Dancing with your Shadow; Attachment and the Projected Self

How many times have you felt way more attracted to, or even in love with, someone once they were gone? This is a fairly common occurrence, and it makes people feel crazy not to mention heartbroken, lonely, and depressed. I see this happen all the time and have become accustomed to “normalizing” this response for people and helping them re-establish their emotional balance. And, please keep in mind that these patterns happen with everyone whether they are in psychotherapy or whether they tough it out on their own.

Consider the case of Aaron. Aaron was dating a young woman for about three months. He enjoyed being with this person and considered her a friend and a lover. But he wasn’t crazy about her. Then, she started to give him signals that she might not be as smitten with him as she was initially. She was slow to return his texts, started telling him she was busy when he asked if she wanted to hang out, and kept telling him nothing was wrong when he asked for reassurance. Aaron started feeling anxious and emotionally off balance… not secure and confident like he was when he met her. Across the next several weeks, he tried twice to ask her again if something was amiss and if she wanted to break things off. But she told him that she still wanted him. Then, three weeks later she sent him a short text saying she was sorry that she hadn’t been able to see him more often and that she wished him the best. Aaron just about lost his mind.

He couldn’t stop thinking, “What is wrong with me that she didn’t want me? Maybe if I hadn’t asked for reassurance, things would be different. I really love her and this is killing me.”

Sound familiar?

In the next example, Susan was grieving the loss of her boyfriend, when she started dating Gabe. Gabe was the strong, rugged, and quiet type. She really wanted to be with him. He was enticing to her and she succeeded in getting his attention and affection. But at the same time, he was slow to return texts and rarely made plans or initiated invitations for them to be together. He had been out of a committed relationship for about 3 years, so Susan didn’t think he was hung up on an ex or anything. But he rarely spoke about himself or his past except to say that his childhood and parents were perfect. It was starting to sound like Gabe had a dismissing attachment style.

While all this was going on, Susan was being pursued by Alex, who she described as being much better looking and more polished than Gabe. Alex sounded like he really liked Susan. He asked her out on dates, made plans, was a good communicator, and was fairly open about himself. But, Susan just wasn’t that interested. She wanted Gabe. She would ask, “How can I get him to make plans and ask me out on dates?” “How can I make him like me more?” “I feel like he is the one and I’m blowing it.” “What if he’s the one, and I could have done something different?”

The first thing to note in both of these cases, is that if the unavailable person were “the one,” he or she would still be there and be lovingly available. But they are not, so they are probably not “the one.”

So, why would someone pine for a lost or unavailable love interest? The examples above are different but they share something in common: the sought-after love and being “the one,” is a projection.

Sometimes we are trying to be in a relationship with the dream of who we wish someone would be.

Aaron (who had a preoccupied attachment style) was not really that crazy about his dating partner until she triggered his attachment system by giving him rejection cues. This activated in him the idea of a lack or absence of love and of the possibility that he was in some way deficient. He then felt an intense need to fill that lack with a love that was lost. But the love was never there in the first place. It was an idea born of an imagined fear of being alone (something that he was not feeling just four months ago). It was a love that he projected onto a person who had already checked out and was not emotionally available. This person had not been considerate, had been very indirect in her communications and was probably conflict averse… not good indicators in a relationship partner. In short, Aaron would not choose to be in a relationship with such a person, and the grief he was feeling related to grieving a dream….a projection…. not a real person.

Susan was similarly projecting an idea of love and having that one special relationship onto Gabe. Gabe does not appear to be emotionally available, is very inconsistent, and lacks many of the characteristics that Susan would like the love of her life to have. There is a real Gabe there, but Susan was able to concede that she did not really know him that well or understand his goals or motives. She was able to see that she was projecting her dream role onto Gabe… a role that he did not appear ready to play. Gabe was, for all intents and purposes, a blank slate onto which Susan was projecting her dream of love.

In psychology, projection is viewed as an unconscious process whereby someone sees attributes (positive and negative) in another person that really belong to themselves.

In the classic definition of the term,  projections are usually negative. Most of us have seen the dark side of projections them in action. Here are some examples: 

  • Someone who is a poor listener may accuse others of always cutting off the end of his sentences.
  • Someone who is closed minded and bigoted may accuse others of discriminating against him.
  • Someone who is competitive might view others as trying to get ahead and take advantage of her. 
  • Someone who is an aggressive driver may become infuriated by someone accidentally cutting her off.
  • Someone who is unfaithful may become jealous and accuse his wife of being disloyal.

In Susan’s case, she is projecting her dream of love onto an unavailable other. In that context, she was very bothered by how desperate and needy she felt. Ironically, she perceived Alex as being desperate and a bit needy… something that she felt very turned off by, and was more than happy to reject. Susan was embarassed by her own desperation and neediness so she projected these feelings onto Alex.  In truth, there is no way for us to know how much those characteristics really belonged to Alex any more than we can know how much the qualities of ideal love reside in Gabe.

Here are some things you can do to use this information to better navigate your relationships:

  1. Recognize when someone is inviting you to take a role in their play and decide, consciously, whether to accept that role or to decline it.
  2. Realize when you are projecting traits, values or ideals onto another person. Try to put those projections aside and see the other person for who they truly are.
  3. Do a reality check on your possible projections by checking in with the other person (gently please) and asking if they are feeling what you think they are.
  4. If it would be too confrontational to go the person directly, find an ally who you trust to give you straight feedback and ask them if they think you are seeing things accurately. A strong supporter will tell you the truth even if it is not what you want to hear.
  5. Ask yourself if you are feeling or doing what you perceive or want the other person to be feeling or doing.
  6. If you feel that you are being falsely accused of feeling or being a certain way, ask yourself if the accuser might be feeling that way too (but use this as data to help yourself understand the situation.  Saying “Yah, but you….!” Is a sure way to start or exacerbate a fight).

Overall, try not to be angry, have compassion, and forgive other people (and yourself), when they decide not to take on their assigned role in your play.

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