A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

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)

Manipulation Tactics Part 1     Manipulation Tactics Part 2

Neurosis vs. Character Disturbance Dimension

Articles

Commonly Misused Psychology Terms – Wrap Up

Narcissistic Insult: When Reality Shatters Illusion

Externalizing – Manipulation Tactic 3

Books

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

Right Back At Ya! The Abuser’s Tactic of Reflective Blaming

My abuser says I am the abuser!

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.

24 Comments

  1. Moving Forward

    Thank you. This makes a lot of sense and helps a lot.

  2. JayD

    My question would be, how do you tell the difference? And do you handle the two differently?
    My best friend, who I am currently estranged from, consistently attributed her intentions and motivations to me. My counselor, just from hearing my side of the story, thinks she is doing it all purposely but I just don’t know. She experienced a lot of abuse when she was younger and I wonder if she’s just not capable of dealing with her shortcomings or if it is an actual offensive purposeful thing.

  3. Un-Tangled

    Random thoughts:

    I don’t know how to put this into words: Sometimes I wonder if people accuse others of “projecting” when, in reality, that person is rightly noticing “off” or “dangerous” behavior. Like…a person who has experienced abuse learns to recognize “red flags” that indicate that someone is abusive. However, when she speaks up about it, she is often told that she is just “projecting” her past experiences with an abuser onto (innocent) others. Then she begins to second-guess herself, and wonder if she’s wrongfully seeing an abuser behind every bush, so she disarms her inner alarms when, in reality, she recognized a true threat.

    Not long ago, I saw a video of a social experiment in a movie theater. Unsuspecting couples came into the theater looking for a seat and were noticeably nervous when they saw that the only two empty seats were in a crowd of scary-looking “biker” guys. If the couple chose to overcome their nervousness to sit in those seats, they were warmly applauded and greeted and given soft drinks and popcorn. The experiment was basically about not judging a person on his outward appearance and, yeah, I get that. However, I thought that the experience was almost a victim-grooming incident teaching people not to listen to their inner warnings. Yeah, THIS group of guys didn’t intend harm, but the next time that couple felt nervous in encountering a “scary person” they might remember this incident and not listen to their inner warnings, thinking that they were wrongly judging or “projecting” their bias onto others. And THIS time, the person might not be so safe.

    Years ago I took a women’s self-defense class taught by a karate instructor who said that we needed to listen to the inner warnings that something was “off” or potentially dangerous. He said that that we all were constantly taking in information through our senses–many times at a subconscious level and that if we felt “danger signals,” we needed to listen to them and take precautions. Too often we might feel that a person, or a group of people, or a quiet street was unsafe, but we convince ourselves that we are being silly and paranoid, and we proceed ahead–only to discover that we should have listened to ourselves. The instructor said, “Don’t ignore these danger signals!” And as believers, it is possible that the warnings we are ignoring are the warnings of the Spirit.

    I think that we (people) are taught and trained to ignore our perceptions that someone is evil or a situation is dangerous so we allow evil into our lives thinking we are just being unloving, unkind, unChristlike, judgmental, and merely projecting. Instead, maybe we ought to be taught what evil looks and to listen to inner warnings. As Frodo said in The Lord of the Rings: “Well, if he was one of the enemy, he would look fairer and…well, feel fouler, if you see what I mean.”

    • Un-Tangled

      Perhaps I should clarify: I wasn’t speaking of the abuser’s projection of victims–falsely attributing behaviors they have onto their victims–but of people accusing victims of projection when they become alarmed at abusive behavior.

      I would maybe list three scenarios instead of two:

      1. In projection, person A is doing it unconsciously.
      2. In abuse, person A is doing it intentionally. It is a conscious, habitual mental behavior.
      3. Person A correctly recognizes abusive behavior but is falsely accused of “merely” projecting her past experiences onto a present situation. This leads to her second-guessing her perceptions and (perhaps) lowering her defenses.

