How To Spot The Projection Defense Mechanism
Maybe it’s happened to you before.
Someone criticizes you for a particular behavior. Maybe it was someone close to you—a mother criticizing eating habits, a spouse criticizing procrastinating, or a friend chastising your lateness.
Later, you notice that the person who criticized you has the same habit. Or the person admits that that detrimental practice was something they had to overcome in the past.
Before you assume this person is simply a hypocrite, understand that this might be a subconscious psychological response. In fact, it’s extremely common behavior.
Sometimes, there are negative truths about us or the world that are difficult to cope with consciously. Sigmund Freud’s daughter, Anna Freud, theorized that the subconscious mind manages these difficult truths through a series of defense mechanisms. One of the most common is called ‘projection.’
Similarly to how we can project a movie onto a wall, we can project our emotions onto other people.
This article will thoroughly explain what a projection defense mechanism is and how to spot it in both yourself and others.
What Is A Defense Mechanism?
A defense mechanism is a verbal response used to deflect from conflict or stress. In sports, a defensive player is responsible for warding off any opposing threats, which is similar to what we do when using a conversation defense mechanism.
We are familiar with physical defense in a fight and even verbal defense in a debate.
What Is The Projection Defense Mechanism?
Projection is a psychological response. The projection defense mechanism is when you project fear or insecurity of your own onto someone else. For example, think of someone who struggles with body dysmorphia. If that person tells a friend that the friend is overeating, that would be a projection of personal concerns and anxieties.
Most of the time, projection is made in the process of trying to understand another person’s thoughts or behaviors. Say there is someone in your office who rubs you the wrong way. For no evident reason, this person bothers you. But when others notice a conflict between you and your coworker, you say that the other person hates you. You have no support to justify this claim, but neither of you gets along, and it might be easier to dismissively project this emotion than to admit that you’re the instigator.
Many people cannot identify when they are projecting feelings because it is an unconscious defense that your ego uses to justify or make sense of a situation.
Where Did The Projection Defense Mechanism Originate?
Defense mechanisms and empirical research go hand in hand, all the way back to the Freudian era. Sigmund Freud and his daughter, Anna Freud, are responsible for the concept of psychological projection. Freud spent a long time identifying and developing the idea of the projection defense mechanism. In short, he coined it as a method for the ego defenses to deal with all the insecurities it cannot change by attributing them to someone else.
Freudian defense mechanisms are focused on sexual and aggressive desires that conflict with the ego. According to the psychologist, a Freudian defense is used so frequently that the personality is developed by hiding these desires.
Of course, psychological projection is just one of the ego defenses within the original defense mechanisms.
What Are The Defense Mechanisms?
To understand the projection defense mechanism, it is important to understand the umbrella under which it falls. Though the list of psychological defense mechanisms has developed since Freud, these are commonly acknowledged as the original mechanisms of defense:
This psychological defense mechanism involves figuratively pushing fears, stress, and anxieties far down to an unconscious level. Repression can be seen frequently with people who have experienced trauma as a method to try to forget.
Even if the emotion or trauma is pushed down, it will often still stubbornly resurface differently.
Most people are familiar with denial because it is fairly common and easiest to spot. Denial is the refusal to accept the reality of a situation. It is common when information or a situation is too overwhelming for the brain to process.
Denial is also one of the common stages of grief. Upon first hearing about a loved one’s death, people may sometimes reject the information, claiming there must have been a mistake.
Regressing involves figuratively moving backward. Another example is toddlers or elementary school children who develop responsibilities or experience jealousy of a younger sibling.
What regression looks like may depend heavily on your childhood. It could be seen when someone exhibits coping behavior like throwing a tantrum, shouting, or crying in inappropriate contexts.
This psychological defense involves the act of overcompensating. If someone is self-conscious about being too loud, they might do the exact opposite in an exaggerated form by whispering.
For example, if a person is mocked as a child for crying, then develops insecurity about being perceived as weak, they might exhibit overly ‘tough’ behavior to rebel against this insecurity. Sometimes this manifests itself as what is sometimes called “toxic masculinity.”
Freud considered this to be a sign of maturity and the healthiest psychological defense mechanism because you take your frustration or anxiety and put it towards something productive. For example, if you experience tension and anger, maybe you let it out through an excellent workout.
