Countering Projections: Healthy Differentiation

As a special request from my boss at Bliss Counselling, I’m doing a followup for last week’s post about the challenges of projections, to answer the question, “How *DO* we get away from idealized projections and into healthier relationships?”

The Idealized Other is a creation of generations of romantic fantasies, a cultural myth surmising that we need someone to complete us, or heal us, or just do for us all the things we don’t want or can’t or simply haven’t yet figured out how to do for ourselves. That’s a tall order, so the Idealized Other must, perforce, be something approaching perfection, but a kind of perfection bound to and defined by OUR internal, personal needs and wants. Assuming that any other being is so closely operant to our definitions is more than a bit of folly, yet we can’t seem to find a way to let go of this intrinsic yearning for partners who are just so much better than we are.

In short, we objectify our partners in intrinsically damaging ways, by believing they come into our lives for the purpose of being pure need-meeting devices. We fail to acknowledge their essential Otherness, and eventually, if we cannot overcome the tension between “I and Thou”, we come to resent them as distant or non-compliant aliens: “It’s like I don’t even know you.”

The damage of the Ideal Other projection is that we fail to allow our partners to be the fully-differentiated beings they are, in all their beautiful and flawed glory. We fail to keep to our own boundaries when we project our needs and invisible expectations onto others, and double-down on the problem when we then resort to punitive measures in the face of our inevitable disappointments.

So: How do we avoid projecting (or being projected upon), and have healthy relationships instead?

For me, there are three primary stages of this kind of work:

  1. Internal reflection and recognition
  2. Self-regulation and anxiety management
  3. Negotiation (invitation and exploration of the needs being presented)

Step one, as in so many self-awareness processes, is to develop recognition of the issue. There are entire libraries written on the topic of how to turn analytic reflection inwards: spiritual reflection, meditation, psychotherapy… I like to start with simple questions, personally; there are only so many books I can afford to buy in a year, and fewer that I can actually make time to read. Questions are easy, and, as this blog proves, often free 😉

We recognize projections most clearly in the aftermath of something going wrong between partners, so I start the explorations there:

  • What am I upset about? (High-level situational awareness)
  • What do I find upsetting or disappointing about what happened? What specifically did I expect? (High-level expectation identification)
  • Am I spending time and energy trying to convince (or manipulate, or force) my partner to behave differently, especially to conform to some kind of standard or expectation internal to me?
  • Am *I* aware of how much emotional investment *I* have tied to having that need met in specific ways?
  • Have I discussed that expectation and its importance with my partner, and EXPLICITLY asked or invited them to meet that need with me?
  • Has my partner EXPLICITLY CONSENTED to meeting that need for and with me? Do we have the same understanding of how that need-meeting is likely to look?
  • Am I responding to disappointment or frustration in failed need-meeting authentically? In proportionate or disproportionate ways? Have I checked in with my partner for their measure of my response? What do they say?
  • What am I afraid will happen if these needs are NOT met, if my partner proves to be NOT my Idealized Other??

The last half-dozen questions are all about more detail-level self-awareness around the shape of needs, our investment in them being met in particular ways, and the presence or absence of explicit consent boundaries. These latter are particularly important, because without explicit consent in the realm of need-meeting, we’re potentially in much deeper water than we realize.

Some of the key indicators of boundary failures in Idealized Other scenarios occur when we assume Others to be inside our boundaries, where our needs reside. We assume they exist for us, that the boundaries of our needs and desires and standards and expectations, extend around them like a fenced-in pasture. (It’s one of the hallmarks I’ve observed, times beyond count, when there is any expectation that “the relationship” is a singular unified entity rather than a pair of conjoined but individuated attachments, defined by such extensible and encompassing boundary issues. It’s as if we say, “we are now In Relationship, therefore you are INSIDE my boundaries and will meet my needs as I expect…right???”) We don’t stop being individuals when we become partners, but the projection of ideals makes it very difficult to accept those boundaries are real, valid, and absolutely necessary for healthy connections.

