Defense Mechanisms III: Further Uses for Projection

In writing these posts about the defense mechanisms, two points have become clear to me.  First, it’s easy to forget that our description of the processes we have named projection, denial, spitting etc. are simply the best way we have of talking about mysterious and intricate mental events.  It’s important not to think about them too concretely and to bear in mind that our descriptions are merely approximations to a truth that may alter in appearance as we change our vantage point, the way a three-dimensional object presents a different aspect depending on the viewing angles.  A psychic event described as denial, for example, might just as easily be described as a form of splitting; it depends on how you look at it, though only our language and not the psychic event itself has changed.

Second, while we may talk about defenses in isolation as if they were discrete processes, they tend to occur together, as part of a global mental event.  A painful experience may be denied and at the same split-off and projected into the environment, then experienced as if it were coming from outside the self.  In my school of thought, we often use the phrase “splitting and projective identification” because those defense mechanisms usually occur in unison.

One of the earliest posts written for this site discussed two functions of projection:  as a primitive form of communication, and as a means to get rid of experience too painful to bear.  Building upon that article, I’d like to focus now on how we use projection to avoid
conflict rather than resolving or bearing with it.  I don’t mean external conflict with other people but internal conflict where, for example, impulse comes into conflict with common sense or long-term goals.  If you have teenage children, this process should be easy to
recognize.

Say, for instance, your son or daughter has homework to do that conflicts with a social invitation.  With younger children, we simply insist they complete their school assignment before play; we may have to remain firm in the face of an ensuing tantrum.  By their mid-
teens, most kids have an internal parent who understands the need to defer gratification, though this doesn’t mean they always listen to it.  Often the desire to have what they want right now leads them to split off and project the internal parent into the external one; in this way, they don’t have to know what they know, don’t have to give up an immediate pleasure for their longer-term benefit.  When this type of splitting and projection comes into play, it tends to occur in exaggerated terms of black-and-white:  your teenager is a free spirit who wants to embrace life; you’re an unreasonable dictator who no longer remembers what it’s like to be young.

Often the child wants to perceive you that way so they can react against you, thus keeping the split/projection firmly in place.  They may do or say things that subtly inspire you to validate the projection — that is, to respond as if you really were a dictatorial “square”, or to lose your temper.  You may feel moved to lay down the law in an authoritarian style of parenting; as rebellion escalates, you might hear yourself sounding increasingly shrill and insistent.  In these ways, you confirm the projection and, by battling with your child, thereby enable him or her to avoid an internal conflict.  The client I described in my last post on the hatred of authority often related to me in this fashion, remaining a rebellious teenager well into her thirties.  She didn’t want to know what she knew and as a result, give up her grandiose dreams.

(In many families, the parent actually is a dictatorial, controling figure, but that’s a different problem altogether.)

One of my professors once related a clinical anecdote that illustrates a similar process.  A woman who had made an unsuccessful attempt on her life by cutting her wrists ended up on a locked psychiatric ward.  To the nurses on that ward, she appeared indifferent to her own welfare and the idea of death.  In ingenious ways, she continually found sharp objects and concealed them in her room, objects she might use to make another attempt on her life.  As a result, a high level of anxiety to find these objects pervaded the nursing staff.  All the nurses felt deeply concerned about the patient’s welfare though she did not.  She had projected her own concern and anxiety into those nurses; at the same time, she found a way to confirm that projection — in concealing those sharp objects, she “made” the nurses
feel and act upon those very feelings she had projected.  Many suicidal gestures that appear manipulative, without full intent to follow through, may reflect a similar dynamic.

While we usually think of projection as involving some unwanted, painful-to-bear emotion, notice that in the case of the argumentative teenager, what is projected is maturity.  Also, in the clinical example, the patient has projected a concerned, caring part of herself into the nursing staff.  You see this process when the forces for destruction dominate a personality; in a way, the healthier parts “don’t stand a chance” in such an environment and projecting them out is an attempt to preserve them.

From another point of view, we could also look at it as a type of communication.  As I described in my earlier post on projection, infants communicate uncomfortable states of mind to their caretakers through screaming, crying, etc., thereby stimulating a similar experience in the listeners; those caretakers hopefully can bear that state of mind and respond to it in ways that address the source of discomfort.  In a similar way, the suicidal patient communicates her terror to the nurses, who then absorb that communication and respond in ways to protect her.

