The Reflection Principle: What Image or Expectations Are You Superimposing on Others?

June 6, 2012  |  

I once wrote about an emotionally abusive relationship I was in a few years ago.  As hard as it was to discuss it to a bunch of people I don’t know (you amazing Madame Noire readers), it was even harder discussing it with people that I did know well.  My friends, though they might not have understood why I stayed, or what my mindset was while I was going through it, were very understanding of me.  However, my family… well, that was a different story.

I was raised in a two-parent household.  My father, being the head of a family of four daughters and a wife, always tried to tell us about how a man should treat a woman.  He would tell us us how we shouldn’t take certain things, and reminded us that no matter what, we are beautiful and deserve to be treated with respect in all aspects of our lives. My mother told us the same things, and reminded us to place high value on ourselves.  So when I revealed to my family what happened in my past relationship, it was as if I could feel the heaviness on my father’s heart and I could see in his eyes a feeling of failure. My sisters and mother couldn’t understand either, and they would engage me in conversations, trying to figure out why I committed to staying with him all that time:  “Okay… so WHY didn’t you leave???”


Things got even stickier when I decided to see a counselor at my college.  I remember telling my father and having him yell, “That’s weak!  You’re not weak!  You’re a Koger!  You’re better than that!”  I have to be honest, it was hard feeling like I’d disappointed my family based on the choices I’d made, because we all know that feeling like you disappointed anyone at all is hard to handle sometimes.

But, let’s examine this frustrating concept of disappointment.  Typically, disappointment happens when someone falls under expectations. You sit there and try to examine why they behaved the way that they did.  Thoughts begin to pop into your head like, “I don’t understand why he/she/they would act that way!”  However, a lot of times, people are not seeing people individually, but they are seeing them through what I like to think is a personalized version of  the “reflection principle.”

Though there is a “reflection principle” in the complex mathematics theory universe, I’m discussing the principle with people (and if this principle pops off, remember where you heard it first, folks!).  It’s when a person places their own strengths and weaknesses on another person.  I feel as though voluntary friendships are based on this principle.  When you meet someone, to create a better mental bond with them, you begin to find similarities with that person and you begin to see yourself in them.

However, when a person begins to waiver and becomes more like who they really are, doesn’t it seem like sometimes we might take it harder than that person?  It’s because we’re suffering from the reflection principle.  We’re looking at their situation and we’re trying to understand why they would behave the way that they did, because you would have never behaved that way; and that’s what you need to realize.  They are not YOU.

Disappointment happens because we place ourselves in the situations and see how we would behave and don’t see how people couldn’t fathom doing the opposite (because if nothing else, you’re just a chasm of common sense at all times, right?).  However, things are always different when you’re personally in that situation.  Instead of chastising a person for their poor mistakes, try to stop seeing them for how you want them to be and see them for who they truly are: flawed individuals, the same as you are.

As for my family, my father never did understand how and why I let myself be in an emotionally abusive relationship, nor did he understand or fully agree with my decision to go to counseling, but I did it and I loved it (and honestly, I’ll be the first person to suggest it to people).  My family might not fully understand why I do certain things, the same way I have those head tilt moments trying to figure out why they behave the way they do, but it’s all about seeing people for how they are.  And when you do, true relationships can be built and grow from knowing the nooks and crannies of a person’s true being.

What are you reflecting on others?  Let’s discuss @kkoger.

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