projector

A while back, my ther­a­pist asked, “Do you think Heather will love you, regard­less of whether you’re active­ly con­tribut­ing to the rela­tion­ship?”. I told him I wasn’t sure, cause I was still try­ing to under­stand the con­cept of uncon­di­tion­al love. As a child, my par­ents told me they wouldn’t love me if I wasn’t a good boy, and a good boy would do exact­ly what they want­ed. The affec­tion they doled out was direct­ly relat­ed to how well I did in school, or how much I impressed oth­er par­ents. They used it as a tool to con­trol me, and this dynam­ic has influ­enced my under­stand­ing of rela­tion­ships to the point that it feels like I con­stant­ly need to be mak­ing efforts in them (or they’ll decay).

So my ther­a­pist instead posed the ques­tion, “Do you think Heather will love you, no mat­ter what?”. My first reac­tion was one of con­fu­sion; I heard the same ques­tion as before. When I real­ized it had com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent impli­ca­tions — would Heather still love me if I was an axe mur­der­er; if I was racist; if I burned the house down; if I didn’t love her back — it dawned on me that I was pro­ject­ing this mon­u­men­tal require­ment on myself to be con­stant­ly mak­ing efforts towards the rela­tion­ship. It wasn’t an expec­ta­tion Heather was bring­ing, but my own; one I pro­ject­ed on her due to my child­hood trauma.

To real­ize that I was doing this in such a spe­cif­ic and sig­nif­i­cant man­ner was a shock. My mind inad­ver­tent­ly made bounds in log­ic, and every time Heather said, “I’ll always love you”, I would hear, “I’ll always love you, as long as…1

Psychological pro­jec­tion isn’t ter­ri­bly uncom­mon (it’s only nat­ur­al to assume oth­ers are like us), nor is it nec­es­sar­i­ly an issue in itself. But I dis­cov­ered how much of a prob­lem it can be when I became involved with a per­son who did it sig­nif­i­cant­ly enough that it altered the course of our rela­tion­ship. She had enor­mous emo­tion­al bar­ri­ers, and that inse­cu­ri­ty man­i­fest­ed itself by inter­pret­ing any ten­sion between us as a sign that things wouldn’t work out. It was impos­si­ble for me to check in with her and gauge how she was feel­ing about any­thing when the sim­ple act of ask­ing a ques­tion had huge impli­ca­tions in her head.

Just thank­ing her for acknowl­edg­ing a truth would cause her to lash out at me, cause she thought I was rub­bing a fault or mis­take in her face. I had to give up on com­mu­ni­cat­ing with her when she was con­stant­ly hear­ing some­thing far removed from what I was say­ing, when she per­ceived every sit­u­a­tion to be so dif­fer­ent from the truth as a way of avoid­ing inti­ma­cy or respon­si­bil­i­ty2.

I’ve since tried to be more con­scious of the bias I bring to each sit­u­a­tion, some­thing that’s par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant when I want to be sure some­one knows how I feel (and vice ver­sa). One of the ways I try to break out of the habit of pro­jec­tion is by includ­ing Heather in my show­ers. Showers tend to be my time: a space where I have a chance to treat myself well. I used to choose not to have Heather in there with me, cause I felt a con­stant pres­sure to be enter­tain­ing her or inter­act­ing with her in some way. It wasn’t an atmos­phere that felt relax­ing to me. But then I real­ized that expec­ta­tion was some­thing I was pro­ject­ing on to her. She’s per­fect­ly hap­py when we’re going about our own rou­tines, or just stand­ing there with me, music fill­ing the air and only our eyes to say what we want. It’s not easy for me let my guard down around some­one, and every time I have to step out of my com­fort zone and remind myself that she’s not stand­ing there grow­ing unhappy.

Fortunately, Heather is per­fect­ly fine with let­ting me take my time in this process. She doesn’t judge me or grow impa­tient with the fact that I occa­sion­al­ly need my space. She’s hap­py to give me time alone, cause she knows it’s not a reflec­tion on her or the state of our rela­tion­ship. But I real­ize that I’m the one los­ing out, the same way my ex lost out on a healthy rela­tion­ship cause she couldn’t man­age her issues, not cause there was any real con­flict, incom­pat­i­bil­i­ty, or prob­lem. I’m the one who doesn’t have the com­pa­ny of a gor­geous girl in the show­er with me when I can’t man­age mine.

And that dri­ves me to do bet­ter. To remove my bias­es as best as pos­si­ble, so I can be a good lis­ten­er and under­stand what peo­ple are tru­ly say­ing instead of what I’m hear­ing. So I don’t lose oppor­tu­ni­ties cause of my inse­cu­ri­ties. So my past no longer holds me back from reach­ing my potential.

  1. It blows my mind to know that Heather’s love for me isn’t con­di­tion­al, that she loves me deep­er that I’m even able to under­stand at the moment. []
  2. When ask­ing, “Do you want to break up?”, she heard, “I want to break up with you”. When telling her, “You hurt me”, she heard, “I don’t love you enough to accept you”. []

2 comments

  1. The only per­son who should love you uncon­di­tion­al­ly is your­self, any­one else doing that would be bad (if you log­i­cal­ly thought about it). Maybe you’re form­ing a cult.

    • That’s an insight­ful point, and one Heather taught me a while back, as I’m the one still cal­i­brat­ing the expec­ta­tions of my rela­tion­ships. Learning to love and accept myself will like­ly be a life­long struggle.

      When writ­ing this entry, I decid­ed not to go into the nuances of “con­di­tion­al” or “uncon­di­tion­al” for the sake of sim­plic­i­ty. The point I was try­ing to get across was that Heather’s love for me is far from fick­le. In fact, I think it’s safe to say she loves me more than I’ll ever love myself; from my per­spec­tive, that pret­ty much makes it unconditional.

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