You know how it feels to be really wrong?
Take a moment and remember what it felt like for you, physically. Maybe it showed up as a tightness in your chest. Faster, shallower breath, a sinking feeling in your stomach.
Anxiety, nausea, dread. Feelings of unworthiness and never being enough. A pervasive sense of isolation, of shame.
SO MANY PEOPLE (myself included) have some or all of these feelings running in the background of their lives ALL THE TIME. It’s subtle. It’s familiar background noise that we don’t really hear any more, that nonetheless colours everything we experience.
Unconsciously, we spend our lives trying to escape the subtle discomfort of feeling that something isn’t quite right. That WE aren’t quite right. It’s everywhere. Notice the self help section in bookshops. Look at how many blogs are dedicated to helping us fix ourselves.
For me, the best bit (really not the best bit) is I’m suffering this discomfort while simultaneously reinforcing my own jail. I’m trying to fix myself while putting myself in situations that keep showing me my wrongness.
Mostly, I don’t see the ways I do this. I don’t notice how I set up my life and my relationships to keep maintaining these beliefs, so it’s proven to me over and over that I am not enough. It seems normal. This is the way the world is. Everything lines up with my shitty core belief because it’s true — I am not enough, there is something wrong with me.
Until, like one of those optical illusions that all comes apart the minute you turn your head — a friendship I’d been using to perpetuate this stupid story changed, and I was handed a new perspective.
These subtle feelings of wrongness, of anxiety, of never being enough — it’s not the world proving it to me — it’s me proving it to myself.
I’d been projecting this never-enough version of myself onto my friendship and taking it as proof that I’m right that I’m wrong (the irony of this paradox is not lost on me).
It was a giant ‘oh, shit.’ moment.
Let’s take a quick detour for a minute to look at projections.
The qualities we are most attracted to in others are often reflections of qualities we don’t allow ourselves to embody (I do it. You do it. We all do it.).
Often when we find qualities in others we want but think we don’t have, or think we can’t have, we kind of co-opt these qualities for ourselves— if I stand next to you, it’s like I can have it reflected on me. We live vicariously through each other — it’s not safe or comfortable for me to have that, but I can be around you having that, and that’s almost as good.
Here’s an example — the friend I was projecting all over has this quality of certainty about him. The way it appears to me, he believes absolutely in his own rightness (whether this is actually true or not doesn’t really matter — this is my projection). He’s an open minded guy who loves exploring new ideas, but at the same time I feel this quality of certainty in him.
Being wrong all the time, this quality of certainty in my own rightness is not something I have access to, so it’s hugely appealing to me when I see it in others. I want it for myself and I can’t have it (because if I was right, my belief that I’m wrong that I’ve built my whole identity around would crumble, and then… who would I be? The vulnerability of not knowing is terrifying, and so I do everything I can to maintain the charade).
This happens a lot in relationships (it’s ingrained in how we talk about them — we look for our ‘other half’ like we’re missing something only they can provide). We find others who have what we don’t let ourselves have, so we can feel complete. And it also happens in friendships, in families, everywhere we relate to others.
So that’s what I did — I had to be wrong all the time, so I put my friend on a pedestal and made him right about everything all the time. I NEEDED him to be right all the time, so I could maintain my belief that I was always wrong, which was the foundation of my identity. He had no idea I was doing this. I had no idea I was doing this.
When people around me questioned or disagreed with his behaviour or thoughts or ideas, I felt threatened. I knew they just didn’t understand him, and I tried to explain to them how they were wrong. I needed them to be wrong, so he could be right, so I could be wrong.
When friends tried to defend ME against his actions or words, tried to tell me I was right, I didn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t believe them and again, defended the image on the pedestal so I could keep being wrong.
As you can imagine, this was a genius plan that worked out perfectly.
And in doing this, I missed out on a lot.
I rarely saw the actual human in front of me. I wasn’t friends with the flesh and blood man, I was friends, uneasily, with my projection — with the image I’d put on the pedestal.
I couldn’t receive anything from the friendship — I didn’t see the care, I didn’t see the love, I didn’t take in any of the ways he thought I was worthy. He told me I was his best friend, and in my mind I put it down to convenience — I was always around, so of course he’d think that.
I couldn’t be any of the things he saw in me, because I was hanging so tightly to the identity I’d unknowingly constructed — to the need to be wrong, to the need to be not enough. The need to subconsciously recreate past relational patterns that felt familiar and comfortable for my nervous system, even though they were unhealthy and uncomfortable at the same time (you do this too. We all do.).
My ‘oh shit’ moment turned into a ‘fuck that’ moment.
But how do I stop doing something that most of the time I don’t even know I’m doing?
