Self-Deception, Part 9: Projection
The ninth installment in a new 10-part series on ego defenses.
Posted Feb 07, 2019
The ego defense of projection involves attributing one’s unacceptable thoughts and feelings to others. For example, a teenager with unconscious racist impulses might transfer those impulses onto a friend and then, on very slight grounds, accuse the friend of being a racist. Other examples of projection include the envious person who believes that everyone envies her, the covetous person who lives in constant fear of being dispossessed, the lustful father who accuses his daughter of being sexually provocative or promiscuous, the man with fantasies of infidelity who feels sure that his partner is cheating on him, and the woman who hates her mother-in-law but imagines that it is she who hates her. When I was in primary school, a common response to a taunt was to chant, “What you say is what you are, you’re a dancing booby star.”
By projecting uncomfortable impulses onto somebody else, a person is able to externalize those feelings and play them out vicariously while at the same time placing herself safely above or beyond them. The man who projects his homosexual attraction onto another man and then berates him for being ‘gay’ is distancing himself from his impulse while keeping it in the front of his mind, albeit disguised as somebody else’s. In addition, by berating the other man, he is trying to convince himself, the other man, and any external or internalized bystanders that he is not gay nor even could be—for how could one be that of which one disapproves?
Projection is thought to be the principal ego defense in paranoid personality disorder (PPD), which is characterized by a pervasive distrust of others, including friends, family, and partner(s). As a result, the person with PPD is guarded and suspicious, and always on the lookout for clues or indications to validate her fears. She also has a strong sense of her own person: She is overly sensitive to setbacks and rebuffs, easily feels shame and humiliation, and forever bears grudges. Unsurprisingly, she tends to withdraw from others and struggles to build or maintain close relationships.
Projection also underlies the phenomenon of transference, first identified by Freud in the context of psychoanalysis. Transference describes the tendency for an analysand (a person undergoing psychoanalysis) to relate to the analyst as she does or did to some other important person in her life, having projected this older relationship or pattern of relating onto her relationship with the analyst. For example, if the analysand has an issue with trusting men that stems from the early unreliability or absence of her father, and the analyst is male and resembles a father figure, she is more than likely to mistrust the analyst. The analyst ought to seize on this transference and explore it further since it is likely to underlie certain problem areas in the life of the analysand, most notably, a history of short-lived or unfulfilling romantic relationships. The analyst might also take it upon himself to gradually ‘teach’ the analysand to trust him and, by extension, to trust a man who is worthy of trust. Other common patterns of transference in a clinical setting include love, dependence, parentification, anger, and hatred, among many others.
Of course, transference is not circumscribed to clinical settings. For instance, many people project their feelings for a parent or former partner onto their current partner. A young man who is angry with his father for having cheated on his mother might take this anger out on an older male friend (projection, displacement) and at the same time become very protective of his girlfriend and sister (previous identification with the father, reaction formation). A similar process underlies the phenomenon of ‘love at first sight,’ which, in most if not all cases, involves the projection of an idealized love object onto a stranger with a partial or superficial resemblance to that love object.
If transference describes the subconscious projection by the analysand of an older relationship onto her current relationship with the analyst, then countertransference describes the analyst’s subconscious response to the analysand’s transference. For example, if the analysand behaves towards the analyst as she did/does towards her father, the analyst might start responding to her as her father did/does, or as he himself does to his own daughter. If the analysand is subconsciously seducing the analyst, he might well respond in kind and even fall in love with her. It goes without saying that the analyst needs to be as attuned to the countertransference as to the transference, and this for three main reasons: First, to regulate his response to the analysand; second, because the countertransference sheds light on the transference; and, third, because the countertransference can be explored in therapy. For example, based on the countertransference, the analyst might venture something like, “I felt a little bit angry with you just then. I wonder why that could be?”
If you would like to share further instances of projection, please do so in the comments section.
In the final installment in this series, I will be discussing the ego defense of sublimation.
Go back to Part 1.