There’s no one out there, just a bunch of mirrors

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Throughout the last few months of my work with Gaya, we’ve been talking a lot about the people in my life, and how I’m relating to them. Gaya keeps repeating to me that there’s no one “out there;” everyone is really just a mirror reflecting back at me.

black-and-white-forest-trees-branchesAt first this was difficult to grasp. Surely, the people in my life are real humans – I can touch them, see them, hear them (even smell them sometimes). I accepted what she was telling me, but it didn’t really sink in until much later. What she meant is that who they are to us, how we see them, how they make us feel, is nothing more than a reflection of how we see ourselves.

Conceptually, what we choose to see in others, the way we see them, and the judgments we have about them, are nothing more than judgments we hold about ourselves, and how we think we ought to be or not be. In clinical terms, this is called projection. In other spiritual traditions, this is called shadow work.

The way this plays out is very interesting. I’ll give you an example.

There is a person in my life who is dear to me, let’s call this person Z. I care about her very much. And yet, when we are together, I often feel a distance between us; something prevents me from expressing my love for her. On the face of it, I recognize that it’s my own judgments (and the anger and resentment that I carry around). And yet, I couldn’t really untangle it on my own. So Gaya and I got into the weeds…

One of the ways into the structure of beliefs that govern my relationship with Z, has been to list all of the judgments I have about her; all of the things that seem to bother me about her.

A big glaring judgment is that she is weak, needy, and dependent. When Gaya asked me if I’m any of those things, I vehemently shook my head, NO. I pride myself on being strong, independent, decisive, and in control.

Then Gaya said something that nearly knocked me off my chair. She said “Think of all the things you do in your life to avoid being weak, needy, and dependent. Look at how hard you work, how you punish yourself, in order to never allow yourself to be those things.” And it’s true, I’ve spent my entire life striving to never be those things. The judgment I have is that those things (which are just synonyms of vulnerability) are bad and to be avoided at all costs. It is precisely because I hold that belief, that I judge Z, and get angry at her when she displays these qualities. (There is also an element of care-taking here; but that’s a separate boundary issue that isn’t really relevant here. I just mention it because it’s a set of beliefs, not just one thing.)

But vulnerability is not weakness, and if I can question that belief; if I can acknowledge that, of course, it’s ok to be vulnerable (and in fact it takes courage to lean on others at times), then I can stop being angry at Z when she displays those qualities, and more importantly I can stop punishing myself. I can ease up on all the ways I’ve been pushing myself in order to avoid being those things, and give myself a break. I can allow myself to be weak, needy, and vulnerable at times.

In this view, Z isn’t really any of the things I see in her. She’s not weak or needy or dependent. She’s not strong or confident or decisive. She is just Z. What I see in her (what bothers me about her) is my own projection, my own reflection of what I like or dislike in myself. It’s trippy. You should try it. Think of someone in your life. Think of a thing that bothers you about them. Then consider what your beliefs are about that thing, and what you do in your life to avoid being that thing, and why. When you stop trying to be something, or stop avoiding being some other thing, you accept yourself (with all your imperfections), and what you find is that you start to accept other people and all their imperfections. You come to love everyone unconditionally.

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