What you can learn from the most challenging people in your life.
There is no better time for growing than the holiday season. And not just growing in the belly, but in the heart and mind as well. Family interactions, particularly those that go on over a period of consecutive days, offer profound opportunities for self-awareness, learning, and evolution.
Our greatest challenges are our greatest teachers, and they often manifest in the form of family—at least, that’s been my experience. I have taken on a practice and habit of bowing to my hardest or most painful situations, even as I struggle with and loathe them. I know that if I can approach my greatest challenges with awareness and self-kindness, I can use them to evolve and find more peace in my life. I know from practice that the hard parts of life will change me, and for this opportunity to change, if not the situation itself, I am grateful.
Recently I had the good fortune to spend time with one of my teachers. Over the years, this particular teacher, who happens to also be a family member, has provided seemingly unending opportunities for me to grow and change. So I begin by saying thank you. I have become who I am, in part, because of what I have had to work with in my relationship with this particular person.
But this family member is also a blamer. We all know a blamer—most families have at least one. This weekend, my daughter falls down, skins her knee, and is crying. His first words: “That’s what happens when you run so fast on the pavement.” Later, my tooth is hurting so much that I have to take pain medicine. He offers, “Well, why don’t you take better care of your teeth? You must still be chewing ice.”
You get the point.
The circumstances are irrelevant; empathy is always off the table. The only item of concern is fingering the person to blame and identifying his or her crime.
This particular aspect of my teacher’s way of being was helpful some years back. Indeed, I grew from it. I can now be with his empathic vacuum, and recognize how it allows him not to feel sad or bad about himself. Being angry protects him from having to experience another’s pain, something by which he clearly feels threatened. I am also able (now) to refrain from getting involved in his pathology by defending the blamed. I am instead able to use it as a catalyst for opening my own heart and accompanying the other (the one being blamed) in the experience where they are.
But this year, I witnessed a new form of blaming over the Thanksgiving weekend. Or you could say that a new teaching appeared from which to become even wiser and more aware. The challenge at the holiday table this year was that of being blamed for causing bad feelings that another person feels independently—projection, at its most basic level:
- Problem 1: She has (for many years) felt crippling shame about something at which she failed in her life.Reaction: She blames the other (in this case, me) for shaming her. I, in her narrative, become the active humiliator despite never actually raising the issue of the failure.
- Problem 2: She feels bad or guilty for getting stuck in traffic and not being able to get her daughter to an important event on time.Reaction: She blames the other person in the car and accuses that person of blaming her for not being a good mother. (In truth, the other person has not said a thing.)
- Problem 3: She feels entirely responsible for her husband’s happiness and vigilantly seeks to protect him from being unhappy or displeased even for a moment.Reaction: Overwhelmed, she then blames her husband for expecting (or demanding) that she make him happy.
You get the point.
This blamer blames the other for creating the feelings that she does not want to feel. She can then fight with and be angry with the person "doing" this to her. She makes them the keeper/source of her bad feelings, and in so doing, she can disown the bad feelings as not part of her, split off from the experience she finds threatening.
For the person being projected onto, this is quite a challenge. When the blamer is projecting their bad feelings onto you, they actually believe that you are doing this to them. You are to blame for creating this bad experience inside—with intention. They are not playing at being deluded, but actually believe that you are the bad one and blame you for trying to make them feel this way. In their projection, they are the victim of your negative intentions. The result: They succeed in morphing their bad feelings into a bad you.
The one receiving projection—the blame—has several fundamental dilemmas to deal with (and then some):
- First, there's their own hurt—of not being seen for who they are and being assigned a negative intention that doesn’t belong to them.
- Second, the anger and confusion at blame for something that they did not create, and the unfairness of the emotionally abusive behavior they experience.
- Finally, the frustration of trying to communicate and portray oneself correctly within an environment of distortion and the absence of awareness.
How do you respond and, if you so choose, continue to be in relationship with a person who uses you as a place to assign the feelings that they cannot own? How do you learn and grow from someone who creates negative actions and intentions for you that aren’t yours as a way of splitting off from their own unprocessed experience—a way of staying in denial? How do you be in relationship with blindness—specifically, when your mistreatment is a part of that blindness?
I'll leave you with questions and a promise to return in the next few weeks with, hopefully, some answers that are helpful. For now, perhaps just knowing that this is a common difficulty and pain in relationships may help ease your own pain. If you are experiencing something like this, you are not alone. And you are not alone in the suffering that it is to live under the burden of projection. Remember too, as I am trying to, that with each projection, another teacher arrives, offering us yet another chance to become more aware, wiser, and more at peace with what is.