You Are the One Thinking the Thought

By Leslie Carr Psy.D.   |  19Comments|

Despite how the title of this post might make me sound right now — no, I’m not high.

What I’m talking about is a little thing that we refer to in my line of work as “projection.” In the broadest sense of the term, projection refers to the human inclination to take an internal thought or feeling and to make it external — to place it outside of yourself, psychologically speaking. Strange as it may seem, it happens every day. There are three main kinds of projection, and they go like this:

1)  If you were treated a certain way in the past or received a particular message, you might assume that everyone feels this way about you. For example, if you were bullied a lot as a kid and often called a “loser,” you may move forward in the world feeling like everyone thinks you’re a loser.  Whether it’s true or not (and frankly it probably isn’t — it would be virtually impossible for everyone in the world to share the same opinion about anything), you take that internal thought or belief and project it on to the new people you meet.

2)  If you have an opinion of yourself that you’re not totally aware of, you’re more likely to project that feeling outward on to other people; an example of this would be thinking that someone else thinks you talk too much, when really you think that you talk too much, you just don’t really want to own up to that thought.

3)  The third and final example is the most complex: In this instance you might believe that someone else is thinking something about you (for example that they’re angry at you), but really you’re the one who’s angry. Sometimes certain feelings (like anger) are scary to feel, and it can be easier to believe that someone else is angry at us than it is to own our own feelings — ironic as that may sound.

Still with me? I hope so, because this is about to get good.

Back in December I gave a TEDx talk, and in it I spoke about how human beings (and I mean all of us) create an internal “map” for how we think the world works.  All of our life experiences, beginning in infancy, create a sense for us as individuals of how things tend to go, and how people usually relate to us. As a result we think we see the world clearly, but really we see the world through lenses that have been specifically created for us by all of the life experiences that we’ve had to date (I know, we probably should be high right now — somebody pass the joint!).  As a byproduct of that, we have a tendency in a number of different ways to “project” our own version of life onto the external world around us.  If you’ve ever heard the expression “We see the world not as it is but as we are,” this is most likely what its author was referring to.

Do you ever have the experience of assuming that someone is thinking something, but you’re not totally sure?  Take a moment and think of a time where you thought someone was mad at you, or you believed that they thought something about you, even though they hadn’t told you to your face and there was no way to know for sure what they were thinking. If you’re having a hard time finding an example, think of the last time you called someone, and they took a really long time to call you back, or perhaps they never called you back. Was there a dialogue in your head about all of the negative things they were probably thinking about you? You might have been right on some counts — I can’t say that they weren’t thinking those things – but what I can say is that you were the one thinking the thought.  In the absence of knowing what someone else is thinking, all you know for sure is that you are the one thinking it.

One of the things that I love about the work that I do (if you follow my writing here on CSL you know I just can’t help myself when it comes to the shameless therapy plugs!) is that it provides us with an opportunity to really explore our internal maps and the assumptions that we have about what others think about us.  If I can use my own past therapy as an example, a couple of years ago I was engaged in a deep and awesome analysis where I lied on the couch facing away from the therapist behind me (Yes, people still do that! Side note: It rocks).  One of the things that ended up getting revealed over time is that I was often worried that I was going to be judged for what I shared with her. My feelings weren’t always conscious, but deep below the surface, in layers that I didn’t even totally know where there, there were feelings of shame, and those feelings of shame manifested in a fear that my analyst was going to judge me harshly. When she didn’t, I had an experience that was profoundly healing for me.

Now, if you’re wondering how this post can benefit you without lying on the couch or doing peyote with a shaman in the Amazon, take this lesson to heart: The next time you find yourself having a thought about what someone else is thinking when you don’t know what that person is thinking, remind yourself that you are the one having the thought.  Ask yourself the following questions, and do a little soul searching to find the answer:

1)  Do you think it’s true?  For example, if you’re worried that someone else thinks you did something bad, what do you think of what you did?  If you think you acted in a way that was uncool, can you own it?

2)  How sure are you that this person feels this way? Are you maybe thinking it just because you’ve gotten this particular message in the past? If so, try to let that old, outdated belief about yourself go.

3)  Are you possibly feeling something that you don’t want to own? Meaning, are you maybe the one who’s angry? Ew, scratchy — that sucks, but if you can own it, you can deal with it better.

