You Are The One Thinking The Thought

Despite how the title of this post might make me sound right now — no, I’m not high.

What I’m talking about is a little thing that we refer to in my line of work as “projection.” In the broadest sense of the term, projection refers to the human inclination to take an internal thought or feeling and to make it external — to place it outside of yourself, psychologically speaking. Strange as it may seem, it happens every day. There are three main kinds of projection, and they go like this:

  1. If you were treated a certain way in the past or received a particular message, you might assume that everyone feels this way about you. For example, if you were bullied a lot as a kid and often called a “loser,” you may move forward in the world feeling like everyone thinks you’re a loser. Whether it’s true or not (and frankly it probably isn’t — it would be virtually impossible for everyone in the world to share the same opinion about anything), you take that internal thought or belief and project it on to the new people you meet.
  2. If you have an opinion of yourself that you’re not totally aware of, you’re more likely to project that feeling outward on to other people; an example of this would be thinking that someone else thinks you talk too much, when really you think that you talk too much, you just don’t really want to own up to that thought.
  3. The third and final example is the most complex: In this instance you might believe that someone else is thinking something about you (for example, that they’re angry at you), but really you’re the one who’s angry. Sometimes certain feelings (like anger) are scary to feel, and it can be easier to believe that someone else is angry at us than it is to own our own feelings — ironic as that may sound.

Still with me? I hope so, because this is about to get good.

Back in December I gave a TEDx talk, and in it I spoke about how human beings (and I mean all of us) create an internal “map” for how we think the world works. All of our life experiences, beginning in infancy, create a sense for us as individuals of how things tend to go, and how people usually relate to us. As a result we think we see the world clearly, but really we see the world through lenses that have been specifically created for us by all of the life experiences that we’ve had to date (I know, we probably should be high right now — somebody pass the joint!). As a byproduct of that, we have a tendency in a number of different ways to “project” our own version of life onto the external world around us. If you’ve ever heard the expression “We see the world not as it is but as we are,” this is most likely what its author was referring to.

Do you ever have the experience of assuming that someone is thinking something, but you’re not totally sure? Take a moment and think of a time where you thought someone was mad at you, or you believed that they thought something about you, even though they hadn’t told you to your face and there was no way to know for sure what they were thinking. If you’re having a hard time finding an example, think of the last time you called someone, and they took a really long time to call you back, or perhaps they never called you back. Was there a dialogue in your head about all of the negative things they were probably thinking about you? You might have been right on some counts — I can’t say that they weren’t thinking those things – but what I can say is that you were the one thinking the thought. In the absence of knowing what someone else is thinking, all you know for sure is that you are the one thinking it.

Internal Maps & Assumptions

One of the things that I love about the work that I do is that it provides us with an opportunity to really explore our internal maps and the assumptions that we have about what others think about us. If I can use my own past therapy as an example, a couple of years ago I was engaged in a deep and awesome analysis where I lied on the couch facing away from the therapist behind me (Yes, people still do that! Side note: It rocks). One of the things that ended up getting revealed over time is that I was often worried that I was going to be judged for what I shared with her. My feelings weren’t always conscious, but deep below the surface, in layers that I didn’t even totally know where there, there were feelings of shame, and those feelings of shame manifested in a fear that my analyst was going to judge me harshly. When she didn’t, I had an experience that was profoundly healing for me.

If you’re wondering how this post can benefit you without lying on the couch or doing peyote with a shaman in the Amazon, take this lesson to heart:

The next time you find yourself having a thought about what someone else is thinking when you don’t know what that person is thinking, remind yourself that you are the one having the thought. Ask yourself the following questions, and do a little soul searching to find the answer:

I know, heady stuff – but it’s food for thought.