      • Ng

        Un-Tangled: you expressed yourself and your point perfectly clear! Spot on about false accusations of ‘projection’: it is amazing how we humans are supposed to learn from past experiennces, good and bad, but if we try to apply that wisdom, we often are told to be ‘biased’ and ‘projecting’ …
        It seems often victims of abuse are expected just to forget their bad experience and move on, without gaining any wisdom from what they went through. I do not mean any ‘victim-blaming’, but disregarding any red flags would just be foolish: as the saying goes, don’t let your pain to go waste..!
        Having to go through bad experiences is something that is way too often used as ammo againts the victim, as if everything he/she perceives is through tainted view. It can be used to excuse any bad behavior, in the name of ‘unhealed hurts’ … “Well, you had this bad experience, so of course you cannot be trusted with your instincts …”

        What utter nonsense! A truly healthy and mature person does want to utilize every experience theyr went through in life, and use it to gain wisdom. It is no shame to have one’s antenna sharpened: it is shameful to accuse others of having their antennas too sharp and too accurate .. So many people never use their own antenna and then blame others for being too sensitive.

        I once saw an interview with a Holocaust survivor, a woman, who survived the horrible medical experiments conducted by the infamous Dr. Mengele. She said she had a theory that children aged 6-12 had very keen instincts about people and events around them, before the conscious ‘coming into adulthood’ sort of took over. She sense the danger long before her parents did and warned them about the Germans coming, but her father refused to flee, when they still had a chance of doing so.
        The parents both perished in the concentration camp, while this lady and her sister survived, but had her father listened to her gut feeling, they might have all survived the WWII in safety..

    • Ng

      .. and by the way, I think such social experiments are harmful and foolish: they are trying to make everyone ‘politically correct’, instead of having wisdom and common sense.
      No I would not go and sit next to a group of criminal looking bikers – where I live, bikers are known criminals and known for commitiing heinous crimes, including murdering and mutilating innocent women. So no social experiment will make me put my guard down…!

  4. healinginhim

    I am so confused and hurting … Because my circumstances involve so many individuals; I am possibly dealing with those who are ‘projecting’ but at the same time the length of time this is happening becomes very abusive … Even now, when I attempt to defend myself it’s like they refuse to hear me and continue to act so ‘innocent’ as to the way they are treating me?
    Other circumstances are definitely abusive but not seen to the public eye.
    I wish I were stronger. I find myself avoiding others or welling up with tears as I face the covert snubbing of adult children and their spouses. Very difficult in the workplace as others ask “how are you doing?”

    • standsfortruth

      Healinginhim, even though I am finally out of my marriage, I am going through this too. (Multiple people that do not support validate or acknowledge what I am experiencing.)

      As if what is happening is invisible. I have come to realize that in these times the enemy’s “choice weapon” against the believer is “Pshychological Warfare.”

      We must believe in ourselves regardless of what others may be reflecting back to us. Unless I recognise that these people have the true Spirit of Christ in them, I dont take anything they say or do to heart. In other words I suspect that these people are deliberate and intentional in what they do and do not acknowledge towards us that would cause us to doubt ourselves.

      If the devil can get us to second guess ourselves, and not believe that we know the truth, than he can hold us in a Lie for longer, which keeps us not believing in ourselves and unable to set ourselves free. (We must be first set psychologicaly free, before we can physically set ourselves free.)

      Remember, we are more than overcomers in Christ and his Spirit of truth, and Wisdom is with us.

      • healinginhim

        Thank you Standsfortruth for your words of confirmation.
        I have actually told many of my abusers and those who may or may not support me is that, “all I know is that I know that I have not done anything to cause such disdain except for my continuing devotion to the Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”

        I know I must finally reach the point where I not bend or play the game of ‘niceties’ that is expected even if it would appear that I am unloving by not accepting invitations of ‘visits’ where not much love is shown — love that would be expected from children towards a mother or siblings and a sister who have absolutely no respect for me as a person.

  5. bright sunshinin' day

    Very good, Barb!

