Projection as a Defense Mechanism

The Power of Projection as a defense mechanism is awesome. General thinking about the defense mechanism of projection is that it allows us to identify and acknowledge some aspect of ourselves that we cannot face as our own then project, or shine, it upon someone else. The result is we can then be hurt or angry with them for their audacity of having these thoughts or feelings about us! For instance, if I do not like my body image and feel that I am unattractive because of my weight, I can project onto my friend that he feels I am unattractive because of my weight. Then I am free to be angry with him or hurt because he feels this way about me. He, of course, has no idea why I am angry or hurt since these feelings do not belong to him. These are projections of my inner-self that have been put upon him by me, due to my inability to face the “truth” of those issues myself.

Another place where one often encounters projection, especially among adolescents is in the arena of love. If a boy and a girl are “in love” but, one of them is beginning to fall out of love or to be attracted to someone else, they often will begin to accuse their partner of “looking at” the boy in English class, or flirting with the captain of the football team, or of wanting to go out with someone else. This happens because the one falling out of love is not able to “own” these feelings and deal with them in a direct, honest way. Often the person who is projecting will hide behind such statements as, “I miss my friends and want to spend more time with them, but you won’t let me.” They are afraid to take the responsibility of saying, “I need time away from you.” The partner might then break up with them and they are not sure they want that. Perhaps, he just wants to experiment, check out things to see if they are really greener on the other side of the fence. However, he does not want to be labeled as the one who broke up the relationship or as the bad guy, so he projects onto his partner that she is emotionally shallow or that she is behaving badly and the responsibility for the breakup belongs to her. In his mind, his friends will side with him because he can spread the word (or spread his projection) among them that she is not to be trusted and that she has “done him wrong.”

More subtle forms of projection might include behaviors that are subtly self-destructive. These behaviors will manage to sabotage some goal such as getting admitted to medical school by “managing” to fail the entrance exam because they had not slept or studied enough. The claim will be made that they were not feeling well, had to work too many hours or their boss would not let them off to study. The responsibility will be placed on someone or something else. They are not be able to say to themselves, or to their important supporters, that they no longer think they want to go to medical school. Perhaps this has been a dream for years, or it has been an expectation of the family that the child will grow up to be a surgeon like dad. The child is not strong enough to just say that he wants to have a career in music, not medicine. He may fear rejection or punishment by his family if he does not become a doctor, and he may not allow himself to “know” what he really wants to do. So instead of facing this conflict and dealing with it directly, he will create a situation for which he is not responsible and cannot be held accountable, but which prevents him from going to medical school. Of course in these convoluted thinking patterns other defense mechanisms are also, by necessity, utilized. One that comes to mind here is rationalization and another is scapegoating.

All of these examples arise from circumstances where the individual who is projecting has some strong desire or feeling that determines what they want to do or how they wish to behave, but for which they are unwilling or unable to take responsibility and ownership. These fantasies may be so strong and driving for this individual, but they are not acceptable, they are forbidden or perceived as risky and shameful to the extent that the individual may not even be able to consciously articulate them, and certainly will not be able to overtly pursue them.

The challenge for the therapist who is dealing with someone that is projecting as their principle defense mechanism is to recognize what is happening. The therapist needs to gently uncover this conflict and lightly invite the consideration that perhaps some projection is taking place. The therapist cannot “attack” or “out” the client and say, “Aha, I know what you are doing and what you really want to do!” This will frighten the client off, and it is showing off by the therapist. Even when you are certain that you are correctly identifying this behavior, gently inviting consideration is an effective strategy for getting a client to consider that they may have some forbidden desires or some internalized critical self that is punishing them with self-hatred.

During therapy, one of the most important experiences for the client is to be held in the safe holding environment of unconditional positive regard. Carl Rogers taught us about this condition. The point is that the therapist does not have to like the client, approve of their goals or behaviors, nevertheless, the therapist must communicate to the client a genuine belief in the client’s right to be respected and heard honestly and accurately. You cannot sit upon a moral throne and judge your clients. The questions you ask in your head cannot be: Is this the right thing for the client? Is the client making a good choice? The questions must be more in the line of: What does the client really seek? How is the client going about getting what they want, even if the want is unconscious? What is the cost benefit ratio of the client’s choices and behaviors?

Once you have asked yourself these questions as the therapist, you must then begin to “suppose” the possibilities to the client. “Perhaps, this might be going on with you.” Or, “I wonder if you have ever thought or felt this way?” “Have you ever thought about doing something other than what you are doing?” You might even say, “If you were free to do anything in the world that you wanted to do, what would that be?” This is one of my favorites! It is hypothetical and speculative and takes no ownership or responsibility, so it can bypass the defense of shame or guilt that inhibit or “forbids” the client to behave in some specific way. The therapist asks them to speculate. “If you were free, without peril of punishment or shame, to behave in some new way, what would you choose to do? Can you think about it? Can you quietly sit and dream about some action or some behavior, if you were free to engage in, you would?” These are very powerful scripts. They allow someone to speculate and fantasize, without putting them at moral risk. You begin slowly to ask them to nibble at these ideas, to explore and imagine them in increasing increments.

When people begin to take the risk to change their script and their behavior they begin to do so at the periphery of their lives. They do not immediately go home and say, “I want a divorce.” They do not immediately walk in and quit their job. But, they begin to behave differently in someway in places that are safe, so there are no costs that will follow them home. They might experiment with someone with whom they are not in any kind of relationship to see how an outside party might respond. Perhaps, they try being more assertive with a waiter and will demand some special service in a restaurant they never frequent so that they can practice the behavior without significant consequences. They begin to practice and explore new behaviors at the edges of their universe and then gradually begin to incorporate them into their “real” lives. As a clinician, it is important to warn them that this is the usual sequence and that you do not expect them to go right home and challenge the most important part of their lives as a result of this particular session. You want them to experiment, you want to help them become more skilled and to carefully assess how that makes them feel? Does it really reflect what they want and are they pleased with the new behaviors? Are there costs that they are beginning to identify that they do not want to pay? Can they recognize that they are making a choice and have the power to change? Then and only then, do you begin to help them behave in a more coherent and congruent manner in their central relationships and their primary lives.

The challenge for the therapist in understanding the defense mechanisms is being able to recognize when they are employed and why. The therapist must spend time with the client learning to “know” the client and to hear them accurately, even when “accuracy” involves hearing things that they are not saying or are different from the things they are saying verbally or behaviorally. It is a critical skill set to acquire. But if you spend the time learning how to do it, you will be a much better helper and a more useful travelling companion in the lives of your clients. Good luck.

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One Response to Projection as a Defense Mechanism

  1. Kathy Maupin says:

    Very penetrating piece. Loved reading it. Thanks for deciphering a very difficult subject so eloquently.

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