Healthy relationships are rooted in solid, balanced “differentiation of self”; Murray Bowen, founding father of Family Systems Theory:

“Differentiation of self is one’s ability to separate one’s own intellectual and emotional functioning from that of the [system]. Bowen spoke of people functioning on a single continuum or scale. Individuals with “low differentiation” are more likely to become fused with predominant family emotions. (A related concept is that of an undifferentiated ego mass, which is a family unit whose members possess low differentiation and therefore are emotionally fused.) Those with “low differentiation” depend on others’ approval and acceptance. They either conform themselves to others in order to please them, or they attempt to force others to conform to themselves. They are thus more vulnerable to stress, defined as stressor(s) and psycho-physiological “stress reactivity,” and theirs is a greater than average challenge to adjust/adapt to life changes and contrary beliefs.” –from Wikipedia

Differentiating in intimate relationships, if this is the first time one or both parties has ever attempted to wrangle emotional fusion into something more functional, is certainly anxiety-provoking. With clients discovering these kinds of “enforcing conformity” patterns, the family of origin snapshot is a useful tool for determining both where these behavioural patterns originate, and for framing in countermeasures for change; we have to know something about the original programming to know what, exactly, it is we’re trying to reprogram. I have had good effect with then pairing the family systems perspective with attachment theory; emotional fusion is often the primary signal of an anxious or insecure attachment, in which the anxious partner often can’t self-regulate their own emotional reactions.

Projected ideals, for an anxious attachment style, will often become a means of controlling the other as a tool for mitigating risk in relationships… or so we think. Unfortunately, the autonomous human beings we’ve selected as partners will have damnably inconvenient needs and desires of their own, and they may resist the pressure of the invisible expectations (and respond with escalation if they feel they are being punished for something they didn’t even realize was an issue). Improving one’s stance within a relationship will then start with the essentials of improved self-regulation and emotional awareness. The questions listed above are often good places to start; tactics for emotional self-soothing are readily available on the Internet, and can be as simple as some very basic mindfulness breathing. Anxiety escalates both cognitively and physically, and sometimes by breaking the trajectory on one front, we can buy ourselves a little breathing room to assess and redirect energies on both fronts.

Once we get some self-regulation in place in the very shortest-term sense, we progress through situational awareness, and look at unpacking the cognitive layers around the expectations. At that point, we can open up a dialogue with the partner that explicitly invites exploring the differences between the projected Idealized Other, and the very Real Person sitting in the room with us. We explore the ways in which over-investment in the projection robs us of an opportunity to be authentic in the presence of the Real Partner, and how shackling ourselves to attempts to manage the other cheats us out of our own vulnerabilities. Learning to let go of things being done ONLY in the Idealized Way is hard, and fear-laden; learning to accept that it’s okay if we don’t get everything our own way, that not getting what we want does NOT, in fact, signal the end of the world, is a fundamental challenge to our core Self. But this constrained view only accepts one way as being The Right Way, and leaves us closed to the option of Other Ways being equally good for getting us where we need to go. We have to challenge ourselves in relationship to step off the narrow path of what *we* know, though, and into the Very Wide & Very Terrifying Unknown.

(I know, I *KNOW*. I imagine most people, like myself, find the idea of being vulnerable with the people and situations that make us uncomfortable, or force us to confront our own idealism, Really Damned Unpleasant, and possibly eternally filed under, “To Be Avoided At All Costs”. But trust me when I say, from experience, that the cost of NOT letting go of the projected Idealized Other is almost certainly your relationship, and quite possibly your peace of mind along with it. This will be one of those places where the therapist in me suggests, “Do as I say”, and the twice-divorced adult in me adds, “…and not as I do.”)

From there, the process of building healthier boundary definition and self-definition comes down to the fine art and craft of managing a negotiation process. John Gottman would say, “It’s not the places in relationship where were are similar and mesh well that determines our relational success potential; it’s how we manage the places where we are inherently different.” If we attempt to manage differences by eradicating them through enforced conformity to only one set of ideals, then we’re not in a healthy relationship: we’re in a dictatorship. Learning how to have, and build trust in, the negotiation process of need-meeting is where the partners in any relationship can develop significant vulnerability and insight with each other.

Learning to effectively share our needs and their value to us, and to invite (flawed, not idealized) Partners into the meeting of those needs, is a profoundly authentic, and terrifying process. Allowing our partners to retain their own autonomy means NOT presumptively extending our personal boundaries over them, and NOT assuming they exist in relationship solely to meet our needs, or not solely in OUR presumed ways. Guiding these discussions is one place a trained therapist can be helpful if you’re not confident you can manage the emotional rollercoaster on your collective or individual own, but truthfully, these insightful conversations are tools couples can also develop on their own with some direction, lots of practice, and good faith.

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