    So well said by Dr. Simon:

    “Rather, when they [the abuser] 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)”

  6. Louise

    Thank you. Very timely article. I’ve divorced him and have moved to a new state with our Daughter. Unfortunately we share custody and as much as I strive for no contact, and try to limit contact in regards to our daughter only, it is a losing battle. He texts me hourly. I block him as much as I can. He now accuses me of being indifferent towards him and tells me how hurtful it is. ( that was one of my biggest hurts from him in our marriage. It was like I didn’t exist unless he wanted “intimacy”). He says that “everyone” knows the reason I left him is for another man. (He has been texting and messaging women and hitting on them while away on business trips for at least the past year).
    I am cold and cruel and selfish…..yup! Describes him perfectly.

  7. 3blossommom

    I have struggled with this so often. My abusive husband has “projected” onto me so many times in our 20+years. What it has really been was false accusation. At least I felt it that way and at times he held grudges against me for my supposed behaviors. He has accused me of adultery with our pastor when he, as another member of the pastoral staff, was having an affair with his secretary. He accused me of wanting to participate in voyeuristic behaviors when he was visiting brothels. He accused me of dissatisfaction and perfectionism regularly, when he is was the one never satisfied. He accused me of abusing him after years of receiving his abusive treatment. He accused me of handling our money poorly. Then I found out he wasn’t just a poor manager, but was also stealing from our assets and putting it away in an account for himself. He accused me (a homeschool mom who does everything with her children) of neglecting them. The list goes on ad nauseum. I felt crazy. Even when it was plainly obvious that I was not having (never would have) an affair with our pastor (who was an old family friend), I worried and fretted that maybe I was doing something bad to give that impression. I shut myself off from the man completely. I fretted that I was really bad with the money and that is why the budget was always a mess, taking all the blame on myself and never thinking to look deeper at where our money was going. I went overboard in every area I could to prove I wasn’t doing these things. The projection was abuse. It hurt so much and drove me to do unhealthy things to counter it. I have a very hard time believing it was all just because he hurts so much inside that he can’t deal with it. I feel it is a form of evil.

  8. Jessica

    I thank you so much for correcting me a couple of months ago when I used the term projection believing that I was correctly using it. And this post clarifies it in depth. It is probably the most unnerving tactic my ex abuser would do during our entire relationship and I am sure he still does to this day as it is apparently his favorite tactic. If I allow myself to dwell on it, it will get me mad all over again. But thankfully, with help from my Savior and family, I am out of that relationship and away from the abuse.

    Again, thank you for this post and thank you so much for correcting me and explaining it very well.

  9. Savedbygrace

    From my experience, my h uses projection as one of his tools of manipulation- it is a form of lieing and it his attempting to define my reality and also to ”impression manage” (aka lieing) to present himself as a certain type of person to the outside world. It also serves to gaslight others- it can be very subtle and covert, I’ve been fooled for years and still get taken in at times. For example, knowing I don’t trust him he has started commenting on me- ‘that’s very untrustworthy’ and of him ‘I’m very trustworthy you know- more than you think’ ie my thinking is defective if I don’t trust him..can you see how convoluted it gets!??
    This is one way abusers mess with our heads and why ‘no contact’ is sanity saving.

  10. Stephanie

    This is so helpful and those linked videos…wow. I can’t thank you enough.

    • Hi 3blossommom — welcome to the blog 🙂

      We always like to encourage new readers to check out our New Users Info page as it gives tips for how to guard your safety while commenting on the blog.

      If you want us to change you screen name to something else, just email The woman behind the curtain: twbtc.acfj@gmail.com — she will be more than happy to assist. 🙂

  11. Charis

    Wonderful article. Thank you.

    I *think* it is projection with my mom. I could be wrong. I’m hoping for the best.
    I *know* it is abuse with my ex.

    With either – it is all about setting boundaries. And, with both it feels like manipulation, shaming, blaming, deference, playing the martyr, etc.

    Even as recently as last weekend, I have had to reconsider what safety looks like with my mom: new boundaries I need to set that I can enforce, how much time/distance is healthy or toxic. And it is all the more complicated by the fact that my son loves spending time with his grandparents. So…how to enforce my boundaries of time/distance/safety whilst still fostering a healthy relationship between him and my mom. It’s complex and exhausting.

