by Charles Curtis
As professional caregivers, we’re all familiar with the concept of projection, where a particular understanding of life is projected onto a life experience, coloring our perception of that experience.
Projection is not, at root, pathological, as it is simply a way of resolving ambiguity, and we are constantly asked by life to resolve ambiguity. For example, if we see dark clouds massing on a summer afternoon, we assume a brief thunderstorm is about to take place and go looking for our umbrellas.
That storm may blow through without dropping any rain, or take longer to get there than expected, so that the umbrella is not, in the end, required. Or, conversely, the storm may be worse and last longer than anticipated, so that the storm is so intense that the umbrella is useless and the duration of the storm ends up changing our plans. So our projection is sometimes not completely on the mark, but it is usually accurate enough that it functions as a useful adjunct to the planning process.
Where projection gets us in trouble is when we assume that someone’s behavior means a particular reality is present, when, in fact it is not. For example, if you see your boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife glance towards an attractive member of the opposite sex, and you immediately jump into an insane state of jealousy, imagining that your partner is contemplating leaving you for someone else, perhaps that attractive person, and that you must angrily control them to prevent that from happening, that’s a projection, and 100 times out of 100, acting on it will get you in big-time trouble.
What you don’t think of when such strong feelings jump into your mind/body, is that you are choosing one of many ways of resolving ambiguity, and that there could be many explanations for your boy/girlfriend/wife/husband’s action.
They could simply have noticed that person for any one of a variety of reasons, none of which pose any problem for your relationship. If your boyfriend/girlfriend has a healthy attitude, they can be appreciating the attractiveness of that person without having any intention of leaving you.
And there could be an endless variety of harmless thoughts going through their minds, none of which pose any threat to you. For example, they could be thinking that this attractive person is overly obsessed with their appearance and being glad that you’re not that way. A man looking at a pretty girl might be thinking, with happiness, "Boy, she looks high maintenance, glad I’m with you." Or feeling great relief at the thought "I’m so glad I’m past the point of looking for a relationship partner, because I remember how exhausting that was, and the temptation of making an evaluation based solely on personal appearance, and then finding out the woman was difficult to be with, despite looking good."
So if you also have a healthy attitude, you can respond without feeling threatened, saying to your boyfriend "She’s a looker, isn’t she" and he will, because he doesn’t feel threatened by your response, say what he’s thinking, like "Yeh, I was watching the body language of her and her partner, and wondering if they were happy with each other." And in this way, sharing these intimate thoughts becomes an interesting part of your relationship, and you are able to enjoy each other’s thoughts about such things in a non-threatening way, and it brings you closer together.
BEING GREEN WITH JEALOUSY
However, if you find yourself feeling jealous, and believe your jealousy is an accurate interpretation of what just happened, you may act on your feelings of jealousy by becoming fearful and expressing that fear by expressing needy statements ("When you look at other women, I feel like you don’t love me, show me that you love me"). Or conversely, you may become angry and try to control the behavior of your partner ("You’re mine, and that means that when you’re with me, you look at no other women, is that clear?").
These statements reflect your insecurity and make you much less attractive to anyone, including your partner. Because who wants to be with a needy or controlling person? Certainly if your partner is healthy, they will want nothing to do with needy or controlling people, including you. So if you express this insecurity enough, your partner may actually leave you, in which case, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Or if your partner is actually thinking of leaving you, for real, and that’s why they’re looking at others with seeming interest, because they are, then there is a problem in the relationship that needs to be discussed and worked through one way or the other, and you need to stop being in denial about it.
However, this does not mean that you have to have a fight. A person with healthy self-esteem would be able to say "If it’s seeming to you like it would be better for you to be with somebody else, then maybe we should set each other free, is that what you want?" And if it turns out that this is true, that your partner is unable to commit to being with you for any one of many reasons, and is actually thinking of leaving you, then you’re better off without them, it would be good for them to go, and it then leaves room in your life for someone better suited for you at this time. And a big blowup, culminating in a fight-to-the-finish, followed by a breakup are not required for this to happen.
