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Overlay (What Prevents You From Having a Real Relationship)

It is not a secret that relationships with other people are the most difficult aspect of life.  But there is something that makes relationships not just difficult but impossible… It is when we are not in reality in our relationships, which happens more often than you think.

I want you to imagine that a person is in a prison cell.  There is no way of getting out of that prison cell. They cannot cope with the reality of the prison cell and so they begin to escape from it with their mind.  They start to play a game of pretend where the prison is a palace instead. The person who brings food to the cell every day is a servant. The walls are not the stone of a prison; they are the stone of a medieval castle.  The bars are pillars. The mind has the capacity to play pretend to such a degree that every element of reality can be seen as a different element in our game of pretend. But this game is not really a game because your mental and emotional survival depends on it. This pretend reality sits over actual reality like an overlay.

Most of us have experienced this overlay when we were children.  We played pretend. For example, it was easy for us to see our family golden retriever as the dragon if we were pretending that we were a knight in shining white armor.  But for some of us, this overlay went far beyond pretend. We could not cope with the reality of our childhood. So the coping mechanism of pretend became a way to literally get away from and escape our reality.  When this is the case, we lose touch with reality and we start to feel the overlay is more real than the reality we don’t want to admit to underneath it. Even when it seemed like we were not pretending and were in reality to other people, we were still experiencing life through the lens of our overlay.  

It is common for children to use this coping technique because childhood is such a uniquely powerless experience for so many children.  They cannot escape. They cannot make choices to change their reality and so they often end up developing coping mechanisms (like overlays) so as to not be stuck in a tormenting reality where they have no control.  But this coping mechanism continues past childhood. It extends past when we actually do have the capacity to change our reality. When this is the case, this coping mechanism gets us into serious trouble.

An overlay is a very dangerous thing because it makes it so we do not even see reality in the first place.  We could be headed towards a cliff but because we are not looking at reality, we are looking at our overlay; we are convinced it is a beautiful horizon line.  Overlays make it so we commit to something that isn’t real, especially in relationships. And eventually, when that overlay begins to corrode, we end up in a reality that is the opposite of what we would choose.

Many of us are lonely.  The reality of our relationship life is very painful.  We are desperate to have the vision we see in our heads of what we want.  Maybe it’s that picture of the perfect family, which would make us feel belonging and closeness and connection.  Our commitment is to that picture of what we want. There is nothing wrong with creating that as long as we are creating it in reality.  The danger is that this picture of what we want can become an overlay. It can be what prevents us from seeing reality. When this is the case, when we meet someone, we ignore all the red flags that are telling us that in reality this person does not match the vision of what we want.  Instead, we become like casting directors where what we want is actually a game of pretend we are playing on the stage of life. We are simply trying to pick the person who acts the most like they could play the character in our vision of our life that we want. Any sign that we get that suggests that they could play that character well makes us convinced that they are actually that character in reality.  But the truth is, they are not. We are not in love with the actual person. We are in love with the character we want them to play in our life. When they act in character, we approve of them. When they break from character, we disapprove of them and try to criticize them back into character. One of the best examples of this I have seen of this overlay vs. reality relationship in action is the relationship between the student Betty Warren and her new husband in the movie Mona Lisa Smile.    

We are so desperate to have relationships that we also mislead others into believing that we actually are the character belonging to someone else’s vision of what they want.  We are like chameleons and actors trying to become those characters so we can be loved and wanted. But this is a disaster in the end because it is impossible to play a game of pretend or to keep acting forever.  We will break character. And this makes it so the person who is cast in the role belonging to our vision feels totally unloved for who they are and the person doing the casting feels either disappointed or duped.  The overlay usually begins to corrode when the limerance phase of relationship wears off. Suddenly, something one person or the other does to break from character causes us to catch a glimpse of reality. It scares the crap out of us.  And slowly, like filmstrip being burnt, we see that what we thought the relationship was is not what the relationship was. Suddenly all the red flags you ignored in the beginning make perfect sense and you wish you would have actually put stock in them.  Slowly, you cannot deny that the reality of the person you have committed to looks absolutely nothing like the vision you had for what you wanted. It is not a match at all to the overlay. And eventually, you fall through the holes in the overlay into a very harsh reality, sometimes a worse reality than you even started with; a reality of loneliness and unhappiness.        

When we do not see people clearly in reality for what they actually are, and when we do not enter into relationships in a completely authentic way, we are not creating a relationship in reality.  We are actually creating an overlay. Many people’s relationships primarily take place as an overlay. To scare you, this is the adult equivalent of two four year olds playing house, but being totally convinced that reality is putting the baby to bed and shopping for groceries and living in the play house.