    • healinginhim

      Charis – I empathize with you because I spent most of my marriage of almost forty yrs raising children to honor and respect their ‘daddy’ and his parents. Even though there was what I now realize to be emotional abuse I just kept praying and wanting desperately to serve the Lord by serving the man I married and his parents.

      Eventually, circumstances erupted which caused me to confront deceit. False repentance ensued which I denied. I now realize my denial was based on a desire for our marriage and family to be seen as “Christian”.

      Long-story-made short. I must have done an excellent job because even though the children knew of the deceit and lying; now as adults they have decided to be loyal to ‘him’ and his family. I am considered to be ‘too religious’ etc.

      Charis, does your son love being with your mother because she perhaps ‘spoiling’ him? Forgive me for being blunt but I am sooo tired of the verbiage which alludes to grandparents being allowed to ‘spoil’ their grandchildren … “ha, ha, ha…” only to have these grandparents turn against the mothers who must in the end discipline defiant youth. Is it any wonder why our children ‘love spending time with grandparents’ who in some cases “buy their love”?

      I had attempted to set boundaries only to be eventually criticized and now snubbed … I’ve been feeling a great sense of guilt for not even desiring to be with my adult children and their spouses. They feel more like acquaintances not flesh and blood offspring.
      Praying for you, Charis and others who are prayerfully wanting to instil boundaries which many want to cross over.

  12. broken not shattered

    Does this happen as well?
    An abuser memorizes the accusations made against him (or her) when the abused finally stands up to him (or her), and then uses those accusations back against the victim? Or suddenly they are the one hurting, telling the victim they can’t take any more of the fighting, and the victim is supposed to hear and recognize their pain, when for years the abused has been trying to tell the abuser these same things?

    • Jeff Crippen

      Oh yes. Abusers will take any angle they can to guilt the innocent. Playing the victim is one of their favorite roles.

    • Lundy Bancroft said in his recent webinar that abusers who accuse their victims of the very same thing they themselves do is evidence of their double standard — “You can’t do X, Y, and Z, but I can.” And while this double standard behavior is often mistaken for projection, as there are similarities, this behavior doesn’t stem from the deeper psychological issues that are associated with projection. Rather – the abuser’s use of double standards is a result of his sense of entitlement (I can do whatever I want, and you have to do what I want) and a way to control his victim.

      • healinginhim

        These last few comments have been so painfully true. Whether it’s the spouse, children or extended family — I must confess to feeling dread as there is such a strong double standard from all involved.
        This is where the spouse gained his sense of more control over me; knowing that any support I may have counted on in the past was not there. Especially when the children are against me. The adult children and family members are now claiming that I am responsible for the breakdown in all relationships because of … a long list including my faith, the fact that I eat healthy, etc …

  13. Living Joyfully

    Wow, Healinginhim, I could have written your comment, especially the second paragraph. It is a mirror image of my journey also….it is comforting (I am not alone) and very sad (that you are experiencing this too) at the same time.

    • healinginhim

      Living Joyfully — Yes, it is very sad that we are living this and yet I know the Lord is allowing it not because I have done anything that my accusers want to allude to. With the support of ACFJ and other ministries and after I have attempted to leave the situation, however it appears that it is not in God’s timing, yet. Although it has been terribly exhausting and health depleting I am thankful to still be here as it has allowed the true character of my abusers to be recognized by some.

      Thank you for affirming that I’m not the only one living this way and that yes, indeed, it is possible for our children to turn on the one who nurtured them. Many in this small community use that as evidence that I obviously did something for all of the adult children to turn on me. No, they have now chosen to not acknowledge the true God of the Scriptures to be their Lord… they have other gods. 😦

      As for my siblings … it is just a mess of many abuses namely stemming from a very jealous older sister. Jealousy is poison and I want no part of it. Meanwhile, the man I married carries on with his life; content to be saving money while I still remain here but leave him alone. 😦

      Praying for you, Living Joyfully and others needing the Saviour’s comfort.

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