Projection is a type of psychological defense mechanism. When people project, they identify their negative emotions, beliefs, or traits in someone else. People project to protect themselves from uncomfortable inner conflict and anxiety, but the behavior can interfere with all types of relationships and situations. While difficult, it’s possible to stop projecting and interact with others in healthier ways.
What Is Projection?
Psychological projection is a defense mechanism that involves attributing one’s own feelings, desires, or qualities to another person, group, animal, or object.1,2,3,4 For example, the classroom bully who teases other children for crying but is quick to cry is an example of projection. They’re projecting their own sense of shame and weakness for crying onto others as a means of self-protection.
All defense mechanisms are subconscious reactions to unpleasant emotions and inner conflict.5 Without being fully aware of what drives their behavior, people use defense mechanisms to protect themselves from anxiety and internal discomfort.1,3,5,6 They allow people to preserve their sense of Self and deal with difficulties; however, defensiveness can become a problem when overused, thus interfering with healthy functioning and relationships.3
Defense mechanisms deny or distort reality, but not all are problematic.1,5 That said, projection is considered unhealthy and maladaptive.3,7 It’s a form of avoidance that prevents people from dealing with their own unpleasant emotions and characteristics in growth-oriented ways.4
Forms of Projection
Projection doesn’t always look the same. In some cases, the individual attributes their negative qualities or emotions onto someone else. In other cases, they attribute their positive qualities or emotions onto someone else.
Here are the five forms of projection:
- Attributing one’s own bothersome qualities onto someone else
- Attributing one’s positive qualities onto someone else2,8
- Assuming other people share your beliefs, opinions, and priorities (i.e., complementary projection)9
- Assuming other people have the same skills and abilities as you (i.e., complimentary projection)9
- Irrationally believing in the projection and its consequences (i.e., delusional projection or paranoia)2,7
It’s important to note that even if you don’t personally deal with projection issues, you may wind up on the receiving end of someone else’s projection.4 For example, you could be accused of being lazy by someone who is projecting that unpleasant trait away from themselves.
History of Defense Mechanisms
The concept of defense mechanisms, including projection psychology, originates from the work of Sigmund Freud, his daughter Anna Freud, and their theory of psychoanalysis and psychodynamic therapy.1,3,5 While much of Freud’s original work is unsupported by modern research, some of his concepts, including defense mechanisms, are still considered valid.
Many mental health professionals today recognize and work with defense mechanisms (i.e., escape mechanisms).5 For example, cognitive behavioral theory (CBT) incorporates the concept of defense mechanisms, but it calls them irrational beliefs and asserts that they’re chosen defenses rather than subconscious drives.3
Why Do People Project?
Projection is often a reflection of how someone feels about themselves.4 People project their innermost feelings and desires onto someone else to justify their thoughts or avoid taking responsibility for them.2 By attributing an uncomfortable feeling or trait to someone or something else, they can avoid acknowledging that part of themselves, thus protecting their self-esteem.4
Baggage from the past is buried below conscious awareness; it’s always there but not fully recalled. Someone else’s words, actions, expressions, traits, or mannerisms can trigger a reaction based on subconscious memories, thus causing old, unpleasant emotions to surface. These emotions cause anxiety and other undesirable feelings. Instead of facing those feelings, the person projects them onto someone else.10
Projection is most commonly seen in adolescents, people who misuse substances, people who have experienced brain injury, and people with certain personality disorders.7 People with narcissistic personality disorder and borderline personality disorder also frequently use projection as a defense mechanism.4
5 Examples of Projection
Projection can be an isolated occurrence triggered by a single incident, or it can be a pervasive pattern of relating to others.4 Further, projection behaviors can be either subtle or obvious. They can be triggered by any interaction in any relationship or setting.
Here are five examples of what projection might look like in different scenarios:
1. Projection in Relationships
Projection can surface in romantic relationships when one partner reminds the other of traits they dislike in themselves or people they’ve had negative experiences with in the past, such as an old partner, parent, or sibling. Projection drives a wedge between two people rather than bringing them closer.3
Projection in relationships can involve one partner blaming the other for their own flaws, such as a disorganized person frequently nagging their partner for being messy. Projection can also reflect undesirable traits. Someone who finds themselves attracted to someone who isn’t their partner, for example, might either accuse their partner of being a flirt.
Other signs that projection may be interfering in your romantic relationship are:4
- You have the same argument repeatedly
- You feel upset with your partner but don’t know why
- You feel confused about you or your partner’s overreaction to a situation
2. Projection in Parenting
Parents can unknowingly project their own fears and insecurities onto their children.4,8 Parents who feel like failures, for example, may project their frustration onto their kids by telling them that the world is unfair or that they’re foolish for thinking they can pursue their dreams. Anxious parents may unknowingly convey to their kids that the world is a dangerous place.
