Is Projection the Most Powerful Defense Mechanism?

What is projection, how does it work, and what can we do about it?

Grant H Brenner

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Grant H Brenner

A computer is not really like us. It is a projection of a very small part of ourselves: that portion devoted to logic, order, rule, and clarity.” -Ellen Ullman

Projection is a basic, self-protective defense, and a process which affects how people understand one another. When we project, we “put” part of ourselves onto other people, usually to “get rid of” something objectionable. It is as if we are throwing a part of ourselves outward and casting it, like the image from a movie projector, onto (really, into) the other person. It often plays out in relationship dysfunction, as the defensive activity bounces back and forth between us over time, operating beneath the radar without being addressed.

Projection and avoidance

Projection requires the “splitting-off” ( dissociation, denial) of specific aspects of social reality, usually playing out the dynamic: “Whose fault is this? Not mine.” There is a basic swap between what is about oneself, and what is about others, and this aspect of social decision-making is off. We treat the other person consistently with how we feel about that quality in ourselves. We are unaware of and/or avoiding something true about ourselves.

When we project, we end up treating others in ways that reflect how we could feel about ourselves if we weren’t projecting (how we “really” feel about ourselves). For example, we can attack and attempt to destroy, we can idealize and worship, we can over-empathize, and so on, across the spectrum of human emotions and attributed motivations. It’s complicated. And it is something which happens because of how the brain works, how the brain has evolved in culture, how the mind works, and how well we relate to one another. Since a relationship requires clear communication, distorting defenses can have a strong negative impact.

Energy is neither created nor destroyed

The first law of thermodynamics is the conservation of energy. Energy is neither created nor destroyed, and in a sense, the same is partially true for information. However, information can be degraded and lost. As an organ, the brain is unique in the human body…

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Grant H Brenner

Psychiatrist, Psychoanalyst, Entrepreneur, Writer, Speaker, Disaster Responder, Advocate, Photographer