Projection

doth protest

Projection is a psychological defense mechanism where a person subconsciously denies his or her own attributes, thoughts, and emotions, which are then ascribed to the outside world, usually to other people. Thus, projection involves imagining or projecting the belief that others originate those feelings. Projection reduces anxiety by allowing the expression of the unwanted unconscious impulses or desires without letting the conscious mind recognize them.

An example of this behavior might be blaming another for self failure. The mind may avoid the discomfort of consciously admitting personal faults by keeping those feelings unconscious, and by redirecting libidinal satisfaction by attaching, or ‘projecting,’ those same faults onto another person or object. The theory was developed by Sigmund Freud.

According to Freud, projection is a psychological defense mechanism whereby one ‘projects’ one’s own undesirable thoughts, motivations, desires, and feelings onto someone else. ‘Emotions or excitations which the ego tries to ward off are ‘split out’ and then felt as being outside the ego…perceived in another person.’ The related defense of ‘projective identification differs from projection in that the impulse projected onto an external object does not appear as something alien and distant from the ego because the connection of the self with that projected impulse continues.’

In one example of the process, a person might have thoughts of infidelity with respect to a spouse or other partner. Instead of dealing with these undesirable thoughts consciously, the subject unconsciously projects these feelings onto the other person, and begins to think that the other has thoughts of infidelity and that the other may be having an affair. In this way, the subject may obtain ‘acquittal by his conscience – if he projects his own impulses to faithlessness on to the partner to whom he owes faith.’ In this sense, projection is related to denial, arguably the only more primitive defense mechanism than projection, which, like all defense mechanisms, provides a function whereby a person can protect the conscious mind from a feeling that is otherwise repulsive.

Projection can also be established as a means of obtaining or justifying certain actions that would normally be found atrocious or heinous. This often means projecting false accusations, information, etc., onto an individual for the sole purpose of maintaining a self-created illusion. One of the many problems with the process whereby ‘something dangerous that is felt inside can be moved outside – a process of ‘projection”- is that as a result ‘the projector may become somewhat depleted and rendered limp in character, as he loses part of his personality’.’ Compartmentalization, splitting, and projection are ways that the ego continues to pretend that it is completely in control at all times, when in reality human experience is one of shifting instinctual reactivity and emotional motivation in which the ‘I’ is not always complicit. Further, while engaged in projection, individuals can be unable to access truthful memories, intentions, and experiences, even about their own nature, as is common in deep trauma.

Peter Gay describes projection as ‘the operation of expelling feelings or wishes the individual finds wholly unacceptable—too shameful, too obscene, too dangerous—by attributing them to another.’ The philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach based his theory of religion in large part upon the idea of projection, i.e., the idea that an anthropomorphic deity is the outward projection of man’s anxieties and desires. The ‘Shadow’—a term used in Jungian psychology to describe a variety of psychological projection—refers to the projected material. Jungians consider that ‘Political agitation in all countries is full of such projections, just as much as the backyard gossip of little groups and individuals.’ Marie-Louise Von Franz extended the view of projection to cover phenomena in ‘Patterns of Creativity Mirrored in Creation Myths’: ‘… wherever known reality stops, where we touch the unknown, there we project an archetypal image.’

Psychological projection is one of the medical explanations of bewitchment that attempts to diagnose the behavior of the afflicted children at Salem in 1692. The historian John Demos asserts that the symptoms of bewitchment experienced by the afflicted girls during the witchcraft crisis were because the girls were undergoing psychological projection. Demos argues the girls had convulsive fits caused by repressed aggression and were able to project this aggression without blame because of the speculation of witchcraft and bewitchment. Several scholars have suggested that modern feminism is sometimes characterized by projection; denying any female evil or negativity and instead attributing all culpability to men or patriarchy.

When addressing psychological trauma, the defense mechanism is sometimes counter-projection, including an obsession to continue and remain in a recurring trauma-causing situation and the compulsive obsession with the perceived perpetrator of the trauma or its projection. Jung writes that ‘All projections provoke counter-projection when the object is unconscious of the quality projected upon it by the subject.’ In psychopathology, projection is an especially commonly used defense mechanism in people with certain personality disorders: ‘Patients with paranoid personalities, for example, use projection as a primary defense because it allows them to disavow unpleasant feelings and attribute them to others.’

According to Kernberg, all ‘the primitive defenses, such as splitting, [projection], and projective identification, are commonly connected with primitively organized personalities, such as ‘: Borderline personality disorder; Narcissistic personality disorder; Antisocial personality disorder; and Psychopathy. Drawing on the theory that ‘the individual ‘projects’ something of himself or herself into everything he or she does, in line with Gordon Allport’s concept of expressive behavior,’ projective techniques have been devised to aid personality assessment. ‘The two best-known projective techniques are the Rorschach ink-blots and the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT)’.

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