“If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.” ~Virginia Woolf
If you’ve ever listened to someone’s description or opinion of you and it sounded completely alien, you probably found yourself wondering where on earth they were coming from.
We are told that on a universal, spiritual level, the way you perceive someone is more than just an opinion; it’s actually a reflection of you being projected onto that person.
So if someone tells you that you’re beautiful, kind, or have a good heart, they can only do so because those qualities are present within them. Conversely, if you see someone as dishonest, unkind, or manipulative, that’s because you, yourself, are projecting those parts of you onto the other person.
When I was going through the depths of healing from adultery and my marriage breakup, I recalled a lot of things my ex-husband told me about myself—some of which I accepted, a lot of which I did not.
It was very important to me to use forgiveness, self-love, and a sense of perspective as my tools to move on. I worked hard on my own issues, and accepted responsibility for the things within me that had brought me that harsh experience.
But I have always struggled with this concept that “you can only see in others what you have within you.”
It’s not because I only want to believe the good things people say about me, or because I think I have no bad traits.
It’s because when dealing with unacceptable or in some cases abusive behavior in life, it is very difficult to hear and accept that the negative conduct you have received from someone else is simply your own darkness being brought into the open, and nothing to do with the other person.
This was how I had always interpreted such teachings, and doing so made me feel worse about myself instead of better.
I now understand that it is possible to witness or observe a behavior objectively, for what it is, without necessarily being that yourself.
This is true of both positive and negative interactions. For example, I can acknowledge and deeply admire those who can speak publicly with great confidence, but I don’t possess this ability.
This is not a defeatist attitude or low self-esteem talking; it’s simply an observation. Likewise, I can see someone’s behavior toward me as negative or destructive, but know I’m not like that. I no longer feel the guilt of believing that in order to have observed it, I must be like that too.
What I believe is that we all have is the potential for the behaviors we are being shown.
I know that I have the potential for great public speaking, and I know I have the potential for manipulative or intolerant behavior. But though can I recognize these traits in others, it’s not who I choose to be right now.
This is not intended as way to avoid responsibility for your own behavior, or an opportunity to judge others while saying “but I’m not like that.” But it is important to know, especially when we are feeling emotionally vulnerable, that sometimes it isn’t about us; it’s about them.
Here are three ways of working out whether what a person says about you is really a reflection of themselves. It’s also useful and healthy to use this exercise from the opposite perspective to see if you are ever projecting your own issues onto another:
1. Is their opinion about me something I’ve felt about myself?
We have a deep knowledge of our own psyche—our fears, our dreams, our abilities, and our strengths and faults.
Does what the other person is saying ring true on any level? If they are saying great things but the words sound hollow to you, it won’t really be about you. But if your heart lifts when someone calls you generous, it’s because you know you are, and they have struck a lovely chord.
2. Is their opinion about me something I’ve been shown by other people?
Although trusting your own inner knowing is vital, we are interactive creatures with varied experiences of each other.
Unless you have a real Jekyll and Hyde personality, other people’s perceptions of you will be largely similar. So, if one person is telling you that you are arrogant and stubborn, while everyone else sees you as kind, patient, and tolerant, then it’s most likely that this one person is bringing their own issues into what they are saying about you.
3. Do they have another agenda?
Does the person telling you about yourself want something from you emotionally or physically? Are they speaking to you, or about you, from a place of love, or fear?
If they have an agenda, then what you are being told about yourself, whether good or bad, is likely to be manipulation on their part and no reflection on you.
So why are we being told and shown things by others’ behavior if it’s not actually about us?
I believe that the actual message, whether it’s “you are selfish” or “you should be a professional dancer,” is not the end purpose of the exchange.
It’s what we learn about ourselves from our response that really matters. Is the comment something we need to pursue or let go of? Does it require a reply or acknowledgement? What does it say about us if we accept what they say, or don’t?
The things being presented to us through other people’s actions or words simply show us what we are capable of, not necessarily what we are.
For me, encounters and interactions with others are ripe learning opportunities for growth. We learn to use discernment, tolerance, compassion, and gratitude. We are shown the potential to be strong inspiring and happy; we are also shown the potential to be fearful, negative and unloving.
What we choose to be is up to us.