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Is Projection the Most Powerful Defense Mechanism?

What is projection, how does it work, and what can we do about it?

George Rudy/Shutterstock
Source: George Rudy/Shutterstock

A computer is not really like us. It is a projection of a very small part of ourselves: that portion devoted to logic, order, rule, and clarity." —Ellen Ullman

Projection is a basic, self-protective defense, and a process which affects how people understand one another. When we project, we "put" part of ourselves onto other people, usually to "get rid of" something objectionable. It is as if we are throwing a part of ourselves outward and casting it, like the image from a movie projector, onto (really, into) the other person. It often plays out in relationship dysfunction, as the defensive activity bounces back and forth between us over time, operating beneath the radar without being addressed.

Projection and avoidance

Projection requires the "splitting-off" (dissociation, denial) of specific aspects of social reality, usually playing out the dynamic: "Whose fault is this? Not mine." There is a basic swap between what is about oneself, and what is about others, and this aspect of social decision-making is off. We treat the other person consistently with how we feel about that quality in ourselves. We are unaware of and/or avoiding something true about ourselves.

When we project, we end up treating others in ways that reflect how we could feel about ourselves if we weren't projecting (how we "really" feel about ourselves). For example, we can attack and attempt to destroy, we can idealize and worship, we can over-empathize, and so on, across the spectrum of human emotions and attributed motivations. It's complicated. And it is something which happens because of how the brain works, how the brain has evolved in culture, how the mind works, and how well we relate to one another. Since a relationship requires clear communication, distorting defenses can have a strong negative impact.

Energy is neither created nor destroyed

The first law of thermodynamics is the conservation of energy. Energy is neither created nor destroyed, and in a sense, the same is partially true for information. However, information can be degraded and lost. As an organ, the brain is unique in the human body, because it lives mainly in fantasy. In fact, the only direct contact the brain has with reality is arguably through interacting with itself via the senses. The senses take some kind of energy, patterned into information, from outside and transform it into a form which can be used internally, which is encoded in brain activity. Photons, for example, strike the back of the eye (which is made of layers of nerve cells that fire differently depending on the intensity and color of light). From that point on, perception is all about how the brain processes that information.

While the photons are absorbed into the retinal nerve cells, the information they carry is transformed into a pattern of brain activity, which eventually becomes conscious. However, we are aware of very little of what we see on a conscious level. Most of the info is either lost to noise or registers outside of awareness. Eventually, we communicate with others, but we can't communicate directly brain-to-brain, so there is another gap between people which information has to get through with sufficient fidelity to permit proper function.

Scripting the flipped

Social reality is constructed through a much more complex transformation of raw sensory data into minds, culture, and relationships, and much of what is going on never reaches us or only partially reaches us, in distorted and incomplete ways. Projection is a form of distortion in which information that is actually about oneself is incorrectly attributed to another person. There is a basic error in the construction of the interpersonal data, and what is about "me" is perceived as being about "you" or "her" or "them." The you-me script is flipped. Typically, this is viewed as a psychologically motivated defense to protect oneself from uncomfortable feelings, but sometimes it is just error, loss of data integrity. If we tried to pay attention to everything around us, it would overwhelm our bandwidth immediately.

We need ways of selecting what information to notice, developing short-hand approaches to making sense of things. In a way, defenses are shortcuts to understanding what goes on with people and oneself psychologically, which serve important functions, but often lead us astray. When two or more people share a distorted view, however, there is no contradiction. As long as everything continues to work well enough, no one notices anything is off, and no one is asking any questions.

Talking about the brain this way may sound reductionist, a suggestion that everything boils down to brain activity, or even solipsistic. This is not what I mean to suggest, because what it says from my perspective is that we are permeable and irreducible intertwined with our environment, and those around us. However, we are not always on the mark with others, and we often are misunderstanding ourselves, so we are always involved in a process of making adjustments in response to what we pick up.

The work of play

The difference between inside and outside is less clear-cut when it comes to mental life than physical life. We can more easily mix up something within us for something outside of us, for the mind than the body. The least refined defenses, such as projection, are based on the widest gaps in shared understanding. We live in different worlds, but those worlds overlap more or less smoothly, depending on how well we communicate and relate.

In any case, other people can often tell when we are off-base, and we can often tell when others are mixing something up. If we can hear each other, we can help each other, but that typically doesn't work with projection, because the emotions underneath are raw, and there isn't a buffer. Projection is considered "primitive," because it is an easy defense to do, so it happens early in childhood development first.

That is why when children project, we generally consider it normal, and if we are good-enough caregivers, we can play along with the reality presented in a way which fosters understanding. Confronting projection can be too violent when abrupt, when the other person doesn't have a back-up of emotional resilience, when they are not ready, when we don't communicate well for what they need, etc.

When grown-ups distort reality like that, they either have to hold tight to unconsciously feigned obliviousness or break. Projection is a rigid and sometimes fragile defense, so tread carefully. When we use projection, it makes it hard for us to properly interpret others' intentions, often leading to mistrust and discord. But projection also allows us to function in relation to others, at least until problems start to come up, by making difficult emotions tolerable. If we can play with reality, we can start to loosen up the rigidity of projective defenses, as long as that playfulness is not too much of a threat.

Please send me any questions, topics or themes you'd like me to possibly address in future blogs, via my PT bio page.