Thursday, July 15, 2010

Projection as a defence **

I was asked a question about projection today. I have put some of my response here.

Projection is what is called a defence of defence mechanism. It allows the person to psychologically defend them self against something. One thing that I have learnt over 20 years of psychotherapy is that humans are very good at lying to themselves. They are very good at hiding from themselves.

To really understand what a defence is in this sense it is advantageous to understand where the concept came from.

Freud postulated ‘projection’ in the late 1800s when he lived in Vienna, Europe.

In this diagram he suggested that a person at any one time has 5% of material in their conscious and 5% in their preconscious and the other 90% resides in their unconscious. When a person felt or thought something that was not acceptable to him he would place that thought or urge into the unconscious. For instance the married man who felt lust after his neighbour’s wife may find this quite unacceptable to him so he ‘placed’ such urges in his unconscious. Then he no longer has to worry about it (in the short term).

Remember that where Freud lived (Vienna) and when he lived (Late 1800s) sexual repression was at it highest perhaps in the history of modern mankind. Sex was completely taboo. So when people had sexual thoughts of some kind they would feel repulsed and disgusted as they had been trained since early childhood to think such things. So the unconscious allowed people to cope with such things (in the short term).

The problem was that the urge did not go away, It had just been shoved into the “too hard basket”, and in the longer term it would keep coming back. That is it would spontaneously arise from the unconscious into the conscious. This meant that in the longer term the person had to defend them self against that urge and hence the development of the defence mechanism.

In Transactional Analysis we have the ego state explanation of the dynamics of a defence such as projection. This is shown below:

This is sometimes referred to as the hydraulic theory of personality. The Child ego state has an urge. For example a married man my feel sexual attraction to another man at work. But he has a Parent ego state which believes that this is totally immoral and disgusting. So the ‘force’ from the Child and the Parent collide. There is an impasse as they say. This collision is like a wave hitting up against the rocks on the shoreline.

When two opposing forces collide there is always a result. In the human psyche it is a symptom of some kind.

The resultant collision provides the force or the energy for a symptom or defence mechanism to develop. For instance the symptom may be anxiety or depression or even something like homophobia. The man can also develop the defence of projection. In this instance instead of acknowledging the homosexual impulses in himself he will project them out onto others. So he will see other men as being homosexual or behaving in homosexual ways when in fact they are not.

So projection allows the man to trick himself or lie to himself. “I wont see my own Child homosexual desires, instead I will see others as being like that”. This allows him to feel relief that he is not homosexual but he must continually guard against other homosexual men because they seem to be everywhere. When in fact he is really guarding against his own unconscious (Child) homosexual impulses that keep arising into his own conscious. Thus his projection defends his positive view of himself.



  1. the example you've used - that homophobia, this latest ailment of our times, is a marker for hidden homosexuality - seems not to be neutral. it reminds me of a Swedish pastor who said something along the lines that homosexual deeds are a sin in the god's eyes and the guy was threatened with 6 months in prison, but finally didn't serve this, as I remember.
    Anyways my point is that we heading to a point in this western culture when it's scaring to say that all the so called "pride parades" with guys showing their butts are disgusting and at the same time you wouldn't even admit that you'd rather see a huge all-girls top less bottom less all - less parade. Because this means that you are a sexist and don't respect girls.

    But for the main point of the entry - yes projection can be seen also in other circumstances like when we don't like our neighbor / work mate so we tend to see him as a rude dude who doesn't like us. Sometimes a small talk with someone convinces me "oh I thought this guy so dull and unpleasant and he's not so bad anyway"

  2. Projection and your explination... I guess that makes sense.

    I think I project all the time. Is projection a lot different to transference then? The idea of each of the terms seem to be very close cousins or even maybe siblings in definition to me Tony.

  3. Well that is a good point Zbig,

    If one finds all their freinds to be dull and boring maybe that is saying something about me