On another level, both of the transactions I’ve described can appear (and feel) highly manipulative to an outsider:  whenever we project a part of ourselves into someone else and then try to get that person to act in keeping with our projection, on some level we’re attempting to control him or her.  (I described this dynamic in greater detail in my post of emotional dependency.)  Most people don’t like to be controled, and if we find ourselves caught up in such a dynamic, we may feel irritated or resentful, even as therapists.  In those cases, I find it’s important for my interventions to focus less on the control aspects (which can feel like criticism to the client) and more on the internal experience he or she wants to avoid.

Finding Your Own Way:

If you have or have had teenage children, do you recognize the dynamic I described?  Have you ever found yourself reacting in ways you didn’t like and couldn’t quite understand?  Maybe this description will help you identify the ways your child projects into you and then gets you to validate that projection.

Do you know other adults around whom you tend to become more parental than usual, inspired to give advice or “come to the rescue”?  Such people are often projecting something into you, disowning (for example) a concerned adult part of themselves.  If, on the other hand, you tend to inspire such reactions in those around you, do you present yourself in ways that inspire such a response?

What about the issue of control?  Do you know people who “force” you into playing a particular role in their lives?  How does that make you feel?  What do you think they’re projecting into you?  Has anyone ever accused you of doing the same thing … said something like, “Don’t make me play the heavy”?  There may be ways in which you project a part of yourself, or some awareness, into other people so that you don’t have to live with it yourself.

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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13 comments

    This is such a great article. Tough, for sure. When stuff like this happens it’s easier just to say, that so-and-so is crazy, and not think about it much. But, sometimes the people that do this crazy stuff are people that we love, or ourselves. What then?

    I have been projected on, and split, you name it, for probably my whole life. Fortunately I was also neglected and ignored a lot, so there was some balance. I learned to cope by playing dumb. Okay, it’s not really playing because it just happens. It is an automatic defense mechanism, like a possum fainting and looking dead when a predator comes on the scene. And since for normal stuff I wear my heart on my sleeve, no one, not my mother, my sister, anyone, has ever hinted that they suspected. They didn’t want to know that I really know, and as Joseph has pointed out, they don’t really know themselves… so how could they guess that I know what they don’t admit to knowing? (Are you still with me?)

    My kids (2 older teens and 1 tween) have tried the kind of thing that this article describes, and I put it right back in their laps. I don’t usually get worked up about it. It’s an entirely different situation than with adults who do projection/splitting as a way of life.

    Bottom line for me is, can I say, No you’re wrong. Tell me how you feel. Don’t tell me how I feel. If not, then you’re not anyone I can trust.

    The hard part is not to blame your kids for projecting into you; it’s part of growing up. I also think we have a tendency, when we notice we’re being projected into, to “shove it back into” the projector. Projections often feel hostile and it’s easy to respond with hostility, aggressively forcing it back where it came. I try to disengage, just step back to a position of neutrality. With older teens, it’s often enough to say: “It’s your decision; you do what you think is best.” After all, at some point they have to take responsibility for themselves and their decisions.

    I am fortunate that I haven’t had to work particularly hard to keep my kids behavior in perspective. When they are upset or acting out it’s about them, not about whether I’m a ‘good’ parent. If they start to get nasty or project, which isn’t often, I call them on it. They know they can do the same if the situation is reversed.

    What I struggle to keep in perspective is teen driving. I am aghast at what a controlling ‘back seat’ driver I am with my son. It was quite a shock when he got his learner’s permit and my inner control freak emerged. As you can imagine, he wasn’t real thrilled either. He’s still learning to drive, and I’m learning to shut up and enjoy the ride. I hope I get this figured out before the next one gets her permit. (She hopes so too!)

    I’ve noticed, as a vulnerable teenager, the projection that my mother had upon me–as a supposedly-ideal daughter with ‘perfect’ appearance, without acne. This almost sent me to my death, thanks partially to some herbal medicine that I took in China, with no warning over the medicine’s side effects. Unfortunately, I’m still suffering the after-effects of that event.

