“That is terrible,” we scoff, acknowledging the inhumaneness of a behavior. Yet, when the behavior is our own, we run programmed heuristics, shifting the discomfort, and assigning the characteristic or behavior to someone else. Sigmund Freud referred to this process as projection. Freud listed projection as an ego protecting practice to relieve inner conflict.
What is Psychological Projection?
Projection is an immature defense mechanism to relieve uncomfortable emotions by projecting personal behaviors, thoughts, and character traits on a person or object outside of ourselves. When we project, we unconsciously soothe discomforting feelings about something personal (behavior, thought, trait) and attribute it to someone or something else. Following the projection, we then freely attack the badness of the behavior, thought or trait without hurting our self-image.
Ervin Staub describes the defensive process of projection in his book The Roots of Evil. He wrote that “a low level of well-being and much frustration and pain – a negative hedonic balance – heighten the desire to enhance the self.” Staub continues, “often lack of self-awareness serves a positive self-concept, maintained by rigid defenses, especially denial and projection” (1992, pp. 70-71).
Often early childhood learning make children unwilling to acknowledge impulses or feelings regarded by society or their parents as undesirable, feelings of anger, hostility, sexual desire are suppressed and projected to enhance self image. Staub warns that “all human beings have these feelings, and it is destructive to lose awareness of them. People who do not acknowledge these feelings in themselves tend to project them onto others and experience hostility or moral outrage” (p. 72).
“Defense mechanisms are psychological strategies we unconsciously use to reduce or remove unpleasurable affect” (Murphy, 2021). A primary function of living organisms is responding to external events.
Human cognition have a significant role in reactionary responses. An event jolts the biological system, creating a feeling affect. Cognitions follow, often employing mental heuristics to alleviate emotional discomfort. Sometimes the response focuses on resolving the events creating the arousal, other times the response jumps directly to the internal experience, re-appraising the event and soothing the emotion.
Unconscious strategies may soothe emotional upsets and create a more comfortable environment for healthy functioning. However, defensive mechanisms vary in effectiveness. Some are present focused, harming futures.
Most defensive strategies have potential damaging consequences when used to an extreme.
Projection and Cognitive Dissonance
”Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable state of inner conflict. We strive to be whole. We create a simplified narrative that unifies desires, behaviors and actions” (Murphy, 2015). The problem is we are not simple. We are complex. We have many conflicting elements within our being. Our visions, hopes, and even self concepts don’t always perfectly fit together. Yet, as explained by Leon Festinger, “becoming aware of conflicts between our beliefs and our actions, or between two simultaneously coexisting beliefs, violates the natural human striving for mental harmony, or consonance” (Banji and Greenwald, 2016, page 59).
Projection is a defensive reaction to relieve pain from cognitive dissonance. We unconsciously remove the internal conflict by attributing it to someone or something outside of ourselves, accepting our own failing is just too painful.
In the classic book Adaptations to Life, George E. Vaillant, a Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, wrote, “dissociation and projection…are both ways in which a person can disavow responsibility for painful feelings and events, and over the short haul escape the suffering involved.” Valliant continues, “this is because healthy adaptation requires an accurate perception of the universe, and accurate perception often evokes pain” (1998, Kindle location 370-450).
Vaillant refers to projection as an immature defense.
Projection and Externalizing
Projection is a form of externalizing. Although they possess some significant differences. Externalizing involves putting outside an internal conflict to resolve internal dissonance. Projection actually places a portion of the conflict on an external object. If the conflict is with sexual attraction that conflicts with perception of self, we may attribute the sexual attraction to someone else, and condemn them for their desires. Often this theorized form of projection suggest the undesirable trait is projected onto out groups and people. Those we don’t like.
Another theory of projection, proposed by David S. Holmes is that we project our undesirable traits onto desirable people. For example, we may have a character trait that we were socialized to believe was inappropriate, recognizing the trait is discomforting conflicting with internally accepted values. Instead of disavowing the trait, we project it onto to those we admire, and thus justify our own possession of the trait, soothing the discomfort of dissonance (1978).
There are many forms of externalizing, moving an internal conflict outside of oneself, changing the focus, and erasing the conflict. Some externalizing processes may be helpful others stunt growth.
Jack Novick and Anne Hurry explained that “externalization is a normal defensive process…aimed at avoiding the narcissistic pain consequent upon accepting devalued aspect of the self” (Crammer 2020).
A Different Theory of Projection
Most theories and examples of projection suggest an unconscious externalizing process, relieving internal conflict by projecting a personal trait on an external object. In an interesting 2006 article, Olesya Govorun and Kathleen Fuegen challenged previous theories, suggesting that projection was a product of attention, recognizing the undesirable trait, and utilizing cognitive energy to suppress the conflict.
They write, “the next step in the process is not expelling of personality traits by the unconscious attempt to deceive the ego but it is instead thought suppression” (2006).
Research has shown that anytime we suppress we become hypersensitive to the object we are suppressing. Accordingly, we readily notice signs of the trait in external objects. This is commonly experienced in the white bear principle. When asked not to think about a white bear, our minds hold the object of the white bear in memory to suppress it. Paradoxically, we repeatedly keep thinking of that darn white bear.
