What Is Projection as a Defense Mechanism?

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What Is Projection as a Defense Mechanism?

Projection is a defense mechanism in which an individual recognizes their unacceptable traits or impulses in someone else to avoid recognizing those traits or impulses in themselves subconsciously.

For example, someone who bullies another for being anxious and insecure may be doing so to avoid acknowledging they exhibit those same tendencies.

Origins of Projection

Sigmund Freud proposed the idea of defense mechanisms as part of his psychoanalytic theory. A defense mechanism is an unconscious strategy people use to defend the ego against uncomfortable personal characteristics that would cause anxiety if they recognized them consciously.

Freud initially proposed projection as one of several defense mechanisms, which his daughter, Anna Freud, expanded on in her book, "The Ego and the Mechanisms of Its Defence."

Development of Projection

Projection depends on an internalized understanding of right and wrong, and therefore can't be used as a defense mechanism until the individual develops a conscience during mid-childhood.

Nonetheless, projection is considered fairly primitive because it is based on a black-and-white understanding of good and bad. As a result, studies have shown that children are most likely to use projection as a defense mechanism in early and mid-adolescence and less in late adolescence as they start to employ more mature defense mechanisms, such as identification, in which an individual internalizes and reproduces the behavior of another.

The fact that projection is considered immature does not mean adults don't use it. At one time or another, adults will inevitably use a defense mechanism of some kind to protect themselves against a threat to their sense of self. However, adults will differ in what kinds of defense mechanisms they use, with some consistently relying on immature defense mechanisms and others employing mature defense mechanisms.

Research with men has shown that when they typically employ more mature defense mechanisms, they tend to have better physical health, career outcomes, and marital satisfaction. Meanwhile, a study of young adults demonstrated that extensive use of projection as a defense mechanism was associated with a suspicious, hyper-alert personality style in men and a sociable, trusting, non-depressed personality style in women.

Examples of Projection

Projection may be used as a defense mechanism in any circumstance. People protect their self-esteem by denying characteristics, impulses, or feelings they find threatening while seeing those same characteristics in someone else. Some examples include:

  • A wife is attracted to a male co-worker but can't admit her feelings, so when her husband talks about a female co-worker, she becomes jealous and accuses him of being attracted to the other woman.
  • A man who feels insecure about his masculinity mocks other men for acting like women.
  • An athlete instinctively dislikes a hockey team member, but over time begins to believe their teammate hates them.
  • A woman criticizes her daughter for interrupting her while she's talking, when in fact, she regularly interrupts her daughter.
  • Someone feels guilty for feeling the urge to steal, leading them to suspect that others are planning to take their wallet or other valuables.
  • A young man ignores his own aggressive impulses and instead inaccurately believes his friend has aggressive tendencies.

Projection as a Defense Mechanism or Something Else?

Since Freud first introduced projection as a defense mechanism, people have often used the term in everyday conversation. However, when they discuss projection in simple terms, they usually don't think of it as a defensive element.

In these instances, projection describes seeing one's traits in others or, slightly more specifically, seeing traits in others that one incorrectly believes they don't possess. Yet, neither of these cases is projection used to protect the ego against features one finds threatening. The personal characteristics one projects onto others could be positive or neutral.

To indeed be a defense mechanism, projection must be based on Freud's initial conceptualization. Seeing one's undesirable traits in others while denying them in oneself helps an individual defend their ego. Projection defined this way is referred to as defensive or classical projection.

Without a defensive element, one shouldn't consider projection a defense mechanism but as a cognitive bias in which one assumes other people are similar. The idea that people overestimate the number of people who share their traits, desires, thoughts, and feelings is referred to as the false consensus , and studies have provided ample evidence for this tendency.

Impact of Defensive Projection

Like many defense mechanisms, in the short term, projection can be helpful. By denying uncomfortable truths about themselves, people can better cope with their anxieties and maintain their self-esteem.

However, projection can ultimately become harmful because it can disrupt interpersonal relationships and lead to issues like bullying, jealousy, and victim-blaming. It also may cause the individual to subconsciously create a hostile social world they believe is populated by people who exhibit the traits they dislike most and are least willing to confront in themselves.

Furthermore, studies have shown that frequent use of defensive projection is associated with features related to borderline, narcissistic, histrionic, and psychopathic personality disorders.

How to Recognize and Overcome Projection

Given the subconscious nature of defense mechanisms, recognizing your own use of defensive projection can be challenging, but it is possible.

  • The first step is self-reflection. Try to be honest with yourself about what makes you insecure and anxious, and examine the traits and impulses you have that you may least like about yourself.
  • Then, attempt to view your behavior objectively to see if you may be projecting any of the anxieties you have about yourself onto someone else. Try not to judge yourself during this exploration; observe and honestly assess without dwelling on anything you uncover.

This can be an uncomfortable process, so it may be best to undertake it with a mental health professional. A therapist or counselor familiar with defense mechanisms and projection, in particular, can guide you through this process and help you face what you find. Moreover, a therapist can help you become more comfortable with the characteristics, thoughts, and feelings that have caused you to project onto others in the first place.

This work may ultimately help you overcome your use of projection entirely. After all, people who know and accept themselves, even the traits they don't like, are far less likely to rely on defensive projection because they no longer need to deny any part of themselves.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Cynthia Vinney
Cynthia Vinney, PhD is an expert in media psychology and a published scholar whose work has been published in peer-reviewed psychology journals.