THE CULTURE DOESN"T HELP
The feeling of jealousy is a flight-or-fight reaction, and as such is a life-or-death survival response meant to keep you from dying. As such, it has no place in a healthy relationship. For the same reason, any strong negative feeling has no place in a healthy relationship. (Notice I said "healthy relationship", for if the relationship is not healthy, a strong negative feeling may come from objective discernment. This is different from an overreactive fear or anger, and can be an important indicator that it’s time for a change.)
A problem is that the drama of identifying with, believing, and acting out strong negative flight-or-fight emotions is thoroughly built into the cultural fabric. We are literally trained from birth by the media and other sources that relationships are soap operas by nature, and that fear and anger are healthy responses to inappropriate actions by your partner.
We end up believing, because we’ve been told this so many times, that there is no escaping from periodic drama and fighting, it’s just the nature of things. So we end up learning from those around us that it is normal and proper to project our unhealed issues, our insecurities, onto our relationship partners, and then act them out with corresponding dysfunctional words and behaviors.
UNHEALTHY ATTITUDES REINFORCED
This mistake in perception is the genesis of all relationship issues, all fighting, and all conflict. A problem is that these flight-or-fight feelings are so strong and so thoroughly convincing, that the client with a relationship problem may have trouble understanding and therefore owning his/her contribution to the difficulty.
Societal programming very often reinforces this unhealthy point of view. Women will often get corroboration of how bad their partners are and how much their partners need to change by telling stories to their girlfriends, who then agree because they share the same dysfunctional beliefs. Similarly, guys will seek corroboration from their beer-drinking buddies of how much their mates are misbehaving and need to change.
The problem is that this flight-or-fight thinking turns logic on its head. When flight-or-fight turns up in our body, our perception becomes completely reversed in a stress-hormone-induced instant of time. Because flight-or-fight is about life-or-death surviving, it turns the object of its perception into the "villainous other".
So all of a sudden the person that our client loves is turned into "the enemy". Acting from a perception that the loved one is now "the enemy" produces violent words and sometimes violent actions, and the usual outcome is constant fighting, leading to a loveless marriage, and then eventually to the divorce court. If the client never learns about socially sanctioned codependence, or how to healthfully manage his/her feelings, this unhealthy marriage or relationship pattern can repeat over and over throughout life.
THE REAL PROBLEM
What most people have trouble understanding is that the problem is not that their relationship partners are misbehaving, the problem is that they themselves are believing their own flight-or-fight feelings and thoughts and taking them seriously. Or sometimes people have advanced to the understanding that the problem is, in fact, their over-reaction to their mate’s behaviors, but they still don’t know how to turn that over-reaction off, and they keep getting into fights despite a conscious intention not to do so.
The solution of course is not to believe these feelings, and therefore not to take an action of flight-or-fight, that is, to either leave the relationship (the flight response) or pick a fight with their partner (the fight response). The solution is to learn not be in flight-or-fight in the first place.
This is because when someone is not in flight-or-fight, they are objective. And only when they are objective can they be loving. And of course being loving is the best way to heal a troubled relationship, if it is still capable of being salvaged.
TEACHING THE CLIENT NOT TO BE IN FLIGHT OR FIGHT
So our role, when someone comes to us for relationship counseling, is to teach them not to be in flight-or-fight anymore. Part of this is education, teaching them about flight-or-fight, and how relationships that descend into flight-or-fight become mired in codependence. Many people have no idea that this is so built into our cultural points of view that we don’t realize that we’re not perceiving accurately when these culturally accepted feelings come up, because our culture has told us these feelings are true.
But this is easier said than done, because flight-or-fight is triggered outside of conscious thought. And once the flight-or-fight response is turned on, the client is having trouble thinking clearly because their mind is screaming at them that they have to fight or flee or they will die.
