Projection as a psychological defense mechanism is far more complex than I ever realized. I used to think that psychological projection functioned like a movie screen; the projector cast an image of themselves upon a target, transferring their disowned behavior onto this other. In truth, it’s actually far more like a poisoned arrow. The projector knocks the arrow, lets loose, and it plunges the target, infecting the entire person with its poison.
In his book, Why Do I Do That? Joseph Burgo delineates several different uses of projection as a defense against unwanted feelings. If you are interested in reading the book for yourself, use the link below to purchase the text. Proceeds of the purchase will help support my mission to stop the spread of Dumb Shit.
According to Burgo, psychological projection involves “evacuation–getting rid of something that feels bad.” As such, the defense takes many forms. In this post, I will review a few.
For starters, we often project guilt when a “bad conscience is disowned and assigned to someone else.” We often do this when faced with accusation from an other. We feel badly–we don’t wish to–so we attempt to make the accuser feel badly in exchange. In this example, the projection works a bit like a ping pong match, where the players keep paddling the blame back and forth across the proverbial table.
A second type of projection occurs as a defense against doubts or misgivings regarding an object of romantic interest. When friends or family members address these misgivings, rather than accept that the object of our affection is flawed, we turn on those articulating the objections we deny. We attack the concerned party, insulting their integrity, in effort to avoid reflecting on the potential risk of our romantic pursuit.
Finally, we project by splitting when we do not wish to acknowledge something within ourselves, which we cannot tolerate, as we believe it mars our character. Often these disavowed traits are things we’ve been conditioned to loathe about ourselves, based on our relationships with caretakers during the formative years. Finding them altogether repulsive, we split them away; at the same time, we identify those things as they appear in our partners or close friends.
Burgo explains “one partner gets rid of a large slice of his emotional life and projects it into the other partner, who carries it for him.” If I cannot tolerate anger in my personality, I disavow it. I avoid it at all costs, but when my partner displays anger, I label him as the inherently angry one. I force him to bear the burden of anger for both of us because I cannot tolerate its presence in me.
To conclude, psychological projection encompasses a wide scope of behavior. In the next post, I will delineate four more ways we employ projection as a defense against unwanted emotions. For now, enjoy this TikTok video on the topic!