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Psych Cents

Defense Mechanisms Part 2

written by Sandra Mannelli

Another primary defense mechanism is projectionIntrojection and projective identification will be discussed as well.
Projection and introjection represent opposite sides of the coin.  In both, there is a deficient psychological boundary between the self and the other.  In normal development, the infant has not yet developed a sense of which experience occurs outside the self or inside the self.  It cannot discriminate between the pain of diaper pin sticking him/her which originates externally and the pain of ear infection, which is internally located.  From this period of development (undifferentiation) come the defenses of projection and introjection.
Projection involves misunderstanding thoughts and feelings that in reality come from inside one's psyche, as coming from outside from another person.  In its mature use it is the basis for understanding, intuition, and empathy.  In its immature form projection creates misunderstanding when the projected feelings and attitudes distort the person on whom they are being projected.  The 'victim' eventually resents being misperceived/accused as being angry, jealous, dishonest, when the person projecting is actually the angry, jealous, or dishonest person. 
The projector may not even be able to discriminate between individuals who are actually angry, jealous, dishonest, from those who are his victims on whom he projects.  Therefore the projector confuses his/her own feelings as originating from the 'victim' but may also not be able to discern when another person really is angry, jealous, dishonest.  So this defense distorts not only the projector and victim, but disables the projector from 'seeing' an actual perpetrator. 
It is insightful to observe the reaction of each party.  The person being falsely projected upon (the victim) frequently appears upset and emotional, trying to justify and explain why they are not guilty.  When the victim confronts/corrects the person projecting onto them, the projector often flies into a immediate rage, as if to bully the victim into accepting the projections.  Another reaction of the projector is the cool calm self-assured exterior as well as accusations about the victims with no detailed examples or explanations as to why the accusations are true.  This often indicates who is the projector and who is the victim. 
It has been thought by some psychologists, that projection is not always completely unconscious, due to the extreme protestations of the projecting party.  As in Shakespeare's example from one of his plays:  "Methinks the lady doeth protesteth too much";  there must be some level of conscious acknowledgement in order for the person to know what to project and to rage about when caught. 
There are differing theories including the belief that when the person projecting his/her unacceptable feelings onto someone else, and that someone does not accept the projections, then the projector cannot 'get rid' of the unacceptable feelings and is very threatened by the feelings; thus the rage reaction may be due to having no acceptable psychological space to contain the feelings, which are so threatening to the projector.
Introjection involves misunderstanding that what is coming from another person as coming from inside oneself.  It is the opposite of projection. In its benign form it involves identifying with important others.  Children take in attitudes of teachers, heros, and significant people in their lives.  Many long to be like mommy and daddy.  In its extreme forms, is very destructive.  The most notorious form in psychoanalytic literature is 'identification with the aggressor" where the victim takes on behaviors of the perpetrator in order to feel less helpless and more powerful.  The victim in effect, becomes one with the aggressor and begins to behave as an aggressor, not realizing that they rejected their own feelings/thoughts and accepted the other's as their own.
Another maladaptive situation occurs when one is unable to move past a death due to a deep attachment to the departed.  The result is sometimes permenant depression as the person feels diminished as if part of the self has died.  An example from literature would be the author Mary Shelley, who was unable to overcome her identification with her deceased mother and wrote almost exclusively about death, deterioration of the human body, and grief, in her early years.  Another example would be the case of a parent taking on the mistakes of their child as a reflection of their own lack of competency, as in a parent being very strict with a child who has a learning disability, when the parent was not successful academically.  This also implies boundary distortion. 
Projective identification is a process where projecton and introjection are fused.  The person doing the projecting onto another, not only projects in a distorted way that is determined by their past introjections, but also pressures the person to behave in a way that reflects this fantasy.  The person both projects what is inside (anger, fear, envy, etc.) onto the target person and works to get the person to behave as if they have the same internalized introjects.  It is a very primitive form of projection and differs from more mature forms in that there is a lack of adequate boundaries as well as separation from parents psychologically.
An example of projective identification can be seen in the common adolescent fear of being unattractive to the opposite sex.  This is frequently seen in the US, where physical appearance is of the utmost importance, particularly for women.  The insecure adolescent may grow into an insecure adult who worries they may be unattractive to the opposite sex.  This insecurity drives mate selection and they may gravitate towards plain individuals with the hope that the plainer mate, by comparision, would not trigger the fears of being unattractive any longer.  Unfortunately, if the feelings were never really resolved, they may be projected onto the mate subtly triggering insecurity in a previously confident mate.
The projector then works to get the mate to respond likewise, if the partner fails to comply and continues to act confidently or self-assured, the projector will subtly provoke feelings of insecurity in the partner, by actions that suggest/imply the partner is not attractive to the projector (by making flattering statements about prevous a partner's beauty, subtle negative joking jabs about the mate's looks, etc.) thereby creating or eliciting the partner to feel unattractive in the relationship.  This shifts the focus from the projector's personal feelings of insecurity, to the mate.
One can readily see who is projecting onto whom, when the partner/victim leaves the relationship and no longer feels unattractive.  The projector upon crisis or abandonment may become aware of the personal feeling of unattractiveness in themselves, until they find another partner/victim to project it upon.  Thus the repetitive nature of relationships involving projection.  Generally, the projector refuses to consider that the projections originate within.  It is a way of protecting the self from unacceptable feelings.  A suitable mate, one who is plain, would then allow the projector to focus personal feelings of being unattractive onto the plain mate, who then becomes the one who begins to feel unattractive.
A similar example can be seen in a person who doubts his/her own intelligence level and attempts to manipulate others perceptions/opinions by discourse with 'elevated airs' or by referring to themselves as having a high IQ or implied superior knowledge/expertise.  They attempt to lead others to feel unintelligent by their complicated intellectual-sounding verbiage, due to their own doubts about their own intelligence.  They may be highly critical of others and belittle others' accomplishments to compensate for their inferior feelings, thus triggering others to feel 'less than'.  This is also a common component of narcissism, where the person actually feels superior (unrealistically so) in the midst of mediocre people whom they look down upon.
Splitting is another defense mechanism originating from a preverbal time where the infant is unable to understand that good and bad qualities reside in the same individual (caretaker).  Until object constancy is established in the infant, splitting will occur.  In everyday life, examples of splitting can easily be seen in cartoon depictions of good vs evil, in political campaigns, racism, and corporate factions.  Splitting can be effective in maintaining self-worth and in reducing anxiety.  However, since it involves a distortion of reality, it is not considered to be an effective defense.  It is a tendency to make gross good-bad distinctions.  Examples of splitting would be the belief that all republicans are bad, all persons of an ethnic group or particular socioeconomic class are inferior, all "Aggie engineers" are unintelligent, or that one is a superior person in some way; an expert who has knowledge others can never possess and which make the expert right in all instances.