Projecting Internal Harsh Judgements Onto Others
In a weird and damaging twist of projection, we cast our harsh self-judgements onto others, fulfilling our shame, and justifying our anger. We attribute our own faulty thinking onto innocent others. An example of this is when we fail and feel shamed, we believe others are judging us for the failure, and angerly react to the judgements we projected onto them. We seethe “they should be more compassionate; we all make mistakes.” In reality, the other never made such judgements.
I noticed that when I inadvertently, through inattention or miscalculation, cut someone off on the roadway, I often project my discomfort of doing wrong onto the driver I just inconvenienced. They provide no evidence of displeasure but I feel a twinge of animosity as if they are judging my “poor” driving.
Jerome S. Blackman, a Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at Eastern Virginia Medical School, explains this form of projection in his book 101 Defenses that “a special form of projection where you experience a part of your mind as ‘external’ to yourself. You might think someone or ‘society’ will criticize you, when actually you feel self-critical” (2003).
A devastating impact of projection is the object upon which we project our undesirable traits, desires and thoughts often internalizes our discarded and disavowed traits. They fulfill the projections.
This tendency to internalize makes projection a key weapon of control for the narcissist. The nastiness we cast upon significant others is often absorbed. A child becomes who their parents label them to be. Lovers transform to fulfill the tales of insufficiency from the gaslighting and controlling partner.
Phebe Cramer explains that describes internalization as incorporating “properties and characteristics” of an external object (2020).
The narcissist flings their distasteful character onto the victim, and then berates the victim for their terribleness. The victim eventually escapes the confusion between beliefs about themselves and the labels projected on them by internalizing the labels and identifying with the traits.
Allan N. Schore PhD, a member of the clinical faculty of the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, further explains projection identification “it has been observed that patients who utilize projective identification have ‘dissociatively cleansed’ themselves of traumatic affects in order to maintain some form of relationship with narcissistically vulnerable others” (2003, Kindle location 1,438).
Examples of Projection
There are many examples of projection since the practice is so common.
- The chronically unfaithful man who accuses his partner of cheating.
- The habitual liar that angrily reacts to all information as lies or “fake news.”
- The homophobic that has same-sex fantasies.
- The insecure lover that harshly judges others that display the same relationship fears.
Whenever there is a trait or behavior that is stigmatized as ‘bad’ there are many that will project it on others rather than accept their personal possession of that trait (or behavior).
Getting Unhealthy Projections Under Control
A pathway to protecting against any unconscious processes is exposing the process to the light of awareness. We protect our self-concept through denial and projection. We improve our selves through awareness. There are many healthier ways to work on self-concepts without denying key aspects of our lives. Whether we deny and project or suffer from identification of projections heaped onto us, the key problem is a faulty boundary self, placing our trash on others and incorporating other peoples junk into our own self image. Ideally, we align ourselves with reality, surrounding ourselves with healthy narratives that lift us past our hurts, shame, and fears.
Lawrence Heller and Aline LaPierre explain in their book on healing from trauma that “the ideal of seeing the world accurately is related to the process of being present, in the moment and in the body.” They explain this process as orienting to the present. They promise that “as soon as individuals begin to use their orienting response, they become more present, and projections begin to dissolve” (2012 Kindle location 2,621). Changing habitual patterns of ego protection is not simple, and often requires the help of an outside perspective from professional or enlightened friends and family.
Mindfulness practices and kind environments may assist in the healing.
Books On Projection
A Few Final Words On Projection
In conclusion, we use many automatic protections to survive the harsh landscape of our lives. Theories on projection provide a helpful framework to identify one of these processes. However, time and research has cast some doubts on early Freudian theories, and certainly there is reason to skeptically examine iron clad explanations of unconscious processes. However, examination of human interaction robustly exposes many examples of projection that we should examine closer, evaluating whether the projection is helpful or debilitating in our goals in personal development.
Banaji, M. R., Greenwald, A. G. (2016). Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. Bantam; Reprint edition
Cramer, P. (2020). Externalizing/Projection; Internalizing/Identification: An Examination. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 37(3), 207-211.
Blackman, J.S. (2003). 101 Defenses: How the Mind Shields Itself Routledge; 1st edition.
Govorun, O., Fuegen, K., & Payne, B. (2006). Stereotypes Focus Defensive Projection. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32(6), 781-793.
Heller, L., LaPierre, A. (2012). Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship. North Atlantic Books; 1st edition
Holmes, D. (1978). Projection as a defense mechanism. Psychological Bulletin, 85(4), 677-688.
Murphy, T. F. (2021) Defense Mechanisms. Psychology Fanatic. Published 2-4-2021. Accessed 1-23-2022.
Murphy, T. F. (2015) Cognitive Dissonance. Psychology Fanatic. Published 10-2015. Accessed 1-24-2022.
Schore, A.N. (2003). Affect Regulation and the Repair of the Self (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition
Staub, E. (1992). The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence. Cambridge University Press; Revised ed. edition
Vaillant, G. E. (1998) Adaptations to Life. Harvard University Press; Reprint edition