I Know Your Life is Perfect!: Cutting Through Projections to Real Change

As a therapist there are moments you never forget and my time with Anthony was one of them. Anthony was a long-term on-again-off-again client who, at the moment, was trying to figure out how to start dating after a recent divorce. He was not appreciating my suggestions of on-line dating, going to the gym to meet people or checking out local book clubs or volunteer groups, and I could tell he was getting more and more frustrated. “Amy, you just don’t get it,” he burst out. “What don’t I get?” I asked. “You would never understand being single. I mean, I’m sure you’re going home tonight to sit in front of your two-story stone fireplace with your kids, dogs, and husband who just adores you. You have it so easy.”

I honestly sat there with my mouth hanging open, no idea what to say. At that time in my life I was newly divorced and felt like I’d never be in a serious relationship again. I was counting on my wood-burning stove from the 1970’s to heat my home so my heating bills wouldn’t be too expensive with my new single income, and I would have loved to have anything greet me at home—even a fish!—, but knew I was going home to a dark, cold house with a tv dinner waiting in the freezer.

Projection. We’ve talked about projection here before but, as it came up this week in our intern group supervision, I wanted to revisit it. Various religious scholars discussed the concept but Freud was the first person to place it in the context of psychology. Personally I like to think of this idea in the metaphor of film. The person projecting (Anthony) is pointing a film projector at the object being projected on (me). As the images move and shift I see the movie as separate from me, but Anthony literally sees the movie story-line as being my life. And (as you’ve probably figured out already), the movie Anthony is projecting on to me is the story he wishes was his own.

The key is to notice the projection and identify it as Anothony’s wish, as opposed to taking it personally and making it about me. I could easily go home after work feeling sorry for myself (“I should have a designer fireplace, and a husband and kids and dogs and a gourmet meal!”), and use it as an excuse to engage in poor coping skills (staying up too late watching TV, eating unhealthy food, having an extra glass of wine). Instead I can gently confront Anthony and help him see this is his movie, not mine.

Where are you projecting your hopes and dreams? This week let’s reclaim them as our own and start making choices to turn them into a reality. Anthony eventually met his future wife at the county fair, and these days I get to make homemade dinners with my fiancee!