I know, heady stuff – but if you have questions about any of this I’ll be replying in the comment thread all day.

For more information on exploring your internal maps, visit lesliecarr.com.

Photo credit: Pablo BD

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19 responses to You Are the One Thinking the Thought
  1. Yesss like byron katie ..
    I love that

  2. I would say, Our mind thinks, the soul listen. All the troubles arise when we identify our mind to be ourself.

  3. Ani said on June 1, 2012

    Fabulous post, thank you so much. I studied Psychosynthesis and was fascinated by projection….it’s so cool – watching it in myself is such a wake up call! I’ve blogged a bit recently about conscious communication. Projection needs to be taught in schools, how beautiful would it be if we grew up knowing about projection and conscious communication. Here in the UK if feels like we might be a bit behind in terms of opening up spiritually and psychologically – but perhaps a few of us are changing this, I hope that I am a small part of that. I also have an e-book about self-love and in that I included projection, it’s just so important. Thanks again for your post, loving regards, Ani x

  4. Appropriate, I’ve been soul searching lately, realizing that my behaviors are because of buried emotions but not sure exactly why. I think you may have hit the nail on the head with the anger thing. I think I’m really very angry, not comfortable expressing myself and trying to push it down with food, shopping and alcohol. I’ve finally realized that no matter how much I shop eat or drink I still feel like a bottomless pit. Nothing seems to fill it. I’m trying to find the strength to love myself and express myself but it’s a very up and down experience at this point. Thanks so much for posting, I feel a little bit better about my journey :)

  5. If the thought was thunk and you was “da thinker,” and we are “being thought ” as in “being breathed” then our thoughts are mere manifestations of a neuron pattern gone wild….Heal thy groove and REMOVE the pattern by “PATTERN INTERRUPT’ via many modalities. This pattern no longer serves the original thought from the original situation. Amazing how we, as humans, drag forth the old behaviors into the new and then RE-ACT. Ah. Exhausting.

  6. mac said on June 1, 2012

    Amazing the things we do in the name of survival …… ‘Projection’ being one of them.

    I’ve always thought a person will “own their stuff” based on how ’emotionally evolved’ they are.

  7. This is fascinating, and I agree that more people should be taught about this!! How great a place would it be if we stopped blaming our own insecurities on people around us? It would be so scary, initially, to claim all the darkness that comes with that but you gotta do spring cleaning some time.

  8. aar said on June 1, 2012

    Wondering if you could elaborate on a few different schools and types of therapy and the benefits/ differences of each. It can be overwhelming to try to find a therapist because of there being so many different kinds!

  9. @aar:

    I completely hear you on that overwhelm! Fortunately I wrote an article in the past for CSL on precisely this subject – you can read it here: http://crazysexylife.com/2011/how-to-find-the-right-therapist-for-you-part-two/

    It’s just an overview, so please let me know if you have further questions; I’ll be here commenting throughout the day…


  10. @AnnMarie,

    Thank you for sharing that. I don’t know if you’ve considered giving therapy a try, but it can be enormously helpful with the kinds of struggles that you’re describing. In this instance, I think that a psychodynamic therapy would be useful for helping you to unpack your anger (so to speak) in a safe place where you can explore and work through things.

    As I always say, “Emotions are information.” I think that if you take a step down that road you’ll see how rewarding it can be to learn more about yourself via these prickly parts that I’m sure on some level you’d rather avoid :)

    I wish you the best on your journey!

  11. This is the sh*t= love. I need to carry this is my back pocket and make this my reality-check go to at all times when I’m in one of those weird moments. This kinda reminds me of the very beginning of A Course in Miracles in speaking of perception… it can be overwhelming to wrap your brain around but at the same time, quite simple. It all comes back to that one thought, that yes WE are thinking. We hold that thought and give it our energy. Brilliant. I’ll be chewing on this all day. Thanks for the friendly reminder Dr. Leslie!

  12. Wow i really needed to hear this right now. I struggle constantly about fearing what other people are thinking of me or that i’m not good enough to be liked by people and i realize a lot of those beliefs come from my past now. I struggled with binge eating for a long time and i think its because it was my way of comforting that fear and trying to distract myself from that fear and pain of my thoughtS.. My issue now i trying to recognize when i’m having those negative thoughts! It feels like it almost happens unconsciously and all the sudden i’m at the bottom of a tub of ice cream haha.

