Projecting Charlie Sheen

This week a student observed that he can’t get enough news about Charlie Sheen. My student is not alone. Considering Sheen’s numerous appearances in the media and the avalanche of comments that each appearance generates, the world can’t get enough of Charlie Sheen. Incredibly, after opening up a Twitter account on March 1, Sheen set the record for the fastest time—just over 24 hours—to reach a million followers.  The public is fascinated with the story of Sheen’s abusive behavior towards himself and others and Sheen’s attempts to portray himself as the heroic victim.

But what do we really know about the inner-life of Charlie Sheen? Not much; my former student, now friend and professor, Warren Nilsson recently observed:

…In general people are very poor at reading and understanding each other’s inner lives. Most of us might think we are among the exceptions – that our powers of psychological insight are remarkably keen – but I think this is a grand delusion. We are experts not at comprehending each other but at projecting our own perspectives, desires, and insecurities out onto the world. We are gifted and unapologetic fantasists… We can continue deceiving ourselves that we understand perfectly what other people are experiencing.

So to be accurate, the world doesn’t care about Charlie Sheen, the world cares about their projected figure that they call Charlie Sheen. There is no shortage of opinions about what is causing Sheen’s behavior and what should be done about his behavior. Yet, since we are not a network executive, or a lawyer or judge involved in one of his cases, or one of his women, we have no real decisions to make about Sheen. Our judgments are not necessary, yet they persist. A Course in Miracles observes this about judgment:

In order to judge anything rightly, one would have to be fully aware of an inconceivably wide range of things; past, present and to come. One would have to recognize in advance all the effects of his judgments on everyone and everything involved in them in any way. And one would have to be certain there is no distortion in his perception, so that his judgment would be wholly fair to everyone on whom it rests now and in the future. Who is in a position to do this? Who except in grandiose fantasies would claim this for himself?

Remember how many times you thought you knew all the “facts” you needed for judgment, and how wrong you were! Is there anyone who has not had this experience? Would you know how many times you merely thought you were right, without ever realizing you were wrong? Why would you choose such an arbitrary basis for decision making? Wisdom is not judgment; it is the relinquishment of judgment.

So why is the public so eager to judge Sheen? If we feel a charge about Charlie Sheen’s behavior it is because we are projecting onto Charlie Sheen that which we don’t want to see within. What we deny within is seen without—the world we react to is an outward picture of our inward condition.  We are literally making up our interpretation of Charlie Sheen.

This week, I have exhibited Sheen-like behavior. I have been angry—I raised my voice to my daughter. I have exhibited compulsive behavior by spending too much time on the Internet. I have had thoughts of specialness—Why hasn’t the sales rep responded to my “important” email yet? My mind has been at war—I wouldn’t want to share the content of my mind as I thought about the behavior of some of my colleagues.

Someone might ask: Aren’t you taking this too far? How can you compare being irritated at your daughter to Sheen’s physical violence against multiple women? The two may be very different in consequence and degree, but they both come from the same wrong-minded thought system. A decision made with the ego is a decision made with the ego. When we take the hand of our ego we have relinquished our peace.

If I can observe my thinking and behavior with compassion and awareness, I free myself to make another choice. If not, I can travel the potholed road that goes nowhere. I can repress what I am doing; I can make the choice to be unaware and mindless about my own angry, compulsive, and narcissistic thinking. What is repressed is then projected out. I will find the guilty party in the world in the form of a “Charlie Sheen.” Here is the guilty party, my ego proclaims. From the standpoint of my ego, this is win-win. I proclaim my innocence and I’m entertained at the same time. Because I have now gone mindless—thinking that the problem is outside of my mind—the heavy price I pay is the inability to make another choice.

Instead of choosing the potholed road that goes nowhere, I can choose the superhighway that takes me back into my right mind where I can choose again. If I am becoming obsessed or outraged about “Charlie Sheen” that is a clue that I have projected onto Charlie Sheen something I do not want to look at it in myself.

When I can look at myself and Charlie Sheen with awareness but without judgment then I can return to my mind and make another choice to be right-minded rather than wrong-minded. My interest in “Charlie Sheen” recedes in favor of the people and the rich life in front of me. I see what really matters is whether I, not Charlie Sheen, make the choice to choose again.


4 Responses to Projecting Charlie Sheen

  1. laine says:

    Great insight!
    I reacted to Charlie Sheen with compassion which surprised me because I usually am critical.
    I was happy with my reaction of compassion because I to was unaware and so in denial that I couldn’t see my responsibility in creating the turmoil in my life. Thank you for your letters.
    I enjoy looking forward to them.

  2. I did not know Charlie Sheen and googled the name. OK, so do I ‘know’ him now? Great post Barry: we can only project unto others, situations, nature, things, etc., what we are ourselves. What we are is everything and that is the freedom and that brings the inner peace, the peace of mind. You describe that so profound with the part of The Course. Till the next one ;).

  3. Gerhart Hauptman-Diaz says:

    Great post!

  4. Tana Paddock says:

    I absolutely LOVE this post! Thank you for infusing a public spectacle with such meaning.

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