Caution: Things are not always as they seem

February 24, 2019

“Just look at her — not a care in the world.” “If only I had his looks/job/money...”

Go ahead — admit it. You’ve caught yourself making snap judgments like these about people around you — or those on television or online.

In these challenging times it can be particularly tempting to look at someone else and think he or she leads a charmed life. Outward appearances can be deceiving, though. You never know what someone else is going through.

And then you’re shocked when you read that someone like Robin Williams — or that growing list of rock stars — has committed suicide. It can be easy to jump to conclusions when you just have a little bit of information.

Shift happens

This reminds me of a story about a man who boarded a subway in Washington, DC with his three children. The noisy kids were running up and down the subway car and climbing on seats. The father just stared at the floor, making no attempt to correct the children.

Other passengers became irritated. Finally, one woman asked the father, “What are you going to do about these children?” The man looked up and said, “I don’t have a clue. We’ve just come from the hospital — where their mother passed away.”

Talk about a shift! The woman immediately changed her focus from being angry to being compassionate. Other nearby passengers looked like they had egg on their faces.

This kind of “center-of-the-universe” thinking can get you into trouble. When you don’t get your phone call returned promptly, do you berate the recipient? Even worse, do you start spinning scenarios about what happened to cause the delay?

‘Projection, your honor’

Just like a movie projector, you can project your own thoughts and fears onto a situation. The next thing you know, you’re running down a totally different path than the situation warrants. I’ve spent my fair share of energy doing this over the years. Now, I look to catch myself before I go too far down that rabbit hole.

I’ve asked others to call me out on it, too, so I can know when I’m doing it. My husband, John, is quick to recognize this old habit and will say, “Linda, you’re projecting.” I’d like to think this old pattern was borne out of a desire to be organized and prepared for whatever outcome the situation takes, although I realize that’s just a rationalization. I finally got tired of all the energy that was being consumed — with no apparent benefit. I backslide at times, although I’m getting much better at catching myself in the act.

The father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, described projection as one of his original defense mechanisms — those behaviors we exhibit to protect ourselves from pain. When someone has uncomfortable thoughts or feelings they need to repress, they may project them onto other people.

Dr. Richard Niolon, clinical psychologist and professor, says projection is something we all do. It’s the act of taking something of ourselves and placing it outside us — onto others. Sometimes you may project positive aspects of yourself, while other times you can project negative aspects.

You may project something you don’t want to acknowledge about yourself— like making a mistake. So, you turn it around and put it on someone else; “You’re just so critical of everything I do.”

The problem with projecting negative aspects of yourself is that you can still suffer from them. Take the example above. Instead of feeling remorse about your mistake (your true feeling), you suffer with the feeling that someone/everyone is critical of you.

While you escape the feelings of inadequacy and vulnerability, you nonetheless feel uneasy. It’s just a tradeoff of emotions. The more energy you put into avoiding the realization you have weaknesses, the more difficult it is to face them.

Of course, those around you could very well be hypercritical at times. In that case, it’s up to you to set healthy boundaries.

Defense mechanisms

When you see others in a negative light, it may be helpful to think, “Am I projecting?” Also understand that when others criticize you, they may well be using a defense mechanism — unconsciously criticizing a projection of themselves.

While we all use defense mechanisms when troubled, Niolon explains, we generally come to a point when we face our problems and don’t need to rely so heavily on them to protect us. Defenses become unhealthy when you refuse to face your true thoughts and feelings.

Several problems can then develop:

¦ Relying on your defenses for too long gives your problems a life of their own and makes them even more powerful.

¦ Continued use of many defenses creates new problems that are as bad or worse than the original pain they prevent you from feeling.

¦ Defense mechanisms can start to happen automatically — separating you from your true feelings.

¦ Spending so much energy on your defenses can leave little energy for healthy pursuits. If getting too close to others reminds you of past hurts, you may avoid dating altogether and miss out on love and support that could make you happy.

¦ Over time, the more you close off parts of yourself, stockpile pain and unhappi-ness, and avoid potentially rewarding life experiences, the more anxious you may become.

¦ Pent-up emotions can overwhelm you, and this becomes a vicious cycle as you continue to defend yourself in unhealthy ways.

Awareness is the first step. The next time you find yourself jumping to conclusions — push the pause button. Think about the father on the subway.

As author Ian Maclaren said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

©2019 Linda Arnold Live Life Fully, all rights reserved. Linda Arnold. M.A.. M.B.A.. Is a syndicated columnist, psychological counselor and Founder of a multlstate marketing corporation. Reader comments are welcome at llnda@llndaarnold.org. For Information on her books, “Teach People How to Treat You” and “Push Your Own Buttons,” go to www.llndaarnold.org or Amazon.com.

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