There is no off switch for projecting. Annoyingly, in the quick fix culture we live in, there is no quick fix. So what to do?
Here’s a slow-fix. Four un-sexy steps to work with any change you want to make. In my case, I’m using them to look at the ways I make myself wrong, but they’ll work for anything.
Step one: awareness.
Step one was to become aware of the pattern of making myself wrong. To see how I’m using my friendship to perpetuate this pattern. To get really curious and see it not just on an intellectual level, but also to notice how it feels emotionally and on a sensational level in my body. What emotions come up when I feel wrong? How does my body feel when I believe I’m not enough?
Why isn’t it enough to just get it on a cognitive level?
Digging this deep into awareness engages all levels of my brain, and if I want to change, I need all of my brain on board.
Intellectual understanding: this get my prefrontal cortex engaged. The thinking, reasoning part of my brain. Huh. I see what I’m doing here. I don’t like it.
Emotional understanding: this engages my limbic system. The part that works with emotions and social connection. Wow, I notice that when I’m making myself wrong, I feel small, and kind of confused, and depressed. I don’t want to talk to anyone, I feel like I have nothing to share.
Understanding sensations: this engages the primal brain. The part that really only cares about my survival and takes over when I get highly stressed out, shutting down my capacity for thought and connection. I need this part of my brain to get that it’s safe to change, or I’m going to be fighting a losing battle. I feel heavy in my chest, I feel a bit nauseous, I feel blank and kind of spaced out.
Step two: stop.
The second step is to pause. To create some space around this new awareness.
For me, making myself wrong is a very deeply ingrained tangle, one thing follows the next very quickly, so giving myself some space interrupts the pattern and allows me to choose how to respond instead of unconsciously reacting.
Taking some time out (a breath, a few hours, or for me in this example, a few weeks), gives my highly activated and stressed out nervous system a chance to settle.
It’s hard to have choices when you’re a ball of self-blaming stress.
When I’m highly stressed out, my primal brain is running the show, and it’s very challenging to make rational decisions when I’m full of stress hormones and my system is freaking out. Taking the time to calm my primal brain so it gets there’s no immediate threat means my ability to think clearly and rationally comes back online.
When I can think clearly again, I stop coming from a place of stress and jumping straight back into making myself wrong (see? Look what I’m doing!! I can’t even be friends with my best friend without making a mess of it. Fuck. I’m going to check out from how horrible this feels by ignoring it and spending the next three hours scrolling Facebook), and I have the capacity to choose something else — in this case, I did something totally out of character for me and chose kindness. I asked my friend for some time out and gave myself a few weeks of space.
This time out meant I could THINK again, and had much more capacity for step three.
Step three: choose how to respond.
For me right now, my choice is to NOT respond. To notice the trigger, to feel the sensations in my body of being wrong, and to let it be. Not having to DO anything feels like a new sort of kindness.
It breaks the circle of being wrong — if I see that I’m making myself wrong and jump into action to fix it, it’s wrong that I’m wrong. If I choose to do nothing, and to let it be — the cycle stops. It’s suddenly okay that I’m having the experience of feeling wrong.
Other choices could be to ask for time. To ask for a hug. To give yourself a hug. To choose to think or feel something different. Whatever feels the most kind in the moment of choice.
Step four: repeat.
Over and over. And over. And over and over and over.
Become aware of the projection, pause, choose how I’d like to respond. Become aware of the projection, pause, choose how I’d like to respond.
Be kind if I don’t catch it, and wait for the next time. And know that with time, these un-sexy-un-quick-fix steps will rewire my brain into a new way of being.
Interestingly, now that I’ve had a few weeks away from my friend on the pedestal, I’m noticing new ‘you’re wrong. You’ll never be enough’ triggers popping up in different places like little persistent weeds. My system really needs me to know that I’m not enough, so it’s trying to find new ways to reinforce my wrongness.
By choosing to respond to the weeds with no response, and to instead be aware of what I’m feeling with kindness and no need to do anything, I’m creating a kind of experience I’ve never had before. It feels like safety.
I’m teaching myself that instead of being wrong, it’s okay to be who I’m being, and it’s okay to feel how I’m feeling.
With time, I’ll replace the background noise of wrongness, with a background of goodness. Step by un-sexy step.
Become aware of the projection, pause, choose how you’d like to respond, repeat.
Be kind, be gentle, go slow.
*** It also feels important to mention I’m not doing this all on my own — I find it SO INCREDIBLY helpful to work with my own Somatic Experiencing Practitioner to support me in seeing what I don’t see, increasing my ability to be present and kind with what I’m feeling, and make different choices to create this new experience of safety. Having this support is the quickest slow-fix I know of.