I was thinking about people I’ve met within the last year, and my impressions of them. First-impressions and gut reactions aside, I realized that I have a tendency to define others in terms of what I see in them that resembles my own experience.
Let me give an example: I have a friend/acquaintance that I met last Fall. This person is very kind, talkative, and seemingly outgoing. Yet, the more I’ve interacted with this friend, the more I realize that this person is really an introvert. They put on a face for the public world, but they really would rather be by themselves, save a few close companions from time to time. We tend to think of introverts as being somewhat anti-social, but this isn’t the case—this said friend is very amiable towards friends and strangers alike. Still, one could call it “friendly but detached”. There is a boundary in those interactions, in spite of warmth displayed.
Now, in my mind, I go a step further, and from what I know about this person’s background, I decide what the underlying reasons are for their boundaries. People have boundaries naturally, but some are stricter about them than others. This person has been badly hurt in the past, and I presume that they have gotten themselves past that incident, but they now proceed with caution in their social interactions. This person is also a deep thinker, and I assume the introversion has to do with the need to live inside one’s own head—it’s like watching a film of yourself watching yourself, if that makes any sense. One’s inner life and outer work are deeply affected by such musings done in solitude.
Truthfully, I have never had a conversation with this person about this. All of my assumptions could be dead wrong. What exactly is the basis for these assumptions? The answering is: mirroring.
Mirroring is a psychological phenomena, also called “projection” by psychoanalysts, and particularly by Jung. Our interpretations of ourselves are always going to be different from the interpretation of those around us. The only context we have for interpreting the world we live in is ourselves and our experiences. So—when we meet someone who shares a perceived characteristic, we go the whole nine yards and assume that they have this characteristic for the same reasons WE have this characteristic. In short—we’re not seeing them at all. We’re seeing a mirror image of ourselves.
So, with my friend, I assume these things because I see qualities also present in myself (apparent extroversion, actual introversion), and I assume the reasons must be the same as my own.
It’s important to have an awareness of mirroring, as it is the basis of most social friction. We frequently get exasperated with people who don’t “get it”, who are afraid of irrational things, or who just have lifestyles or viewpoints that we don’t understand. You’ve probably heard the expression, “What you don’t like about someone else is what you don’t like about yourself.” We see what we perceive as our strengths and weaknesses in others, and are quick to judge them for it—when in fact, it’s about us and not them.
Unrequited love is one of the sufferings of mirroring. The one in love assumes the other must love them in return, because their own feelings are so strong. They look for any sign, any kindness or politeness is blown out of proportion. When the illusion is blown, the rejected lover often accuses the other person of “leading them on”. But that isn’t always the case. We see what we want to see, and if we don’t want to be disappointed, there needs to be some discrimination between your feelings and theirs.
Empathy ought to be a way around the dangers of mirroring, but empathy can only go so far. We are still limited by the fact that we are ourselves and not the other person, and still imagine how “we” would feel. Really, in all my years thinking about this on and off, the only solution that present itself is detachment. By “detachment” I don’t mean not caring about people or events. If you are too attached to your conception of a person and how they should behave, your relationship to them will become a controlling one—they must behave as you expect them to behave. If you detach yourself from that need to control, and to understand your own limitations in understanding that person, you’re more likely to develop healthy relationships.
Of course, I’ve been sitting here today, feeling annoyed at someone who seems to feel they don't have to show anyone respect because of their position. I've always respected everyone regardless of my station versus theirs. So this other person should do the same, right?
Old human habits die hard...