    Thanks Leslie!

  13. Wow i really needed to hear this right now. I struggle constantly about fearing what other people are thinking of me or that i’m not good enough to be liked by people and i realize a lot of those beliefs come from my past now. I struggled with binge eating for a long time and i think its because it was my way of comforting that fear and trying to distract myself from that fear and pain of my thoughtS.. My issue now i trying to recognize when i’m having those negative thoughts! It feels like it almost happens unconsciously and all the sudden i’m at the bottom of a tub of ice cream haha.
    Thanks Leslie!

  14. Projection fills my days. I go as far as imagining scenarios in which people react to me negatively. So, not just thinking about how everyone is judging what I am doing right now, but also attempting to figure out, “How will people judge something I may do?” I always assume the worst.

    A huge realization I recently had is that I have never lived for me. I have only lived in a way that I thought would please others. This has really sucked all the life and happiness out of me. Applying so much perfection-pressure to myself growing up that it eventually lead to panic attacks and daily anxiety. And now that I realize that I want to take my life back, I feel uncertain on how to do that (esp while battling anxiety and panic). Simply attempting to think of what I would do if I didn’t have to worry about others thoughts feels odd.

    How do I truly live for me and no longer make decisions to please others? How do I go after that happiness I long for without first figuring out what “they’ll think”? I feel deserving of this wonderfully rewarding life I want but not sure where I will find the motivation to fight through the crud.

    Thanks so much for your time and for the article! I am writing down your 3 questions and posting them up on the wall as a daily reminder of the directions I want my thoughts to go!

  15. We are all crazy, psychotic fools. Luckily the chatter in our heads is not heard or chaos would break loose throughout the land.

  16. Jen said on June 4, 2012

    Wow. This really hit home. And, strangely, projection is not something I’ve ever really thought about. That’s probably the case for many who aren’t in touch with the psychology field. I need to remember this in “those moments”.

  17. Thanks so much for your comments, everyone! It’s nice to see that I struck a bit of a nerve. I have to admit that I’m not totally surprised, just because I think that it’s VERY universal stuff that I’m talking about here, but it nice to see that it got people thinking :)

    @Marilyn: That’s a great idea about posting the questions on the wall. What you’re describing, about caring perhaps a little too much what other people think, is not uncommon. The good news is that, as we age, we often transition into caring less about what other people think and more about what WE think (it’s one of the most fantastic benefits of aging!). I hope that as you mull over those 3 questions you can keep this little nugget in mind, too (I learned it from Louise Hay):

    The most important relationship that you will ever have in your life is the one that you have with yourself, because you are the one who’s going to be with you until the end. When you find yourself wondering what someone else thinks of you, try to make the conscious decision to think instead about what YOU think of you. Do what will make you happy, and rest assured that everyone else is too busy thinking about themselves to care 😉

    Easier said than done, I know, but I wish you the best with it.

  18. Wow, so much of this resonated with me – the self-hate, the perfectionism, the worry about what others think – thank you to everyone on this discussion, and to Leslie for sparking the fire!

    My pain psychologist told me the other day that his main goal for me, and all he wants me to focus on right now, is STOP THINKING SO MUCH. That tells you something right there.


  19. Can positive emotions be projected as well? If you’re feeling extremely happy and confident can you project that pride onto to others and imagine that they are impressed with you and respect you potentially more than they do?

    Or if you feel like you’re in love, is it just simple wishful thinking to perceive that the other person is also in love with you? Or is it a similar process to projection?

    I recently had an experience where I thought a friend and I were in mutual awe of each other. I was beginning to feel like this could be the relationship I was looking for and I was falling madly, deeply in love. And as it was happening I was convinced it was being reciprocated. I read it in every gesture, every phrase, every interaction.

    But soon she let me know that it wasn’t working, that it had been something far more casual in her mind. I was shocked. But in the intervening months I’ve begun to realize that she never actually said in words the feelings I assumed she was feeling. I read them into her actions and behaviour.

    I would love to understand more about how I let that happen.