So this reprogramming of the fight-or-fight response must take place at the subconscious level, and that’s where you come in. Once the educational process about codependence has taken place, and the client is now convinced to look at the relationship in this new way, you now have to take them out of flight-or-fight back into a peaceful place where this reprogramming can begin.
Physiologically, you are shifting them from sympathetic nervous system activity to parasympathetic system activity. When they relax in this way, which you achieve by inducing a peaceful state of hypnosis, all of a sudden they perceive their relationship partner in a brand new way. They literally change, in just a few minutes, from perceiving "My partner is a jerk and I hate them" to "I love my partner and want to heal our relationship."
They find themselves no longer angry, and no longer fearful. From this more peaceful point of view, you can have the client regress to some peaceful loving memories of the relationship partner, perhaps back from when the relationship first began. You can do age regression to these pleasant memories, and then use "future pacing" to "anchor" those positive feelings to current stimuli, so that these pleasant loving memories and their associated feelings are now triggered by current stimuli instead of the old fear and anger.
In this way, your client becomes conditioned to respond positively to current stimuli regarding their partner. This reprograms their "buttons", so that the presence of their partner no longer pushes their buttons, and instead evokes loving feelings.
If the overreaction is all on your client’s part, as it sometimes is, this will resolve the relationship problem completely. Because they now see their partner in loving ways, they now feel loving feelings, and their partner responds with relief to their new positive energy, and all is well.
WHAT IF THE RELATIONSHIP PARTNER IS HAVING DIFFICULTIES
If the partner is going through a problem, such that the partner is being triggered independently into flight-or-fight, which is then being expressed to their partner (your client), then you have to train your client how to not be in flight-or-fight in response to their partner’s upset feelings, but instead how to be in compassion and love.
There is a useful NLP technique for this that is particularly good in helping the client to dissociate from their "buttons easily pushed" state of mind.
This is the "first person, second person, third person" technique. To do this, have the client regress to a recent conflict, which they will be remembering in "first person" position (meaning they will be "in the picture", seeing through their own eyes, hearing through their own ears, and feeling their own thoughts and feelings, which are upset and divisive).
You do this by saying "Alright, I’d like you to remember the last time you were in conflict in this way. Go back to that memory as if it were happening right now, and tell me when you’ve done that. "(And then give them time to do that, usually 20 seconds to a minute, at the end of which they will say "I’m there" or nod their head.)
You then have them move from "first person perspective" (being totally associated into the memory where the angry or fearful feelings are coming up), into "second person" (where they move their perspective until they are seeing the situation through the eyes of the relationship partner).
You do this by suggesting, "Remember that old Indian story about ‘Before you criticize me, walk a mile in my moccasins?’ To experience this with regards to your partner, in your mind’s eye, while remembering this conflict, allow your perspective, your point of view, to float up out of your body and allow your perspective to float into the body of your partner, so that, for a moment, you are seeing through their eyes, hearing through their ears, and feeling their sensations. Tell me when you’ve done this." (Then give them time to do it, which will typically take from 20 seconds to a minute. Wait for them to say "yes" or nod their head.)
Then you say "And as you look out at life through your partner’s eyes, so that you are inside them, seeing you, as this conflict takes place, notice what your partner is seeing, hearing, and feeling, as they interact with you, and let me know when you’ve done that" (And then give them time to do that, typically 20 seconds to a minute). "And what do you understand now about your partner?" And they will typically have amazing insights they will share with you that they had never thought of before. These insights typically cause them to understand and therefore feel compassion for their partner’s actions in a brand new way.
