The Defence Mechanism of Projection and Transference

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The defence mechanisms of Projection and transference.

Sigmund Freud first identified the psychological process of transference and projection and brought it into what is now modern day psychotherapy. He noticed that people had strong feelings and fantasies about him that had no basis in reality. Transference has become a more modern concept since Freud. In fact, transference is actually something that happens in life - and not just in psychotherapy.

What is Transference? During transference, people turn into a "biological time machine". A nerve is struck when someone says or does something that reminds you of your past. This creates an "emotional time warp" that transfers your emotional past and your psychological needs into the present. In less poetic terms, a transference reaction means that you are reacting to someone in terms of what you need to see, you are afraid of or what you see when you know very little about the person. This all happens unconsciously.

What Is Projection? Some therapists refer to transference as a "projection." In this case you are projecting your own feelings, emotions or motivations into another person without realizing your reaction is really more about you than it is about the other person. Although projection is a common process in human beings it is a “blind-spot” to ourselves. We have a tendency to see in others what we don’t wish to see in ourselves. According to Sigmund Freud, projection is a psychological defence mechanism whereby one "projects" one's own undesirable thoughts, motivations, desires, and feelings onto someone else. 'Emotions or excitations which the ego tries to ward off are "spit out" and then felt as being outside the ego...perceived in another person's.

In Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety, Freud (1926) listed ten manners by which the ego defends itself against dangerous thoughts: regression, reaction-formation, isolation, undoing, repression, introjection or identification, projection, turning against the self, reversal, and sublimation or displacement of instinctual aims. Therefore, becoming defensive is all about learning to identify and avoid painful and dangerous situations.

The other day I was holding my two year old daughter in my arms after watching a film on the Psychodynamic course on loss, and was thinking about the psychological distance between her mind and my own, and became conscious of all the personality defences and coping strategies we learn while growing up; how important these things are for keeping us safe from the more predatory elements of our world, but also the openness we can lose as these defences get built.

Becoming defensive therefore is all about learning to identify and avoid painful and dangerous situations. Discriminating when to be defensive and when not to be defensive is I believe key for good mental health.

I have realized through my own therapy that unpleasant feelings and thoughts are sometimes hard to accept, especially if they don't fit our own image of who we want to be or who we ought to be. Anger, hatred, rage, jealousy, fear, and many other emotions I have realised can be hard to incorporate into our own self-image. I don't like to see myself as angry, fearful, or bitter, so I have often tempted to disown those feelings. One way I have disowned my thoughts and feelings is to project them onto other people like my wife, children, clients etc.

I seem to have convinced myself over the years that those unpleasant thoughts and feelings that I experience seem to come from “someone else” and not from me. For years I thought this only applies to clients and not to psychotherapists like me!. 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."

In one of the recent seminars on the psychodynamic course at Oxford I became aware of my recent feelings of dislike towards a...
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