into the mirror.
When someone triggers us
It’s easy to see someone as our mirror when that mirror shows us something nice. It can be amazingly uplifting when someone I admire wants to spend time with me. Although it touches upon my insecurity sometimes (‘Why would this person want to spend time with me?’) it is hard to stick to negative thinking too long. I must be nice to be surrounded by nice people.
But when someone triggers me, I find it much more difficult to look into that mirror.
Of course the other person can have a bad day and act for reasons you have no influence upon. But can you still receive this reflection facing you?
The projected truth
When we project, we create an image of the truth through our eyes and incorporate it as the truth. A personal example: when I was a kid I wanted more approval and appreciation from my parents than I received. I projected the image of a disapproving father onto my lovers, constantly trying to please the person. But they didn’t ask me to. I just projected the image of a disapproving person onto them and found my partner emotionally unavailable and dominant.
Had I looked into the mirror, I would have seen that I was being dominant and emotionally unavailable to myself. I was telling myself I wasn’t good enough and blamed myself for it.
Projecting is a way of avoiding looking at your own stuff.
Erich Fromm writes beautifully about this in his book The Art of Loving:
“(…) Another form of neurotic love lies in the use of projective mechanisms for the purpose of avoiding one’s own problems, and being concerned with the defects and frailties of the “loved” person instead. Individuals behave in this respect much as groups, nations or religions do. They have a fine appreciation for even the minor shortcomings of the other person, and go blissfully ahead ignoring their own – always busy trying to accuse or to reform the other person.”
Mutual projection – the case of the toxic relationship
In a relationship we are often confronted with the same person. This person might constantly mirror the same things to us. What do you do with this? Do you accept the reflection or do you project? When both partners refrain from owning what is shown to them, the relationship can become toxic.
Erich writes on the same page:
“If two people both do it [project] – as is so often the case – the relationship of love becomes transformed into one of mutual projection. If I am domineering or indecisive, or greedy, I accuse my partner of it, and depending on my character, I either want to cure him or punish him. The other person does the same – and both thus succeed in ignoring their own problems and hence fail to undertake any steps which would help them in their own development.”
If both partners project onto each other, they will fail seeing each other. We see an avatar in front of us, a creation from our minds. I can’t see how my lover is asking me for help when I believe I see a rebellious little boy in front of me. What is the mirror showing me? Maybe it’s time for me to grow up, take care of my needs and stand up for myself.
Going back to the mirror
How do we stop projecting and start looking into the mirror again?
Start with this experiment: stop blaming anyone for a week. Not your lover, not the impatient car driver, not the angry looking teacher, not your kid, not your parents. Nobody. Assume that all behavior is a reflection of something inside you.
Observe your response. When do you feel happy? When do you feel anxious? What behavior is triggering which response in you?
Sit with yourself. In these situations I often imagine I’m having a conversation with a younger version of myself. I look at her: what does her face look like? How does she feel? Which memories does she bring up? Most probably there is a situation from the past which created a little trauma that wants to be seen.
The need for projection is just a safety measure in you. A detour from something too painful to look at. But when you find the courage to look deep into that mirror you might be able to get to know yourself a little better, release some old trauma or other stuff that is holding you back. And see what the mirror is showing you next.