We say things like this all the time… to other people.
“You’ve got it all together.”
“I could never handle all the things that you do – and you don’t even seem to think about it. You just do it.”
That’s called projection in psychology. You’re looking at someone else and “projecting” you feelings onto them. The fact that projections are often in error and more a product of your own insecurity- doesn’t even occur to you!
So here’s a true story about just how projection can work. Or not work.
Several years ago, I was generously offered inclusion in a Masters class in musical theatre by the instructor, Amy, who’d directed me in a musical a few months before. My classmates were students mostly in their 20’s, studying for their Masters of Fine Arts. All had a bunch of experience on the stage and impressive resumes.
Me? I didn’t have much. I hadn’t taken an acting class since high school. And to make matters more complicated (in my own mind..), they were more than twenty years my junior.
Fast forward to the first class. I was immediately intimidated. It wasn’t that they weren’t friendly; they included me warmly as they chatted about the shows they’d been in, this acting workshop and that try-out. When I was asked about my theatrical history, I talked about my college experience, a play here and there through the years. Ugh… I wanted to melt in to the floor like the Wicked Witch of the West. After class, I hightailed it out of there, and as I was walking to my car, I decided, “Nope. Not for me. I don’t fit in. They’ve all got so much experience. I’m out of my league.”
I called Amy the following Monday morning.
Nervously, I explained: “Thank you so much for inviting me into the class. But I don’t think this is for me. I’m really intimidated by the other students.”
She started laughing – the kind of laughing where you start laughing too although you don’t know why. “Do you know what I do on Sunday nights?” she asked.
“I have all the graduate students over to my house for dinner. Do you know what they were talking about last night?”
I waited, knowing there was some kind of punch line.
“They were talking about how in-ti-mi-da-ting you are!!!”
“What! Me??? Why???”
She went on, laughing. I had a Ph.D. blah blah blah. I couldn’t miss the irony. So I took the class, learned a bunch, met some great people, and had a marvelous time.
Sometimes your gut is wrong. My projections were way off base. So why did I allow my mind to do that? Because I was afraid to risk I was insecure and frankly, scared.
Making the mistake of idealizing others and shaming yourself…
Idealization. We do it all the time to one another; we see things in someone else that we admire, and immediately project our own fantasies about what it must be like to be that person. It’s not a realistic portrayal of their lives; it’s totally fabricated. Yet you feel inferior as you compare yourself to how you are imagining they live.
So, how do you realize when you’re idealizing someone else? Or you’re allowing yourself to be intimidated? How do you recognize when you’re allowing perfect-looking social media posts get to you, or make you believe that your own life doesn’t cut the mustard?
It’s when you become aware that as you observe, as you watch, as you read or hear what others are doing, you hear that inner critical voice of yours starting to shaming you.
“You’ll never do anything that special.”
“You would mess that up if that were you.”
“You don’t work hard enough to earn that kind of attention.”
Please remember my story. You have no idea how others are perceiving you. Michael Yapko, an international expert on depression, reminds us that none of us has the right to believe you “know” what others think of you. It’s shame, maybe even clinical depression, that’s whispering constant negative things about yourself in your ear.
But there is one thing that “intimidating” people do..
Let’s go back to my story. When I stopped to think rationally, all of my classmates had already taken huge risks, coming into a Masters program in order to be critically evaluated as they were striving to learn more about acting, directing, and writing. But I wasn’t thinking about that at the time. No, of course not. I was busy comparing myself to them.
They saw me as taking a risk as well. I was getting out of my safe world of being a therapist, and coming back into another world where I was far less secure.
It was, in reality, a mutual admiration kind of thing. No one needed to be intimidated.
Risking feels scary but also like you’re truly alive…
You can learn to risk. It simply takes practice. Ease into your insecurity but gently confront it. Try small risks at first but do something differently than normal. You could get out your paints from when you painted years before, set up your easel, and start. You could reach out to that college friend you haven’t spoken to in years and reconnect with them on Zoom. You could walk through the door of that gym you’ve belonged to for over a year, and ask for a training session.
All you have to do is take that first small risk because those very risks add up, giving you increasing confidence as you realize you’re capable of more than you’d once thought. And you’ll feel more alive.
Sadly however, someone might now be watching you, and thinking, “I could never do that.”
Maybe you remember to turn to them and encourage the risk by saying, “Yes you can.”
You can hear more about mental health and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive one weekly newsletter including my weekly blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!
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Originally published on December 9, 2017; updated and republished on March 25, 2022.