As previously mentioned, this is the act of projecting your emotions and insecurities onto another person.
Generally speaking, we all use a variety of defense mechanisms from time to time. Whether it involves internal or external means, repression, projection, denial, repression, reaction formation, and sublimation all require getting rid of unwanted feelings. For example, getting rid of these anxieties externally would involve sublimation, and denial would be the product of attempted internalization.
Though it is not an original defense, rationalization is a defense used in the process of justifying something that typically stands against the ego. A person partaking in hyper-rationalization may try to explain away their emotions by placing them in a more rational context. In their mind, this justifies and excuses the emotion. For example, after being turned down for a job, you may rationalize your rejected feelings away by saying, “That company isn’t anything special anyway.”
This article will pay closer attention to recreation formation, projection, and the overall ego.
What The Projection Defense Mechanism Looks Like
There are other ways defense manifests itself in projection; displacement, undoing, isolation are a few examples.
Displacement, like projection, involves taking negative emotions out on another person, usually one who is undeserving. Say you get in trouble with a supervisor. Instead of yelling at your boss, you might take that out on a roommate or spouse. This is considered displaced aggression. Projection displacement is probably the most likely combination to work in tandem.
Undoing involves the process of unraveling a negative thought or behavior by doing the opposite, while isolation consists of removing the emotion from experience you wish to get rid of. Therefore, the feelings and the event stand alone, almost like disassociation.
We’ve talked about the ego quite a few times, so let’s break it down. Freud split the study of the human psyche into three categories:
Id: Otherwise described as your most basic needs and desires.
Ego: The liaison that operates to make the id’s desires realized in the world.
Super-Ego: The part of the psyche that is all aware—both of the id, the ego, and the world in which it is to succeed. The super-ego has the highest responsibility to reach fulfillment within the confines of our society.
You’ve probably heard someone be called “egotistical.” This term typically has a negative connotation and is used to describe someone who is primarily self-involved. This type of person might be more drawn towards the projection defense mechanism since psychological projection is rooted in pushing one’s own personality traits onto another.
But, according to Freud, we all have an ‘ego.’ The ego is your conscious mind. However, it sometimes conflict with the ego. For example, perhaps your id desires to leave an important exam and get a hamburger. But your superego tells you that that would not be socially acceptable. This creates a conflict, even within your own mind. Maybe you are happily married, but your id wants to have an affair. Your id desires these primal, strange things that might hurt your perception of yourself as a loyal, moral person.
Conflicts and anxieties also come from the realities of everyday life. Maybe the news is violent and disturbing, and you don’t want to process it all.
This is a lot of conflicts, even just in one day! It would be exhausting to confront it all head-on.
Spotting The Projection Defense Mechanism
In its simplest formation, projection can look almost like manipulation.
This form of psychological projection is sometimes seen with more narcissistic people. Narcissism and projection make sense in tandem because narcissism, like projection, involves thinking first of oneself rather than the person you are speaking to. Is projection a mental illness? No, but narcissism can be a personality disorder. The signs for narcissistic personality disorder include:
- Grandiose sense of self-importance
- Prioritizes power, success, and idealism
- Struggles with empathy and intimacy
- Actively seeks attention
- Relatively unstable or unadaptable to unexpected situations
However, it is essential to note that everyone uses this defense mechanism. You probably will use it or have used it at some point in your life. It’s not a conscious decision—you might not even realize you are doing it.
But next time you feel frustration or anger toward another person, ask yourself, are they exhibiting a quality that I myself have? Am I projecting my own insecurities onto them?
It is mentally healthy to be aware of your insecurities. The more you can forgive yourself, the better you will be at forgiving other people.
How Do I Respond To Projection Defense Mechanism?
Of course, not everyone who uses psychological projection is a narcissist. Think about a friend who worries a lot, do they worry about you too? Or do they worry about you?
Psychological projection is not typically used with malicious intent. If you feel as though a person’s psychological projection is having a negative impact on your mental wellbeing, you can always consider cutting them out of the conversation.
It is essential to recognize when someone is projecting because it may prevent you from taking their frustration personally. It is difficult to be offended by someone’s attacks if you recognize that they are simply using you as a canvas to handle their own insecurities.
