“I’ve been dreaming my ex’s girlfriend keeps trying to befriend me. In the dreams I just ignore her, but she’s following me around. When I first met her 3 years ago, she was a ‘normal’ girl, in capris with very little makeup, but about 2 years ago she got breast implants, a few tattoos and changed her wardrobe to be more of a rocker like my ex, who is a musician. She is completely re-vamped and still doesn’t seem to have his attention.”
Have you ever had the experience of barely knowing someone yet feeling an immediate emotional attraction to them? Maybe you find yourself fantasizing over them so much that you’ve begun to neglect work and sleep…but how can you resist? The object of your affection possesses a beauty, ability, lifestyle, or authority that you find intoxicating and enviable. You are caught in the grip of your admiration and, even if you wanted to, there’s no turning back. Some of us romantics call it falling in love; others know it by the sober name of projection.
Not one of us is immune to its mystical pull which draws us blindly, sometimes destructively, into each others arms. Eagerly, we place our psychic gold into the lover’s hands, fooling ourselves into thinking it belongs to them. They are the security we never had, the charisma to our clumsiness, the strong artistic voice to our conventionalism. They become the container for our disavowed fabulousness until such time as we learn to own it for ourselves.
But all too often, admiration for our partner translates into a deficit of self-love. Enmeshment, or what anthropologists call participation mystique, is one of the great perils of relationship. It is when the personal boundaries become so thin that soon there are no longer two separate identities but one draining, often passionate, entity we call the relationship. Enmeshment can happen subtly, in the gradual giving up of one’s own interests to spend more time with the lover or, in this girlfriend’s case, radically changing our style or behaviour to emulate them. Some cases are more extreme than others but we all do it to some extent.
Though projection is given a bad rap, it is actually a beautiful and necessary function of the psyche. It allows us to see the yum in the other that we can’t yet see in ourselves. Eventually, (if awkwardly at first), we try it on like a costume but with enough practice, it becomes integrated as our own skin. This is called “withdrawing the projection,” and no relationship can mature without it. It is a slow process that can’t be done with the intellect alone and sometimes takes a relation-shipwreck to be realised.
What if this young woman has always been a rocker inside but needed to meet your ex in order to break free of “normal?” Once she is able to see her own star power, she won’t need his approval anymore. Instead of ignoring her, it would seem that befriending the mirror of her is the dream task at hand.
Maybe you still need to forgive the part of yourself that was, like her, in the shadow of the musician. As Rumi, the Sufi mystic, once wrote, “We are the mirror as well as the face in it. We are the pain and what cures the pain, both. We are the sweet cold water and the jar that pours.” Now that you are no longer the musician’s girlfriend, you might even discover you are the musician, too.