Projection — A misused and misapplied term
Abusers falsely accuse their victims. And often an abuser falsely accuses their victim of the very sins that the abuser is most habitually indulging in. It is very important to know this, because many folk mistakenly think that abusers engage in projection. The mistake is easy to make because ‘projection’ is a psychological term that is much misused; even many mental health professionals misuse it!
What is projection?
Time was when mental health professionals almost universally accepted and promoted the notion that folks who externalize blame were unconsciously using the “defense mechanism” called projection to alleviate anxiety, shame, and guilt by attributing to others attitudes, beliefs, actions, etc. that they found too unconscionable to admit were actually present in themselves. But that notion implies a person has the level of conscience to actually experience unbearable levels of shame, guilt, etc.. And time and experience has taught me that the greater reason folks find fault everywhere else is that they simply don’t want to bear the burden of reckoning with and correcting their own shortcomings.
— Dr George Simon Jr, Externalizing Blame Can Have Deadly Consequences
Dr Simon explains that projection is a defense mechanism used by some neurotic people. Don’t be put off by the term ‘neurotic’ here; it is not meant as a derogatory put-down. Dr Simon uses the term neurotic to refer to personalities who listen to and heed their conscience and strive to be pro-social and morally responsible in their behavior, in other words, the basically healthy person. Here is how projection works as a defense mechanism:
When a person projects, they attribute intentions and motivations to others they find far too anxiety-evoking or painful to acknowledge that they harbor themselves.
Dr George Simon Jr, Commonly Misused Psychology Terms – Wrap Up
And to explain that further, here is a quote from How Did We End Up Here? [affiliate link*] by George K Simon Jr Ph.D., with M Kathryn Armistead, Ph.D. (pp 111-112)
The term projection stems from psychodynamic psychology and refers to one of the automatic mental behaviours conceptualized by traditional theorists as ego defence mechanisms. The rationale behind that notion is that sometimes individuals ‘project’ onto others motivations, intentions or actions that they actually harbor themselves but which they would feel far too unnerved or guilty about to acknowledge as their own. Some neurotic individuals do indeed engage in projection defences.
For example, Let’s say that Person A feels hatred towards Person B, but this feeling is so contrary to Person A’s moral standard and they cannot see themselves as a person capable of hatred that it causes an unbearable level of anxiety within them. So to quiet this anxiety they unconsciously project the hatred they have of Person B on to Person B and say that Person B instead hates them (Person A). Now Person A no longer has to wrestle with the feeling that they hate another person.
Abusers don’t use projection. Abusers falsely accuse and scapegoat others.
Let’s consider the abuser. Is he feeling an intense level of anxiety or pain when he is blaming others? No. Is his behavior being done unconsciously? No. Is the abuser on the defensive trying to protect himself against a unbearable situation? No.
Instead Dr Simon explains that the abuser is operating from a conscious mental state. He knows what he is doing. The abuser’s primary purpose is to ensure that what he wants to happen, happens. He wants to manipulate things to avoid taking responsibility, get the focus off himself, convince you to concede to his point of view, etc. He has no level of anxiety – actually his behavior is a reflection of the fact that there is not enough anxiety present, and he is not in a defensive posture. He is not defending anything, rather he is being offensive. At the moment he is engaged in his abusive behavior he is on the offense; he is fighting you for what he wants.
Disordered characters know what they are doing. They are fully conscious about what they know others would see as the wrongfulness of their behavior, despite the fact that they might be perfectly comfortable with their course of action themselves. They don’t have enough guilt or shame about what they are doing to change course. Nor are they so consumed with emotional pain that they must ascribe to others the motivations they can’t tolerate in themselves. Rather, when they blame others for their wrongful acts, its simply an attempt to justify themselves as being in a position where they had no choice but to respond the way they did. In this way, they simultaneously evade responsibility as well as manipulate and manage the impressions of others. The tactic goes hand in hand with the tactic of portraying oneself as as victim. It’s typically an effective tactic to get others to pay attention to everyone or everything else except the disordered character and his wrongful behavior as the source of the problem. (ibid)
The abuser often claims that he is the victim and his partner is the abuser. This type of unjust accusation which abusers specialize in has one element in common with the ego-defense mechanism properly called ‘projection’. Let’s look at what they have in common, and then examine how they are different.
What the two scenarios have in common
In both scenarios, person A is attributing to person B a characteristic that person A has. In projection, the individual (A) engaging in projection is attributing to someone else (B) a characteristic that A actually possesses. In abuse, the abuser (A) is attributing to their victim (B) a characteristic the abuser actually possesses.
Ways in which the two scenarios are different
In projection, person A is doing it unconsciously.
In abuse, person A is doing it intentionally. It is a conscious, habitual mental behavior.
In projection, person A is doing it as an ego-defense mechanism. It comes from a defensive posture. And its purpose is–
- to prevent the experience of unbearable pain
- to prevent something feared from happening
- to quiet anxiety
In abuse, person A is coming from an offensive posture. They are not doing it to quiet their own anxiety or guilt: don’t feel much anxiety or guilt. An abuser is primarily not defending anything. When they are engaged in abusive behaviors, they are primarily fighting. They are doing it–
- to hurt and disempower person B
- to blame others when things go wrong (blame shifting)
- to deliberately create a scapegoat
- to take the heat off themselves
- to avoid responsibility
- to fight against having to adopt the responsible behavior they know B wants them to adopt
- to fight against the socialization process which entails adopting an internalized standard of decent ethics and personal responsibility
- to ensure that what they want to happen, happens
- to preserve their own image
- to manipulate others in order to control them.
And here is the wise-as-serpents take home message
When your abuser accuses you of x or y, there is a very strong possibility that the abuser is actually guilty of x or y.
NB: Some people call blame-shifting “projecting blame,” but we like to avoid that term as it too closely resembles the misused term ‘projection’.
More material from George Simon which addresses this topic
(We paraphrased some of Dr Simon’s words in these materials in order to write this post.)
Videos (Highly Recommended)
Character Disturbance [affiliate link*] Explains the difference between Ego Defensive Mechanisms and Offensive Power Tactics (p176-) and discusses the difference between projection and blaming others/scapegoating (p181-2).
In Sheep’s Clothing [affiliate link*] discusses Defense Mechanisms and Offensive Tactics (p111, Ch9) and blaming others as an offensive tactic (p133-4).
Related posts on ACFJ
Barb wants to thank TWBTC for her assistance in writing this post.
*Amazon affiliate link — ACFJ gets a small percentage if you purchase via this link.
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