For example, a woman upset with her partner for emotionally withdrawing whenever conflict occurred may perceive "Wow, he is seeing my angry reaction as being so intimidating that he is shutting down to protect himself. And I thought he was withdrawing from me because he didn’t love me, and that made me feel angry, whereas he is withdrawing because he loves me and doesn’t want to fight, and now that I know that, I don’t feel angry anymore, I feel like I need to give him a big hug and apologize for my angry words." Or conversely, "He is being aggressive because he is stressed from his job and hasn’t relaxed yet, so his behavior isn’t about me at all, he’s just stressed in general and isn’t upset with me at all, and if I can understand that and give him space to relax without taking it personally, he’ll settle down, stop being reactive, and apologize later. The best thing I can do right now is just leave him alone, and now I understand that."
WHEN THINGS DON’T JUST SEEM BAD, THEY ARE BAD
If second person position doesn’t resolve the issue, you can take the client into "third position", which is the viewpoint of a third party observer.
For example, if the relationship is really in an unhealthy state, such that a third party would clearly advocate taking action to preserve health and safety, take your client into just such a third-position objective state, so that s/he can now objectively evaluate what is going on and take the correct objective action.
For example, your client may say from second person position "He really is hating me. When he’s upset, he can’t see the truth of what I’m saying. I can sense that he really wants to hurt me, and his intensity is frightening, he seems capable of hitting me again, even more than before."
You do this by saying, "And it can be useful to view this relationship from the standpoint of a neutral third party observer. In order to do this, let your perspective, your point of view, float up out of your body and into the body of a neutral third party observer. This can be somebody who was there, or somebody else that you can imagine was there, so that you can see the two of you through their eyes, hear your words through their ears, and feel your emotions in their body. Let me know when you’ve done that." And then give them time to do it, typically 20 seconds to a minute. "And what is it that you, as this neutral observer, are observing?"
For example, a battered wife married to an alcoholic can view a recent conflict between herself and her husband from the standpoint of an observer, recognize that his actions are dangerous and becoming more so, that his promises of changing aren’t happening, that she is in real physical danger, and that she needs to take care of her own needs by leaving now and moving into a woman’s shelter.
IF IT TAKES MORE THAN THAT
Sometimes there is so much going on our client, like a history of abuse, that a simple technique like "first, second, third person" isn’t enough to resolve the issue. They may have intense emotional charges linked in a stimulus response manner to memories they have repressed to protect themselves from the intensity. In the example above, her own unmet needs can keep a battered woman going back again and again to her abuser, even if a third party observer would conclude that she is in imminent danger and needs to leave the relationship.
In that case, there are many other techniques that can be applied by the skilled hypnotist. But it’s also always important to never extend yourself beyond your training. So if you feel like this client requires more than you know how to give, you can always refer them to another professional with more experience in this area.
And remember, when doing this kind of work, we AREN’T giving advice, and we AREN’T playing "social worker" or "marriage and family counselor" unless we are licensed to do so. (We can of course, refer our client to just such another professional with expertise in such areas if we think the client needs it.)
And if the client asks our advice, as they often do, ("Do you think I should leave him?"), we can deflect this back to them by saying "I don’t know the facts of the situation nearly as well as you do. So it makes sense that it’s better if you make any decisions yourself from your own point of view."
So what we ARE doing is helping the client access his or her own wise part of themselves, something they may not have had the habit of doing, especially if they habitually live in fear or anger. Because you can’t hear the wise part of yourself if your mind is clouded with fear and anger, and many people societally programmed to accept relationship drama as normal spend 24/7 in this clouded state.
So what we DO do is assist the client in reaching a place of relaxed clear perception, where they are capable of thinking clearly and making wise decisions, perhaps for the first time in a long time.
THE GIFT WE GIVE OUR CLIENT
In other words, we teach our clients how to change the slides in their projectors so that they are resolving the ambiguity of their partners’ behaviors in loving ways, rather than upsetting ways.
And that ability to move our clients out of the grip of "flight-or-fight" into that objective peaceful place is such a gift to them. It is our most important skill.
So the next time a client begins to tell the tale of how his/her relationship is going on the rocks, and how it’s their partners fault, ask them "What slide is in your projector"?