Monday, June 4, 2007

Projection and Transference

I'm still grappling with the most interesting of all the defense mechanisms: projection and transference. 

In psychology, psychological projection (or projection bias) is a defense mechanism in which one attributes to others one’s own unacceptable or unwanted thoughts or/and emotions. Projection reduces anxiety by allowing the expression of the unwanted subconscious impulses/desires without letting the ego recognize them. The theory was developed by Sigmund Freud and further refined by his daughter Anna Freud.


According to Sigmund Freud, projection is a psychological defense mechanism whereby one "projects" one's own undesirable thoughts, motivations, desires, and feelings onto someone else.

To understand the process, consider a husband who has thoughts of infidelity. Instead of dealing with his undesirable thoughts consciously, he subconsciously projects these feelings onto his wife, and begins to think that she has thoughts of infidelity and may be having an affair. In this way one can see that projection is related to denial, the only defense mechanism, some argue, that is more primitive than projection. The husband has denied a part of himself that is desperate to come to the surface. He can't face his own feelings of infidelity, so instead he will project the feelings onto his wife and dwell on that.

Historical uses

Peter Gay describes it as "the operation of expelling feelings or wishes the individual finds wholly unacceptable—too shameful, too obscene, too dangerous—by attributing them to another."[1]

The concept was anticipated by Friedrich Nietzsche:

"He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you."

The philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach based his theory of religion in large part upon the idea of projection, i.e., the idea that an anthropomorphic deity is the outward projection of man's anxieties and desires.

Psychological projection is the subject of Robert Bly's book A Little Book on the Human Shadow. The "Shadow"—a term used in Jungian psychology to describe a variety of psychological projection—refers to the projected material.

Psychologist Marie-Louise Von Franz extended the view of projection to all cover phenomena in Patterns of Creativity Mirrored in Creation Myths: "... wherever known reality stops, where we touch the unknown, there we project an archetypal image."


When addressing psychological trauma the defense mechanism is sometimes counter-projection, including an obsession to continue and remain in a recurring trauma-causing situation and the compulsive obsession with the perceived perpetrator of the trauma or its projection.

Jung writes that "All projections provoke counter-projection when the object is unconscious of the quality projected upon it by the subject."

Common definitions
  • "Projection is the opposite defence mechanism to identification. We project our own unpleasant feelings onto someone else and blame them for having thoughts that we really have."
  • "A defense mechanism in which the individual attributes to other people impulses and traits that he himself has but cannot accept. It is especially likely to occur when the person lacks insight into his own impulses and traits."
  • "Attributing one's own undesirable traits to other people or agencies."
  • "The individual perceives in others the motive he denies having himself. Thus the cheat is sure that everyone else is dishonest."
  • "A man harboring attractions for a woman would perceive other men as having the same attractions for her."
  • "People attribute their own undesirable traits onto others. An individual who unconsciously harbours his or her aggressive/sexual tendencies may then imagine other people acting in an excessively aggressive or sexual way."
  • "An individual who possesses malicious characteristics, but who is unwilling to perceive himself as an antagonist, convinces himself that his opponent feels and would act the same way."


In psychopathology, projection is an especially commonly used defense mechanism in people with certain personality disorders:

Transference is a phenomenon in psychology characterized by unconscious redirection of feelings for one person to another. One definition of transference is "the inappropriate repetition in the present of a relationship that was important in a person's childhood." Another definition is "the redirection of feelings and desires and esp. of those unconsciously retained from childhood toward a new object." Still another definition is "a reproduction of emotions relating to repressed experiences, esp. of childhood, and the substitution of another person . . . for the original object of the repressed impulses." Transference was first described by Sigmund Freud, who acknowledged its importance for psychoanalysis for better understanding of the patient's feelings.

It is common for people to transfer feelings from their parents to their partners (emotional incest) or to children (cross-generational entanglements). For instance, one could mistrust somebody who resembles an ex-spouse in manners, voice, or external appearance; or be overly compliant to someone who resembles a childhood friend.

In The Psychology of the Transference, Carl Jung states that within the transference dyad both participants typically experience a variety of opposites, that in love and in psychological growth, the key to success is the ability to endure the tension of the opposites without abandoning the process, and that this tension allows one to grow and to transform.

Transference is common. Only in a personally or socially harmful context can transference be described as a pathological issue.


stwill61 said...

Heavy stuff, Mike.  What's brought this up?  Someone you know showing signs of projection?  Afraid you are?  Creating a character?

stwill61 said...

I hope to get an e-mail off to you about this topic.  It's too personal to put here.  Remind me if I don't send something in a couple of days.

Good topic, Michael.