    What you’re describing is very common: certain (usually narcissistic) parents look to their children to embody their own ideal self and to reflect back that perfection as a narcissistic feed.

    I do wonder what I can do to better cope with these uncomfortable feelings of submissiveness which arise out of my fear of criticism from my mother…I do desire to eventually leave the house some day :)

    This explains so much to me. My family of origin consists of four insecure, worrying people (My father, two brothers and I) and my mother, who’s always, always sure and insists upon being the eternal optimist. Lately, I’ve withdrawn from my hometown and them and then my mother became ill (I suspect a connection three, somehow). Still, in hospital, trying new medication, running all kinds of tests, my mother is certain she’ll be back on her feet by next week (and has been so or the last eight weeks). She refuses to even discuss changing her vacation plans, and we’re told that we are pessimistic and keeping her back to suggest so. Having some time away from them and reading your wonderfull blog help me see that she’s projecting her worries on to us.

    She also usually go after things (Jobs, friends, vacations, parties) way out of her league, while the rest of the family members, me included, are all in jobs that are really below what we could do (I earn 30% less than my friend from university, even with much better grades), and seem somewhat scared of using our full potential. Could she project her insecurities on to us? How can I break free and go after the life I really want? (not expecting a miracle answer, there).

    No miracle answer, of course; but you’ve already taken the first step in getting some distance from your mother. Now the hard part is dealing with all that projected insecurity/inferiority that you’ve absorbed and made a part of you. It’s a difficult and ongoing process; some of my thoughts can be found in the post I wrote about dealing with a savage inner voice.

    Hi Joseph!
    This is- as always – a very interesting and enlightening post- thx for that. I think we all have been, consciously or unconsciously at the receiving end of such projections.
    My former boyfriend’s parents had the very strange habit of turning their son (or anyone else who was around and “available” for it) into the peace maker for their troubled relationship. When the parents were alone with each other they always ended up in unsolvable crisis but as soon as a third person appeared on the radar that could be used either as a scapegoat or a saviour they were fine again. I think these (I believe they are commonly called) “drama triangles” are very good examples for how powerful projections can be!

    I have a question for you though that leads a bit into another direction. Most of the time projections are considered a defense reaction connected with negative effects for a person or their surroundings. I wonder though if there is nothing positive to report about this extraordinary mental ability? Maybe it can be used in therapy for something more positive? What’s your opinion on that?

    Best,
    Nini

    Nini, I definitely think there are positive aspects and uses for projection. In my first post on the subject, I talked about how projection is the earliest form of communication for infants and their caretakers. In therapy, I find that projections, while also defense mechanisms, allow me to understand my clients — another kind of communication. The ability to experience things variously must also have to do with projection, don’t you think?

    Hi Joseph, at 62 I’m still dealing with my 92 yr old
    Mothers very negative projections onto me.
    Twenty yrs ago, my family and I moved
    away from where she lives.. So since then I have only
    seem her every few months or so. The last
    visit was this past weekend. I was staying for
    three nites, but left after one. She awoke
    Saturday morning, 9am, and started verbally attacking me.
    Same old, same old.. But with more venom.
    I packed and left.. My dilemma is how to skilfully
    deal with this energy. Her age doesn’t seem to slow
    the entrenched projections I’ve worn all these yrs from this woman.
    My marriage of thirty yrs broke down three yrs ago.
    With my ex husband forming a new relationship with a co worker.
    They have packed up and moved to the other end of the country.
    Our five children( youngest of whom is now 16),
    have all lost connection with him. He also projected
    onto me( surprise, surprise).Both of them saw a woman I just don’t identify with.
    I am University educated, had five yrs of therapy in
    my twenties, but still this deep madness from my mother saw me choose a man who
    projected the same story onto me that my mother had.
    These last three yrs has involved a lot
    of introspection/ pause… But I’m still wanting to find
    some way to see my mother, in her final yrs, and
    shed the projection.. She can be very loving/ normal
    when we talk by phone, but once I’m in her presence,
    the verbal attacks start. I’m weary..

    You know that expression, you can’t teach an old dogs new tricks? You have good intentions but sadly, your motherly is unlikely to change despite all your best efforts. The change would have to come from HER.

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