Psychology in Writing: Defense Mechanisms–Projection

We discussed in an earlier blog post defense mechanisms in general, and reaction

projection and denial

projection and denial (Photo credit: Mathieu Bertrand Struck)

formation specifically; in today’s blog I wanted to focus on another defense mechanism, projection.  Projection occurs when a person is unable to manage her/his own internal attributes that s/he may find unacceptable and instead ascribes them to another person.  Often times this projection occurs on to a safe object that the person projecting has some level of power over, such as a pet, child, subordinate, etc.  This allows the person to expend some of her/his “negative” psychic energy by making external where it can be dealt with, versus dealing with it internally, where the person is not prepared to deal with.  While having a negative effect on the projection object, it can allow the person to engage with others appropriately or to return to a baseline after the negative energy has been projected and dealt with externally.

In therapy, projection is considered an “immature” defense mechanism.  Though most people engage in projection behavior from time to time, the extent and how frequently a person utilizes it determines if it is an area for clinical focus.  A common form of projection is frustration at work that a person then manifests at home.  A person may be frustrated with her/his ability to confront the boss, and so comes home and accuses their spouse of never addressing anything until it is a full-blown issue.  In this way, the person has taken their own latent, or unseen, psychic conflict and made it manifest by projecting it onto another person.  This defense mechanism has a two-fold negative effect; first, the person is not resolving her/his own latent conflict by addressing the boss/being more assertive, so they remain miserable at work; second, it alienates and attacks those who might be supportive and provide an alternative release of negative energy, e.g., allowing the person to talk through the issue.  The goal in counseling for a person who is struggling with projection is to help the person identify what part of her/his self that s/he is not manifesting and then to help the client identify health ways of dealing with this internal conflict.

As writers, projection can serve as fuel for our characters conflicts with characters other than the antagonist.  Frequently projection in writing appears when our characters are unable to deal with their own shortcomings, such as lack of courage, inability to commit, etc.  The turn in our writing comes when the character recognizes the short coming in her/his self; when the character is able to recognize and address the internal struggles then s/he can move forward.  An example would be a hero admitting that it has been her own fear holding her and her team back; while she initially may blame the others for commitment to the cause or wanting to quit, through the progress of the story she recognizes it was her projection of wanting to quit that she put on her team.  Another example would be a protagonist who accuses a lover of wanting someone else; this projection is a manifestation of his own internal sense of not being worthy of his lover; by addressing and exposing his own fears to the lover, she then either accepts or rejects him, based on the manifest feelings.

Projection can also serve as a good mirror for our protagonist in the reaction to our antagonist.  The antagonist could represent things that the protagonist dislikes in her/his self.  It is the unawareness of the self-loathing that prevents the hero from being successful in overcoming her/his opponent.  The hero may not be able to accept her/his own desire for power and that’s why s/he is attempting to overthrow a corrupt leader; until the hero is able to recognize her/his true drive and accept it or let it go, s/he is going to face challenges from both companions and within.  As writers when we allow our protagonist to recognize and resolve their flaws we show them to be human and help the reader glimpse the inner world and struggles that underlie our characters.  It can also help break up our story telling so it is less linear giving our characters more time to develop and shine.

Writing prompt:  Write about your character’s darkest desire.  What is the thing they want most that they cannot admit to even her/his self.  How does this desire manifest in your character’s world?  Where does s/he project this unresolved feelings and aspects of self?  What consequences does the character face because s/he cannot address these internal issues?


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