Why We Don’t See Other People Clearly and How to Start

Relaxation

“If I had the chance I’d ask the world to dance, but I’d be dancing with myself.” ~Billy idol

Spending long periods of time alone—as I’ve done while traveling solo over the past year—is an eye-opening experience.

Without the distractions of my normal routine and relationships, I’ve been able to take a good look around inside my very own head. And the more I do this, the more I realize that what I experience as my world is just a reflection of my own psyche. In reality, I’m dancing with myself all the time.

This crucial awareness is usually hidden by the fact that other people seem to be the cause of my experience.

Most of us think that we’re dancing with others: friends, lovers, colleagues, family. But watching myself now I see that—all on my own—my emotions and moods still wax and wane.

I still have long conversations in my head about the past, present, and future, what should and shouldn’t be happening, and how I should and shouldn’t be feeling about it. Even without a cast of supporting characters, my dance card is full.

The truth is, whether we know it or not, we’re always dancing with ourselves.

Even if you’re physically in the presence of others all day long, your real dance partners are your own projections: memories of past hurts, worries about the future, thoughts and guesses about what is happening (and what other people are thinking) right now.

It’s impossible to see the other person clearly, let alone have a real relationship with them, when all these other projections are crowding the dance floor.

What’s more, everyone around you is doing the same. Many of the seemingly inexplicable things that happen in relationships are caused by one or both people reacting to a projection.

We treat the other person as if that projection were true, even though they have no idea that the real reason you’re upset is because of something your last girlfriend said three years ago.

Remember the old expression “he was beside himself with anger?” Even when we sincerely believe that our relationships are open and honest, how can they be if we don’t actually know the cast of characters we’re relating to?

The only thing we can do about this is to remember that it’s happening.

The more aware we are of our own projections, the more we learn to acknowledge them, the more we are able to look past them and begin to see the reality of the other person (or the reality of ourselves that lives behind the projections of the mind).

It’s harder to do this when we’re always busy. It’s scary, too—life seems simpler when we can just look outside of ourselves for the causes of our emotions, and blame others, or change something “out there” instead of inside of ourselves.

This is what has been happening to me as I spend so much time on my own. Though I often feel the urge to escape into busy-ness, or company simply for the sake of company, I try to hold myself here instead, in this place that vacillates from bliss to panic, and just get to know myself as my own true dance partner.

I’m learning that the vacillations are just a part of life, not something that requires a reaction.

With other people, it’s all too easy to miss this lesson in the rush to react. I’m learning how much the way I perceive other people is dictated by my own expectations and prior experience. How little clarity I actually have when I view them through this unacknowledged veil. How little I actually know myself when I constantly substitute exterior perception for my own interior reality.

I’m learning that reality can always (and only) be found on the inside.

Dancing with myself is a skill that I’m slowly and purposefully developing. I want to know myself intimately, so that I can automatically adjust my rhythm and steps when the music or mood shifts.

I want to stay open and balanced even when my emotions are turbulent, letting them move through me as part of the dance without sweeping me away.

I want to become so familiar with my own projections that I never mistake them for someone else’s reality again. And I think that learning this first will also let me dance more skillfully, more kindly, more lovingly with life, and with others too.

Although spending a long time alone can be a great crash course in these skills, not everyone has the opportunity (or desire) to try it.

Learning to dance with yourself while in the midst of daily life will require more vigilance and attention, because the dance floor is so crowded. You will bump into more things—other people’s projections as well as your own. The trick is to keep coming back to your own experience:

  • When do you feel calm and centered?
  • When do you feel “beside” yourself, being pushed or pulled by circumstances and reactions rather than directing your own steps?
  • If your emotions feel out of control, can you step back and watch without being sucked under?
  • When it’s someone else’s emotion, can you let them have it without needing to rush in and fix everything?

It’s beautifully simplifying to do this. Instead of keeping track of everyone else in the dance and trying to direct their steps, you only have to listen for your own interior rhythm and balance.

When you lose the thread—and you will—just go back to listening inwardly. It doesn’t go away, we just lose track of it when we don’t pay attention. Gradually (I think) we’ll know it so well that we can track it even when the dance gets hectic.

Though dancing alone can feel strange and lonely at first, the loneliness comes with a peace I rarely felt when I was constantly trying to fit myself into someone else’s steps.

When other people join me now, I try to remember that they are in their own dances too, interacting with their own projections. If we’re really lucky we’ll find people (or teach the people we love) to dance with themselves alongside of us. The ones who can’t will find other partners, and that’s all right too.

Your first, last, and most important dance partner will always be yourself.


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