Also, ask yourself if you’ve used this mechanism as well. Have you ever chastised someone for exhibiting insecurity that you struggle with yourself?
Together, defense mechanisms and empirical research are essential for understanding how humans and psychology have evolved. Since Freud’s days, psychologists have been studying and unpacking the ego defenses ranging from reaction formation, projection, and displacement to isolation, sublimation, and denial to determine both credibility and patterns.
Reaction formation (as we reviewed earlier) involves overcompensating defense mechanisms, and empirical findings show that this psychological defense has links to racism and homophobia.
A person who is insecure about their sexuality may attack or belittle others who are more open. Similarly, a person who might be reasonably nervous about appearing racist might go out of their way to be uncomfortably kind to a person of color.
In reality and academic psychology, reaction formation, projection, and the formation projection displacement are important to identify before other people are affected. Similarly, other ego defenses such as denial, repression, and repression are important to identify before damage to oneself.
Be honest with yourself about your insecurities and anxieties. You’d be surprised how normal they are. Once you acknowledge and understand them, you can prevent them from controlling you and your reactions.
Carl Jung, another psychoanalyst, once said, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life, and you will call it fate.”
The subconscious is a powerful tool that is often misunderstood and mishandled. We must understand these defense mechanisms, like psychological projection, to grow in our communication skills and take care of our mental health and the mental health of those around us.
This article is in no way meant to serve as a substitute for professional, psychological help. If you would like to speak with a professional counselor, you can speak to someone online on a website like Regain. Get a free consultation to find out if you should seek out further help. Online therapy has been proven to offer comparable care to in-person therapy, while typically featuring factors such as greater convenience, personal space, and affordability.
What Is An Example Of A Projection Defense Mechanism?
Projection is one of the most common defense mechanisms. Defense mechanisms are conditioned habits, behaviors, thoughts, and/or actions that help a person avoid conflict or confrontation. They’re typically used in situations where uncomfortable emotions are experienced or could be experienced without them. Thus, people project their feelings to mount an unconscious defense against unpleasantries or consciously deflect attention, responsibility, or blame onto someone or something else.
According to psychologists, the habit of using projections as mechanisms of defense stems from a negative reaction in the ego. When you’re projecting, you’re essentially exchanging unacceptable details about yourself for more acceptable ones. It also means you’re pushing your doubts, fears, beliefs, and tendencies onto something external. Thus, when you use projection defense mechanisms, the defense can take on a negative connotation and/or damage your relationships’ integrity.
This behavior is sometimes described as “reaction formation projection displacement,” and here are some examples of things that people commonly project with this subconscious form of self-defense:
Religiosity and dogma
Core values and beliefs
The projection defense mechanism uses one of those influences to deflect attention from the primary issue: your own unconscious thoughts and feelings. It’s like throwing trash into someone’s house and then being mad at them because the house is dirty. This psychological defense tactic may prevent uncomfortable emotions for the time being, but it can also do permanent damage to trust and intimacy.
On the same token, projection can also be used as a denial defense. For example, someone might project their feelings and positive qualities onto a partner to avoid facing the truth. Here are some other easy-to-spot examples of an unconscious projection problem:
You dislike someone, so you believe they dislike you too
You’re prone to feeling hurt without much provocation
You get defensive or feel sensitive when talking about certain subjects
You’re quick to blame something other than yourself for events and/or accidents
You’ve been described as “overreactive” by those who know you the best
Defense mechanisms, denial, and projection (especially) are all signs that some serious introspection or therapy is required. Seek professional help if your thoughts and emotions disrupt your life.
What Is Narcissistic Projection?
Narcissistic projection is one of the most common defense mechanisms used by people with a narcissistic personality disorder. In terms of defense mechanisms, those that involve underlying mental health disorders are especially disruptive. That’s because they’re usually hard to spot and even more difficult to treat without professional intervention. For people with narcissistic behavior tendencies and a propensity for using defense mechanisms, denial and projection are the perfect tactics.