If you are the kind of person who has an intense vision for what you want and are so desperate to get it that you ‘cast characters’ as actors in that vision whose actual real personalities and authentic truths do not match the characters themselves, the unfortunate reality is that you will be a match to people who do the same thing and will therefore ‘cast you’ as a character in their vision who is nothing like the real you.  You will also be a match to people who pretend the reality of them is the same as the character you want them to play in your vision, when the truth of them is quite the opposite. You will end up in relationships where genuine incompatibility exists. For more information about this, watch my video titled: Incompatibility (A Harsh Reality In Relationships). You will also end up in relationships based mostly on potential. To understand more about this, watch my video titled: Priceless Relationship Advice.  

People are really confused about love and sex addiction.  To be honest, most people, even experts, have no idea what actually creates it and what it is really about.  This is because love addiction and sex addiction are really an addiction to overlay. Like any addiction, it is a coping strategy to get out of the insane pain of starvation relative to emotional needs.  It is a desperate way to get out of isolation. When the reality of someone’s life was this desperate absence of what they emotionally needed, and there was no way to get it, the only option was to create a fantasy (an overlay) and project it over reality.  Love and sex addicts attach to people immediately because they see people only through the lens of their overlay; Only as the characters in their own vision, which they are so desperate for and already know so well. So love addiction and sex addiction is just at the extreme end of the scale of what so many of us do in life and in relationships.  We convince ourselves that an overlay we have created is reality, when it is not.          

If we want to create the life we want to be living, we have got to hold two often contradictory perspectives simultaneously.  The first is reality; what is. The second is the vision we have for what we want. Chances are, you already know what you want.  Chances are if you tend to fall into this pattern, you are so desperate to get it that you are the kind of person who (like a person dying of thirst) will ignore the warning signs and drink poisoned water.  So staying out of this pattern is so much about learning to see reality, even when it breaks your heart to do it and even when it feels like you have to say no to water when you are dying of thirst.

To get into reality, we have to try to see all of a situation and all of who someone is, both good and bad.  We have a tendency when we are engaged in an overlay to sweep anything that contradicts our vision under the rug.  We allow ourselves to be spun by someone’s words as well instead of the way they feel energetically and the way they act.  So here are some ways to get into reality about a situation or someone:


