Tom is in Brighton this weekend for his girlfriends birthday. Lena has just started at University, studying to become a doctor. In these first few weeks I have really worried for Tom, wondering how he is coping with being separated from her. They’ve been together for nearly five years, and I feared he would be paralysed by sadness and loneliness.
In 1976 I was packed off to scout camp on Dartmoor. I didn’t want to go but my mother thought it would be good for me. As a pale and overweight thirteen year old who couldn’t swim it wasn’t the ideal holiday. I wouldn’t go in the river for fear of drowning and I wouldn’t go potholing for fear of getting stuck. Most of those fourteen days were spent wishing it was tomorrow, and being paralysed by sadness and loneliness.
We don’t know how other people really feel, and so projecting our own emotional frame onto them is, at best, pointless and, at worst, destructive. But it doesn’t stop us.
When I consider the most frustrating or upsetting experiences of my life they have generally been characterised by either my inaccurate assumption about someone else or their mistaken assumption about me. When we project our own view of the world onto someone else we restrict ourselves from free expression and deny others the ability to clearly communicate their feelings in a way which blocks our mutual understanding.
It’s hard to accurately see the world through someone else’s eyes, but the difficulty is compounded when we don’t stop at imagining what someone else is feeling but take responsibility for it too.
In those first few days after Lena left I felt an anxiety for Tom which was largely preposterous. It’s understandable that I would feel concern for him, but it reaches another absurd level when I start to experience a separation anxiety on his behalf which threatens to cripple me, while he continues to manage his life in a measured and mature manner.
I know why I encounter this problem. As a child I assumed responsibility for other peoples happiness, with particular focus on my mother. I became skilled at putting away my own needs in order to contort myself into the version of a son I thought she wanted. Two terrible mistakes. First, that I should try and be someone else in order to make myself more acceptable. Second, that I attempt to manage emotions that were not and could never be, mine.
In projecting ourselves onto other people we succeed only in making everyone look like us. We damage perfectly good relationships through projection of our own insecurities onto our partners. We damage ourselves by ignoring our own feelings, which we know to be true, in favour of protecting someone else’s, of which we have no real knowledge. Worst of all is that projection means we always look into a mirror and never through a window.
I neglected my own needs for years because of an irony. It was my terrible discomfort at seeing my mother disappointed that resulted in my continually second guessing her emotional state and trying to sandbag against it. All the while the real disappointment was my own. The disappointment I felt at being so busy projecting my unease outwards that nobody could notice my own. I think Tom is different, and I hope it is because he knows that it’s alright for him to manage and show his own emotions, and that he has no business or responsibility for managing mine.