They essentially steer the blame away from themselves and place it onto something or someone external. Thus, denial and projection are often used intermittently or simultaneously in language and behavior to deflect attention and avoid painful or uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. That’s why narcissistic projection is frequently followed by a complete mental or emotional breakdown after the smallest criticism. When the superimposed reality gets shattered, the narcissistic personality disorder must finally face the music.
It may also include placing one’s own thoughts and emotions into someone else’s head. For example, if a husband says his wife hates him, that’s most likely because he actually feels that way about her after confronting his hurtful tendencies or choices. However, denial defense mechanisms like projection are not always a sign of narcissism.
What Is Delusional Projection?
Delusional projection—a projection that stems from a psychological delusion—is one of the rarest defense mechanisms in modern psychology. However, it’s more common among people who suffer from extreme clinical depression or chronic anxiety. Defense mechanisms are habits, behaviors, thoughts, or emotions that prevent someone from confronting the truth of a situation. They’re used for comfort but can be dangerous to a person’s sense of self and reality.
Meanwhile, delusions are beliefs and/or altered visions of reality that withstand the test of time and contradictory truth. Thus, delusional projections are thoughts, behaviors, or habits that originate from a delusional state of mind then get used to deflect attention, responsibility, or accountability. There are many types of defense mechanisms, and empirical findings show that prolonged use of denial through projection may result in mental illness or a complete relationship breakdown.
How Do You Tell If Someone Is Projecting Onto You?
Projection is one of those common defense mechanisms used to deflect attention or responsibility during a disagreement, conflict, or confrontation. Denial defense becomes a projection when one person unconsciously replaces their own unwanted thoughts, feelings, or truths onto another person, thing, or group. A familiar example is when one spouse suspects or accuses the other one of cheating because they, in fact, are being unfaithful.
Of all deflecting mechanisms, defense and projection can be the most damaging to a person’s mental, emotional, and social health. However, early intervention from an outside source such as a relationship therapist may help restore truth and trust before it’s too late. So, here are the seven signs that someone is projecting onto you:
They seem to have selective hearing when you talk about difficult matters
The other person has trouble seeing you as a separate person with your own perspectives
They overreact, even when there’s only a small conflict, confession, or criticism
They’re stuck behind a mental or emotional wall that makes it hard to discuss certain topics
They reference things about the past more often than they should, or that’s relevant
They’ll view every disagreement or argument in the same way
They’re skeptical about growth or change regardless of being presented with evidence otherwise
Everyone engages in projection. Projection can be harmful, though. So, seek professional help if you notice any of these signs from yourself or someone else.
How Do You Stop Someone From Projecting On You?
There’s a quick, painless, and proven way to stop someone from projecting onto you. However, because it’s one of the most commonly used defense mechanisms, projection may be hard to spot. Therefore, try to learn the signs of defense mechanisms, defense tactics, and projection habits to halt them in their tracks before they negatively affect your life or relationships. Then, you’ve got step one covered: awareness.
Step two involves knowing what not to do with a better understanding of projection mechanisms, defense methods, and mental health. Realize that trying to discuss, argue, explain, or defend your position is futile at first. Teaching, attacking, crying, or stonewalling will not work in your favor. Instead, it only gives the other person exactly what they want: shifted focus away from them.
Step three requires strategy and patience because it can be broken down into several sub-steps. First, recognize your own shortcomings and differences in belief. Be sure you’re not projecting back on the other person in your attempt to stop them. If you notice you’re doing it, move away from those thoughts, feelings, and behaviors immediately.
In step four, you need to make a connection with the other person. Most of the time, projection is used as a defense against mental or emotional upheaval. Thus, it shows that the other person has an unfulfilled need. So, make a meaningful connection by trying alternative tactics that meet the same essential demands.
For step five, consider therapy from a licensed professional when other techniques don’t work. Also, incorporate these three things into all future conversations with the person projecting onto you:
Excitement—variety, risk, adventure
Validation—importance, value, attention
Since projection can hurt the people we love, it’s crucial to efficiently recognize the signs and manage the side effects, whether you’re doing the projecting or someone else.
What Is The Meaning Of Projection In Psychology?
Is Projection A Form Of Gaslighting?
What Is The Difference Between Projection And Displacement?
Is Projection A Form Of Abuse?
What Kind Of Person Uses Projection?
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