Have you ever felt someone was perfect for you and then… you added a “but”? Have you wished that this person changed just this one thing about themselves — that way, you could live together happily ever after?
Or maybe, after kissing someone on a first date, you promptly started fantasizing about a future together, framing them into your plans without questioning whether that’s what they want?
I’ve certainly experienced all these with different people, in various combinations. When it happened, I usually believed I was deeply in love. So much in love that I wanted them, myself and our relationship to be perfect.
That’s how I justified my premature fantasies about our shared future and the desire for the person of my dreams to change for me. How ironic.
In recent years, I understood that wanting to own someone isn’t love. Usually, it’s projecting an image of who you’d want them to be. An extension of this is imposing your idea of the future you desperately want on them.
Projecting can be dangerous for a few reasons. But let’s start with the most basic one:
When you’re projecting, you stop seeing the person in front of you for who they are. You perceive them through the prism of your own unmet needs.
Where’s space for love in that?
What Is a Projection?
For most of my life, I’ve been unconscious about my romantic encounters. All I knew was that I “felt something.” Usually, that was enough of a cue to dive head-first into a romance, relationship or at least a one-night stand.
It’s only in the past few years that I started asking myself a basic question: What drives me to engage with this person?
Of course, the first answer that often comes up is: love. I surely feel attracted to them because I’m in love. They will be the one. This time it’ll be different.
And then… it isn’t.
Why? Usually, it’s because I project an image of a “perfect partner” onto the person in front of me. When that happens, I strip them off their unique qualities. I merely see them as a blank canvas on which to project a persona that exists only in my head.
In his book The Presence Process, Michael Brown explains that a projection occurs when we encounter a person or event which triggers an unconscious memory. In other words, something happens in your life now — but it reminds you of an experience from the past.
If you’re not aware when it happens, you typically project bits of that memory into the world — for example, on the person “you’re in love with.”
“A reflection is the occurrence of an experience that reminds us of something, while a projection is the behavior we adopt when reacting to such a memory.
For example, when someone reminds us of one of our parents, this is a reflection. When we then start behaving around this person as we would around the parent they remind us of, this is a projection. A reflection occurs first, followed by a projection.” — Michael Brown
In romantic relationships, we’re especially prone to projecting. Close intimacy easily triggers memories of past interactions. If this happens unconsciously, all you perceive is a feeling — typically, an uncomfortable one.
For me, it manifests as struggling to be myself in front of my partner. Everything might be going well, up until the point when we get physically close. This can be sex — but sometimes, even a kiss is enough.
From that point on, my mind starts framing the person in question as a “romantic partner.” Intellectually, I can’t recall the memory being triggered. On the emotional level though, I feel like being myself is no longer enough. I compulsively start pretending to be someone better, cooler, sexier, smarter.
That, as you probably know, is usually a fast-track to a failed connection. Being inauthentic doesn’t support any kind of intimacy.
Not to mention a long-term relationship.
Why We Look For Love In The Wrong Places
Unconscious projections ruined my potential for love many times. Because I couldn’t tell one from the other, I searched for a romantic partner in ways that were less than healthy.
You have your unique memories that your romantic partner reflects. You may then follow that up with your unique projections and unconscious behaviours. But the mechanics of projecting are usually the same. At the core, it’s about acting your past out in the present.
Our culture frames love as something that we must get from the other person. Just consider phrases like “he showered me with love” or “she made me feel loved.” They sound innocent. Yet, they convey a deeply rooted belief that few people think to question:
You can only feel loved if someone else decides to give love to you.
This makes your experience of love conditional by default. You were taught to search for love — or, to try and make someone else love you. This perpetuates all kinds of projections and manipulative behaviours you may not be aware of.
On top of that, you may have been told that the experience of love should be all “wine and roses.” You absorbed the idea that true love always feels good. That’s what the Holywood movies perpetuate: a fight for love resulting in a happy ending.
From that point on, we assume everything is just perfect. Film producers rarely bother to show us what happens after the miraculous reunion of lovers.
All of this can make you expect love to look in a particular way. Then, when you see an opportunity to manifest that scenario in your life, you jump straight into it. But because the reality rarely resembles a movie, you start bending it to your liking. Projecting your fantasies can seem helpful for that at first.
For a while, a projection allows you to live in an illusion. You can convince yourself that you are the hero in that fairy-tale scenario.
But if your intimacy with the other person is founded on projections, it’ll inevitably run out. The battery in your mind’s projector will die. You’ll be then faced with an obvious truth:
In front of you, there isn’t any blank canvas that you can shape to your liking.
Rather, it’s a person made of flesh and bones, with their unique qualities. They’re living their own story that may not be compatible with whatever image you projected on them.
What will you do once you realize this?
Projecting Will Never Give You The Relationship You Want
It’s at this point — when the projector’s battery dies — that relationships often fall apart.
For some couples, it happens within a few weeks. Others are so skilful at projecting that they can maintain an illusion for years or even decades.
When you finally realize you’ve been trying to live a fairy tale instead of cultivating true love, you also see why a projection can never work long-term. The reason is simple:
You fail to see and appreciate the person in front of you, exactly as they are.
You live a fantasy of them being someone else. By doing that consistently, you not only deny their inherent worth as the unique human being they are. You also miss out on a chance to create a genuine connection.
In other words, you miss the point of true love. The love that isn’t based on expectations and the other person “ticking your boxes.” The love that’s rooted in opening up to them and receiving them exactly as they are.
No strings attached. No “right” or “wrong” way to do this. No promises made.
This may sound scary because, in our society, we habitually equal love to a promise. If there’s love between them and you, you should probably get married. That’s the cultural script many people obey without even questioning whether it makes sense for them.
Don’t get me wrong. I do believe that love and promise can coexist. However, I don’t think they’re synonymous. As Louie Murray said in the subtitle of a recent essay, “thinking you can choose how a relationship will evolve is foolish.”
This is where you can see the difference between projection and love most distinctly. A projection is controlling in its nature. It hopes for a specific outcome of the relationship.
True love is open-ended. It acknowledges itself as fragile and contextual. It’s brave enough to accept any scenario — including the end of its own existence.
How To Tell Love From a Projection
How can you tell the experience of love from a projection?
As I try to formulate some practical advice, all paths once again lead me to mindfulness. Being aware of your thoughts and feelings can give you a glimpse into what your motivation to be with someone really is.
Do you have a hidden agenda? Are you trying to manipulate them to satisfy your needs? Are you interested in them as who they are? Or all you care about is finding an actor to participate in the play staged in your mind?
All these questions are tricky to answer when you live on autopilot. That’s why I mention mindfulness. Practising mindfulness is the way to unpack your childhood conditioning, automatisms, and programs.
Being mindful allows you to take an honest look at yourself. In a relationship, that’ll help you discern which of your behaviours are driven by a projection and which — by true love.
Because here’s the best part: love and projection can coexist in a relationship. They intermingle. One day, you may be projecting and bending reality to your liking. You may fail to see your crush or partner for who they are.
But then the next day comes and you wake up capable of love. These are the moments to cherish. These are the moments to focus on and reinforce.
Once you consciously experience living from the place of love, nothing can stop you. You’ll know the difference it makes. This in itself will help you love better — and slowly, step-by-step, leave your projections behind.