The Common Denominator Is You
One of the most common mechanisms by which we seek to protect our fragile egos is the projection of responsibility, where we place most of the blame for unwanted relationship outcomes squarely on the shoulders of those around us. Except for bouts of clinical depression, where feelings of worthlessness and excessive guilt might cause us to take on more than our fair share of the responsibility for conflict and dysfunction, we tend to see ourselves as the heroes, the saints, the victims, the innocent bystanders in our life stories. It’s those around us who are the villains, the sinners, the perpetrators, the guilty parties.
While blaming everything and everyone else for the quality of our relationships might insulate us from undue emotional distress we pay a heavy price because we can only ever influence those aspects of our lives over which we take some modicum of responsibility. Responsibility is the ability to respond. When all that responsibility is placed in the external environment we unwittingly turn ourselves into passive passengers on the ship of life. We stop self-reflection in its tracks, we see no reason to change our perceptions, to change our behaviors, to change ourselves. We keep on going in the same way, we keep on getting the same results, and we keep on blaming everybody else for it.
In the therapeutic alliance one of the most effective ways to get some leverage and start to make some inroads against the seemingly impermeable barrier of the projection of personal responsibility onto the outside world is to note when clients, of their own accord, characterize the behaviors of different people across the lifespan in basically the same way. We might find themes of betrayal, jealousy, pettiness, abandonment, destructiveness, small-mindedness, or anything else. Regardless of the theme, the powerful insight to present is “The common denominator is you.” Over time this idea, that what all of those similar behaviors of others have in common is the client, usually leads to the dawning realization that there must be something emanating not from out there in the external world but from within Self that outright provokes or at least influences these unwanted outcomes. Carl Jung put it succinctly when he wrote “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” But this understanding can only begin if we become aware of our proclivity to project that which we can’t or won’t accept inside of us. Then we can summon up the courage to start wondering how it is that we tend to pull out the same constellation of behaviors in different people and what we can start doing differently to get more desirable results.