Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Your, Mine & Not Always Ours

Projection: the ability we all have to ascribe some of our own qualities, preferences or even circumstances to others. It can be a defence against owning aspects of ourselves or our lives that we find difficult. It can also be a more innocent result of reaching for or feeling a connection with others and assuming that we have more in common than we might.

I’m discovering that of all the areas where we seem to consistently (and often unconsciously) project our own circumstances and feelings onto others is around birth family mythologies, realities, stories and values. This actually makes some sense. After all, the conditions and dynamics of our birth families weren’t just a reality, they were Reality as we first encountered it in our lives. As small children we took our families to be The Way Things Are, like the sun and the earth and the air we breathe. We may have encountered variety later in our lives, but when emotional issues of family are front and center (arrival of a new baby, care of aging parents, marriage, divorce, family losses or celebrations etc.) it’s easy to forget that our family is not identical to others.

Recently, while taking a course with the Alzheimer’s Society one of the other women in the group was advised by the facilitator to include her mother in exploring all possible residences. The woman replied, “Well, actually, my mother really trusts me to know what matters to her and to narrow down the choices.”

I was mesmerized by the phrase, “my mother really trusts me.” I could not imagine ever thinking, let alone saying those words in my lifetime. It’s not quite as personal as it sounds (or felt for many years.) My mother doesn’t really trust anyone. But still, I sat in awe for a few moments, reminded that all families are not identical. Knowing this I remember that what works for one will not work for others, so comparative judgements or one-size-fits-all solutions are not helpful.

I remember the first moment in my life when I entertained the idea that all families were not the same. I was seven. My six year old brother, Doug, had brought his friend Tommy home to play after school. As we sat on the front porch Tommy suggested that we watch a television show. Doug and I hesitated. We wanted to watch the show but, as we explained, we would have to ask my mother if we could turn on the television. Tommy shrugged reasonably and told us to go ask her. We froze.

Doug shook his head emphatically and said, “I’m not asking her.”

I said, “Well, I’m not doing it!”

Tommy looked puzzled. “What’s the big deal?” he said. “All she can do is say no.”

Even as I stared at him in disbelief, I felt an opening, the whisper of awareness that something important was being revealed. Was it possible that some mothers said yes or no to requests without getting angry because you’d asked? And, if that was so, what else might not be ordained as The Way Things Are? I couldn’t see any particular immediate use for this insight but the audacity of just considering the possibilityopened a door to the notion of choice in areas I had considered as immutable as gravity.

Families are different- as are marriages and jobs, individual beliefs and health and circumstances. I’ve done it myself: assumed that another’s situation is more similar to my own than it is, projected my sorrow or my joy, my well meaning but possibly mis-directed support or less-well-meaning and not-as-hidden-as-I-would-like judgement onto someone else.

We do share a great deal. Often I can see how the other is another myself, a mirror of my humanness. But each other is also wholly other, with their own history, experience, and perspective, a Mystery to me. If I can hold both of these truths, I can give and receive love while allowing and claiming the breathing space for each of us to be ourselves, to find our own way forward, to live our own lives fully.

Oriah (c) 2013


  1. Oriah,

    Thanks for the gentle reminder to carry the awareness that others are different than we often imagine, not a small thing! It continues to be a revelation to me at the age of 70.


    1. Fritz, it really is the necessary other half to the truth of We are All One. :-)

  2. Thank you. We often forget that our entire worldview is shaped by our limited perspective and point of view. I think as I have gotten older I have come to realize that one of the most important things in life is doing things to enhance your perspective and doing your best to be levelheaded and attempt to see other angles. However, perhaps equally important, we need to remind ourselves that we won't always have the correct perspective because it is so limited by our projections. Likewise, we have to accept not always needing to know and not always being able to know why things happen or why people think and do the things day do. Because sometimes, you can't understand things or even grasp the way another person sees things based on their own projections. And, to the extreme view, some people are frankly sociopaths incapable of feeling of empathizing or feeling connected to others. We can't fathom how they tick.

    Last head I heard the Dalai Lama speak and he said that we must learn to calm our emotions which causes to act or react in unhealthy ways. Furthermore, he said we should try to see the different dimensions of things and look at the first dimension, the second dimension, seven the third, the fourth, and the fifth, as impossible as that may be. This allows us to broaden our perspectives.

    In my experience, this is best cultivated through kindness and compassion for others. In the stories I've heard from my students in the times they only need someone to listen, I am blessed with the gift of broadening my world view. It is probably through compassion that we cultivate empathy, but also improve upon our perspectives by learning about the experiences of others in a meaningful and mutually beneficial way.

    Truly, life is about perspective. At the beginning of the year I was sharing with my students a very Powerful lesson that I learned about rejection. Because through perspective, even our most difficult moments and tragedies become lessons and perspective changers. After a loving relationship, betrayal, and break up, I spent months agonizing and wondering, "What did I do wrong" and "Why was I not good enough?" (It's sort of funny how even when we're being egotistical we are egotistical in a way that puts ourselves down).

    By chance I had picked up a book called "The Lost Art of Compassion", which I highly recommend (it ranks up there with your writings as far as how much it has meant to my life, and reading it I learned to start letting go - of her, of needing to know, but most importantly, of insecurities and fear, and learning to take care of myself first, so I could effectively help others (An unhappy and unhealthy you is a useless one, to you and everyone around you). Several months later I learned a little bit more about the past of the woman I felt betrayed by. In doing so I learned that she had been taken advantage of, hurt, and betrayed in such ways that I could never imagine by her ex husband, and It explains some of her behavior to me. What it could not change the past it really reinforce the idea that you do not and often cannot understand where a person is coming from, what their projections and issues are, and why they do things.

    Unable to just let things be we often form these stories in our heads to try and understand and make sense of things that are happening to us. One of the problems is that we as humans are notorious for thinking the worst, projecting, and creating negative stories about why people say or do things, just as I had done. Sometimes it's just not about you. But often we for our understanding, and our views around ourselves and create subconscious ways to put ourselves down. Often times it seems these stories or reasons we create in our mind are completely untrue and doing way more harm than good.

    Again, thank you so much. Your writing is always so personal and so real and in being that way, it is very much more touching, insightful, and helpful.

    I apologize for any mistakes. I typed this on my iphone.


    1. John, so much richness here in your comment (although I admit I was equally impressed that you wrote it on an iphone! :-)

      One of the things you point to is becoming comfortable with not knowing, not understanding, willing to accept that in any given moment my perspective is limited (often in ways of which I have no conscious awareness) and so what someone else is doing or feeling is truly a mystery to me. As I get older I find I am able to let this be what it is- something I really do not grasp, something to simply be with in wonder.