The Problem With Projecting Our Experience Onto Others

Note: This essay was originally posted on The Bilerico Project on 3/11/13

After two tries with two significantly different meds, it looks like SSRIs and I simply don’t get along when it comes to being able to motivate and think well enough to get work done. As a person with moderate Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, this is rather aggravating. My OCD waxes and wanes much like my Tourette, and has been worse in the last few months than it had been for quite a while. In mentioning this conundrum to several people over the last couple of weeks, I’ve noticed something interesting, and new to my own experience.

When I have raised the topic of having OCD (a common comorbidity with Tourette), multiple people have reacted with total dismissal, typically saying something to the effect of “well everyone is a little OCD.”

In the past, while I might occasionally have had to explain what OCD was, the average person was far more likely to be accepting of its existence than they were of my Tourette Syndrome. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder being easier for many people to comprehend than the involuntary movements and sounds found in TS was often an annoyance to me, being someone who’s tics were often far more disruptive than the symptoms of OCD were.

This sort of dismissal isn’t an entirely unfamiliar phenomena to me though. As the profile of Tourette Syndrome was raised in the public consciousness, particularly in the wake of HBO’s well-made documentary on the topic of youth with the disorder, I found myself being met with a new form of disbelief when I attempted to explain my symptoms. One woman summed up the Catch 22 of having a suddenly high-profile condition, when she angrily responded to my explanation of why I was barking like a small terrier with “yeah I watch TV too; shut the fuck up.”

Perhaps with cultural artifacts like USA Network’s multiple-award-winning series Monk, a related phenomena has occurred with OCD. Of course, unlike with TS there is some truth to the statement that many people have transient obsessions or compulsions, which I imagine makes it easier to dismiss in other people.

In this one respect, the situation is not unlike some of the resistance LGBT people encounter from people who can relate just a little bit to our experiences. After all, homosexual experimentation has traditionally been a common element of childhood, even among people who grow up to identify as heterosexual. Besides, it isn’t that unusual to hear straight people ruminate on who they’d “go gay for” once they’ve got some alcohol in their system.

It hardly seems a great stretch to imagine that a person’s related, but distinctly different experience from being gay or bisexual, could contribute to the widespread and generally erroneous belief that sexual orientation is a “lifestyle choice.”

Perhaps in the back of some people’s minds when the topic of gay and bisexual people comes up, they think back to those late nights during sleepovers with Jim/Jane, or that one reoccurring dream they had in high school that made them feel so funny. Because we naturally project our own experiences onto other people, and they are heterosexual (regardless of their youthful exploration), the idea that gay people have “chosen” to pursue relationships and sex with people of the same gender, is to them a logical conclusion.

This can equally apply to gender identity. Half the people I know at some point or another has wondered or fantasized about being another gender. Personally I went through a period as a child where I really wished I had a vagina because I thought it’d be awesome to be the receptive parter for sex (I was beyond thrilled to learn a few years later that a vagina was not a strict requirement), and I know plenty of straight men who played dress-up as children, and straight women who were tomboys. Of course, none of that is the same as having a gender identity different from that which you were assigned at birth.

But again, I can see how someone who doesn’t, and doesn’t want to understand what it means to be trans*, could look to their own casual experience of questioning or playing with gender, and falsely extrapolate their experience in a way that leads them to believe that trans* people are simply “confused.”

It is not my intent to excuse people who project their own experiences onto us to justify their opposition to LGBT equality.

Rather, I simply believe that by striving to put our own experiences aside sometimes and try to understand where other people are coming from, we can be more compassionate people, better advocates for equality, and of course, avoid being that asshole from time to time.