I’ve had a tough few days with my mirrors. I’m not liking what I see in them. It’s not because I’m hung up on the effects of aging. It’s because the mirrors are showing me what I am projecting on other people. And that has caused me to stand back and see myself for who I really am.
Projection, in psychological terms, is a defense mechanism people unconsciously employ in order to avoid difficult feelings or emotions. It involves projecting undesirable feelings or emotions onto someone else, rather than dealing with the unwanted feelings ourselves.
One of the benefits of relationships is that they serve as mirrors that allow us to see these projections. Two traits are inherent to projections: that we are frequently unaware of our own projections and that all of us employ them.
Because projections come from the subconscious mind, they literally blindside us. And that was the case for me this week. I saw myself mirrored back.
I was out at a major home improvement store with my girlfriend. She is very aware of the problem I have with a person close to me who is continually embroiled in conflict. It’s kind of like crack to him. As my girlfriend and I walked up aisle after aisle looking for staples for my staple gun, I became more and more frustrated with not being able to find a clerk to help with our search. Nearly a half-hour went by, and my frustration turned to anger. So I approached the manager and vented at him.
Though my girlfriend was standing in line, she could overhear me talking with the manager. When we got out to the parking lot, she told me how uncomfortable my anger made her feel.
Of course, like many of us, I began rationalizing my behavior, saying that I never attacked the character of the manager and that managers need to hear from customers about stores issues so they keep their customers and…
Well, she wasn’t buying it. In fact, she turned it around on me saying that I was doing the very thing that I found objectionable in my close friend. Ouch!
Talk about being T-boned at the intersection of Unawareness and Projection Avenue. I had been motoring through the morning on my defense mechanisms: first projection, then rationalization.
As a life coach, these kinds of realizations strike me as especially painful because I feel I should be beyond them. After all, I’m very aware of the concept of projection. But the truth is that I am often unaware of my own projections. Knowledge is not necessarily awareness.
And that is why relationships are the most powerful driving force to self-awareness. They help us to see our projections reflected back to us. What we don’t like about ourselves, we project onto other people. It’s little wonder we see some people as our enemies.
Relationship expert Guy Finley says that people we perceive as enemies are like angels in disguise. They are in our lives as mirrors that show us the things we need to change in ourselves. When we notice the behaviors of these difficult people, and they upset us, we are reacting to things in ourselves that we don’t like. His practice when dealing with this issue in his own life is gratitude. Silently, he says to the imagined enemy, “Thank you. I didn’t realize that about myself.”
I remember from my early days in AA an old-timer who would say time and again, “If you spot it, you got it.” It took me ten years to realize the truth of that.
God is the master teacher. Experiences, even the so-called negative ones, are lessons. When the cast of characters changes in our lives, but that same troubling issue keeps resurfacing, it is clear that it is not the other person but ourselves that is the source of our suffering. God, however, is keenly aware what lessons are crucial for our development, and he will not let us move on from the lesson until we have mastered it.
Though these lessons ain’t easy, they are the ones that hold the greatest potential for our personal growth. My home improvement experience turned out to be a self-improvement experience.
May I, and may all of us, have the humility and the courage to honestly see ourselves in the mirror of other people. It is in those moments that we have the greatest opportunity for change. When that happens, we will begin to truly admire the person we see in our mirrors.