Conversely, parents can also project their own hopes and ambitions onto their kids. While often an attempt to build their kids’ confidence and set them up for success, it can equate to pressure and make children feel like failures or disappointments.8
Projection in parenting doesn’t always equate to irresponsible or abusive parenting. Often, the messages parents send to their children—whether intentional, unintentional, conscious, or subconscious—are born out of love.8 No matter the intention, however, kids pick up on projected messages, and this can rob them of their own identity and autonomy, thus leading to resentment and conflict.8
3. Projection at Work
Projection at work can look like what’s known as “projection bias.” It consists of the assumption that what is important to you is equally important to your coworkers or subordinates.11 It’s the attitude that your beliefs are held by others or that those you work with should think and act like you do.
When you believe that others should share your ideas and priorities and don’t seek to understand other perspectives, you risk disregarding their thoughts, needs, and ideas. It can create resentment, hostility, and feelings of conflict.
4. Projection in Friendships
Just as in romantic relationships, projection can disrupt friendships.2 For example, one friend who is subconsciously insecure might accuse another of being too needy, clingy, or demanding.
Reactions that are out of context or disproportionate to a situation, such as lashing out in anger when a friend is a few minutes late, may be projections of jealousy. It could also be a repeated accusation someone received in the past, such as being selfish or inconsiderate.
5. Projection in Therapy
Sometimes, clients project feelings they have about someone important in their lives onto their therapist.4 Also called transference, this type of projection can involve positive or negative feelings. A client may become easily angered by a therapist who reminds them of a problematic partner or boss. Conversely, a client may develop admiration or even romantic feelings for a therapist who has fulfilled a supportive role.
Therapists often notice such projection when it occurs and use it to help the client develop more awareness of hidden emotions and desires. With this insight comes healing, change, and positive action.
5 Ways to Stop Projecting
Because the beliefs underlying projection are often subconscious, it can be difficult to stop projecting. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, though. If you notice that your relationships are suffering and suspect that you could be inadvertently projecting, try talking to someone who understands or seeing a qualified therapist.
1. Talk to Someone Who Understands
It can be helpful to enlist an ally in overcoming projection. Identify someone you feel comfortable revealing vulnerable emotions and experiences with. Often, simply talking through what’s happening in your relationships, including your own actions and others’ reactions, can lead to helpful insights.
Sometimes, though, projections come from deep-seated beliefs that run strong but deep beneath the surface of conscious awareness. Therefore, it can be difficult to reveal and examine them without the help of a professional. If you find that talking to a supportive friend or loved one isn’t enough, you may want to consider working with a therapist.
2. See a Therapist
Professional therapy can help you become aware of your behaviors and notice patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior.3 Your therapist will notice patterns and themes and gently discuss them with you to help bring subconscious feelings and behaviors into your full awareness.4 Then, you can actively and openly explore unresolved issues.8
Choosing a therapist who is a good fit and has experience working with defense mechanisms can be invaluable. Use our therapist finder and directory to find the right therapist for you.
3. Increase Your Awareness
As you work with a therapist, you can work on mindfulness and paying full attention to the moment you’re in—especially stressful ones or those involving conflict. When you catch yourself projecting, you can explore what could be going on inside of you, such as what specific feelings emerge during certain conflicts, when these emotions begin, and whether there’s current evidence to support your beliefs in your present relationships.9
4. Pay Attention to Others’ Reactions
Awareness involves deepening your perceptions about how others are reacting to your actions, words, and beliefs.8 Do they seem surprised, confused, or hurt? If so, use the opportunity to redirect the conversation and explore what’s happening. Make an effort to become open to others’ feelings and ideas and listen actively when they share with you. The more deeply you listen, the less likely your old beliefs are to surface and interfere in your present relationships.
5. Slow Down Your Own Reactions
Once you begin to recognize that you’re projecting and where your beliefs, words, and actions may be coming from, you can begin to be more intentional in your interactions with others. Slow down during conflicts, and check to make sure you and the other person are correctly understanding each other.4
It may be helpful to step away from a difficult conversation to give yourself time and space to reflect on what’s happening. Think about your conflict objectively, looking for concrete evidence detailing what is really happening rather than letting your subconscious memories make assumptions that cloud your perceptions.
Think about your own assumptions and actions as well as the other person’s reactions. This may help you identify when you’re projecting and take positive action to change how you’re relating to others.4 It’s helpful, too, to practice active listening, allowing people to fully express themselves and paying attention to what they’re saying and consciously choosing your response rather than reacting subconsciously.11
Final Thoughts on Projection
Projection psychology can be difficult to deal with. It negatively impacts relationships in confusing ways because you’re often not fully aware that it’s happening. Working with a therapist can be incredibly helpful in uncovering problems from the past that are continuing to haunt you today. You can overcome your defense mechanisms, including projection, and live more intentionally and with greater relationship satisfaction.
Infographics About Psychological Projection