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Defense Mechanisms: Projection

This is the first in a series on defense mechanisms.  We all have them from time to time.  However, when they become extreme, we may have very little insight. Our defenses can become highly problematic.  Insight gives us freedom of choice; to continue operating under the same set of reactionary belief sets, or to try something different (and hopefully healthier).  

Defense mechanisms are the way we prevent ourselves from having insight into our own feelings.  We may not like something about our self, our situation, or how it feels, so we defend against it in a variety of ways.  In therapy, defense mechanisms are explored, and options for coping in healthier ways are discussed and practiced.  

The first defense mechanism I will address is projection.  Projection is defined by attributing our own traits to someone else.  We don’t want to admit it about ourselves, or we just don’t see it at all, so we blame other’s for our own actions.  

A person may label others as “selfish,” for example, when really that individual is very self absorbed.  When others inconvenience them, they are quick to label the other as “selfish,” when really they don't want to admit to their own selfish behavior. There are many different ways this happens.

Projection's imagery comes from an old fashioned projector screen in which an image is projected from the screen onto the wall.  The real image exists on the projector and not on the wall, however, we see it on the wall.  When someone projects their traits onto others they say the other person has the traits they in fact have.   

The more pervasive the use of the defense mechanism the lower the insight into oneself.  Misattributing one’s thoughts, actions, or feelings onto another person keeps the individual from addressing the real issue within themselves.  It is also confusing for those in relationship with them.

In relationships it can feel like nothing gets resolved.  Instead it feels things get flipped around.  Some individuals may find themselves trying to please the other person by fixing themselves in many different ways.  They may feel a great deal of dismay when their efforts (sometimes over the course of many years) rarely get them anywhere.  This is called projective identification when the individual identifies with the projection(s) and believes that they have the traits they are told they have (when in fact they do not).  In recovery it is important to sort out what is real from what is imagined, and begin to make steps toward clearer communication.  

by Gretchen Flores