Separating the Past from the Present; Transference and Projection
One of the markers of a healthy personality is the ability to be flexible about how we see things and to let in new learning about the world and our relationships.
Although all of us are constantly bombarded with fresh feedback from the environment and the people in our lives, knowing how to be truly open to this new information can take quite a bit of skill, as it’s often so much easier to superimpose our past experiences onto our read of what’s going on in the present.
Being open to new learning is so important because it allows us to reevaluate our unconscious assumptions and expectations about how interactions and events will unfold, but it’s equally important for our reflexes to kick in automatically to protect us when the potential for true danger is high. Using past learning to create mental shortcuts is helpful when it allows us to process stimuli efficiently and to react to threats almost automatically, in ways that preserve our safety. But when we start to see things two-dimensionally and become rigid about how we interpret new experiences, we lose out on opportunities for new learning; for repair of past hurts; and for the mystery, intimacy, and intrigue that comes from constantly learning new things about the people and things we feel we already know so well.
Learning how to differentiate between truly threatening situations and those that are benign can help us determine when it makes sense to react before we think, and when it makes sense to slow down before reacting.
There are many different types of cues that can trigger our assumptions and projections.
It can be guesses we make about behaviors or feelings that go along with certain roles….like imagining that all authority figures will be critical and demanding, as one’s father was; that people who try to help us will betray us, just as in the past; or that one’s partner will be undependable in much the same way that the last one was.
It could be behaviors that we interpret based on what they’ve seemed to mean in previous contexts or encounters…whether it’s reading a friend’s lateness as intentional (as was true in another friendship) when it’s really just about traffic this time around; or when one child doesn’t do his homework and the parent assumes it’s the same defiance that his brother displayed.
Or, it might simply be the situation itself that leads us to pull up a familiar script of how things will play out…believing, for example, that bad luck will always follow success; or that talking about anger will lead to violence (as in the past); or that the only way to get attention is to be sick; we make predictions all the time without even realizing we’re doing it.
And so we miss the opportunity to slow down and look for new meanings, new outcomes, new ways of being in old roles.
Perhaps this authority figure, partner, or helper is different. Perhaps this time, this event, this context is different. Can we spot that?
We can’t always help if our initial impulse is to react based on the past, but we can learn to slow our reactions down long enough to think about what we might not know in situations that are realistically safe (as in relationships with people we trust, or in safe environmental conditions).
And so, at times it can be good to stop and wonder, is this person really the person I think he is? How much of this partner, or child, friend, or authority figure am I not seeing clearly because he/she reminds me of something from the past? Do I really need to avoid all the things I’m missing out on, for fear of being hurt again…or can I learn to discriminate, to see what’s different and then decide?
Maybe constructive criticism from a boss, as an adult, doesn’t have to feel as bad as the harsh criticism experienced in childhood from one’s father. Perhaps this partner will come through for you, if you let yourself depend. Maybe the dark room you’re having nightmares in now, is different from the room you slept in as a young, helpless child when your raging alcoholic father could walk in at any moment.
We at times act as if we know that we need to protect ourselves; or that we’re going to get hurt; that something bad is going to happen; or perhaps that we’ll be caught off guard if we let ourselves dare to trust. And so we forget to look at the whole picture, the fuller context, to see all of the information that we’re not paying attention to, because we’re so primed to look for what we know, that we forget to look for what’s new.
Checking in with ourselves about what assumptions we’re making; asking a friend or a therapist for another perspective; or simply changing the scenery or the setting, can all help when it comes to getting a fresh perspective and separating our old experiences from what’s going on right now.
What else works for you?