  1. Put the situation or the person on mute.  You can do this as a visualization where you go back in your mind and watch the situation or the person.  Or you can close off your hearing somehow while you are actually watching them. What is the truth being conveyed by their actions and body language and energy?  Their words may say one thing, while the rest of them say the opposite. Actions and energy never lie. A person may say they are there with you and for you for example, but they are entirely focused on their computer or projects.  If the situation is on mute, and you were watching it as am impartial observer, not knowing anything about this situation or person, what would you say the truth is?
  2. When you perceive a red flag, something that is a warning that the situation or person may not fit in with that vision of what you want for yourself and your life, notice the feeling of fear you have and potential disappointment and desperation.  Instead of going into denial about it, or talking yourself out of that feeling, seriously consider it may be a bad sign you need to listen to. For example, one of my clients was at a dinner with a man who she had fallen in love with. At the dinner, he told her about the affairs he had engaged in that year before he decided to get a divorce.  He went on to explain why those affairs were so important and to explain how alone he was in his marriage with his wife. Because he told the story in a way that made him the victim and thus justified the affairs, she ignored the red flag feeling she got. Later of course, and after they were married, he cheated on her and she found out that he told the same story to those women and even lied that he was not married when he engaged in those affairs.  Commit to asking yourself, “What if this really were a red flag? What is the worst that this red flag could be warning me about or what reality would it be pointing to if it were actually a red flag?”
  3. Try to observe someone when they are not aware that someone is watching.  When people know someone is watching, they tend to become who they know other people want them to be.  By observing them when they are totally unaware they are being watched is to see them off guard and in their natural state.
  4. Notice patterns.  If we have asked someone in our life to change something, especially something that hurts us, and they consistently don’t change it or say they will, but never take the initiative themselves to dedicate themselves to changing it, the reality is that they either can’t or don’t want to change that thing.  They are not a match to our vision at all. What we are seeing is what we are going to get. This is the reality of them. We need to accept and take action accordingly rather than to get caught in a cycle of constantly trying to fix them into being a match to our overlay.
  5. Let go immediately of the idea that someone can ‘heal’ into being what we want them to be.  So many of us see reality through the lens of what someone can be if we rescue them or rehabilitate them.  This vision of what their healed self looks like is still OUR overlay. It’s what we want. It may not be a match to what they want.  You can be sure that if what they want is the same as our vision, you will see consistent efforts without any influence on your end to reach that state because it is their vision, not your vision for them.  It is a good idea to ask yourself, If I was committing to this situation or this person EXACTLY as it is today, knowing it would not ever change, could I do that?
  6. Trust your feelings.  Intuition and feelings are powerful representatives of your personal truth.  This is the epitome of trust your gut. Imagine that someone inserted a rod down through the top of your head, all the way through the center of your body, just along the front side of your spine.  You could see this rod as your core. Your personal truth will show up as sensations, feelings, intuitions and messages that arise closest to that rod. When you are not sure about reality or truth, sit down, close your eyes and be unconditionally present with whatever is occurring close to that rod.  After a time, you can ask it questions relative to the situation or person in question and see how it responds. Even when we commit to maintaining an open mind, we have to do so with a firm grasp on our personal truth and we must trust the feelings and intuition that come as messengers of that personal truth.
  7. Don’t simply look at how someone treats you.  Look at how they treat others, especially their enemies and opponents and also children and animals.  When we are in a place of favor in someone’s life, when we are in love especially, we tend to not see the person clearly whose favor we are in.  We believe we are the exception. We need to get that favor can be easily lost and their behavior will change once they are less enamored with us.  We can bet on the fact that we will be dealt with the same way we have seen them deal with ‘other people’. For example, I counseled a woman whose husband was a top executive.  She watched him for years belittle other people and set them up in lose lose situations to his advantage and play brutal zero sum games all in the name of business strategy. She told herself she was safe with him because it was surely different because she was his wife.  But when their relationship fell apart, she had to accept the very harsh reality that every move he had made financially in their marriage was to put himself at an advantage and to put her at a disadvantage in the event of a divorce. He had been playing a chess game to keep his own best interests secure in case they split up.  And soon, she found herself losing everything she had thought they had built together. As if there never was a marriage, the second the relationship fell apart, it was as if there was never a marriage. He switched into treating her with the same cold, calculating zero sum game approach as a business rival. How people treat ‘other people’ as well as children and other living things, like animals, is everything.
  8. We all have blind spots and biases.  We have to become aware of our own. Due to our own experiences, we all have aspects we can’t see about others and we all have biases that cause us to project onto other people.  This also prevents us from seeing them clearly. To understand more about projection, watch my video titled: Projection (understanding the Psychology of Projection). For example, if we grew up with a narcissistic father, we may not even recognize a narcissistic man for what he is.  We are used to this kind of relationship. We will have a blind spot to the danger involved with this personality type. Or we may be attracted to the lone wolf because we resonate with their aloneness, but miss that there is a really good reason that person is alone. Or we may have grown up with a suicidal mother who was super emotional.  If we end up in a relationship with an emotional woman, we may project our mother onto her and project that she will hurt us in the same way mom did, when this isn’t actually true. We can’t see who she really is past the lens of our mother. When we have these blind spots, it is a good idea to involve other people’s perspectives as well as to develop awareness is the areas where our blind spots and projections exist.
  9. Take time to get to know someone.  Treat the process of developing a relationship or getting into a situation like a touch and go scenario.  Test the water. When you do this you get information. Based on that information, you decide to go a little deeper or not.  Based on having gone a little deeper, you get a little more information and that tells you whether to go a little deeper or not.  This is really hard to do when we are desperate for something. It’s like asking a starving person to sample a rice grain and then another rice grain and then another, instead of eating the whole bowl.  And it is almost torture to think of putting energy into something or someone only to have to pull out and start all over again. But believe me, it is still better to do that than it is to eat a whole bowl of poisoned rice and to suffer the consequences of getting out of a situation after you have gotten into it.  Make sure that before you commit to a partnership or commit to fully trusting someone, you have seen them in their good times and in their bad times.  Make sure you have seen that they will consistently take your best interests as part of their own best interests. Make sure that you really see, hear, feel and understand the reality of who they are right here and now, if nothing were to positively change about them.

Sometimes we have to take risks in life.  Sometimes, we have to move forward with our fear.  Other times, moving forward despite our fear means that we are ignoring reality.  It is in our best interests to spend time discerning the difference. If all we see is our overlay, we never see reality and if we never see reality, we can never actually change it into the vision we want for ourselves and for our life.  All we can hope for is a game of pretend projected over the reality of our life. All we can hope for is game of pretend where we never really see, feel, hear and touch other people and they never really see, feel, hear and touch us because we are only ever playing characters in each other’s overlay.


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