How To Spot The Projection Defense Mechanism

Updated March 20, 2024by Regain Editorial Team

Maybe it’s happened to you before.

Someone criticizes you for a particular behavior. Maybe it was someone close to you—a mother criticizing eating habits, a spouse criticizing procrastinating, or a friend chastising your lateness.

Later, you notice that the person who criticized you has the same habit. Or the person admits that that detrimental practice was something they had to overcome in the past.

Before you assume this person is simply a hypocrite, understand that this might be a subconscious psychological response. In fact, it’s extremely common behavior.

Sometimes, there are negative truths about us or the world that are difficult to cope with consciously. Sigmund Freud’s daughter, Anna Freud, theorized that the subconscious mind manages these difficult truths through a series of defense mechanisms. One of the most common is called ‘projection.’

Similarly to how we can project a movie onto a wall, we can project our emotions onto other people.

This article will thoroughly explain what a projection defense mechanism is and how to spot it in both yourself and others.

What is a defense mechanism?

Projecting may be a more common defense mechanism than you think

A defense mechanism is a verbal response used to deflect from conflict or stress. In sports, a defensive player is responsible for warding off any opposing threats, which is similar to what we do when using a conversation defense mechanism.

We are familiar with physical defense in a fight and even verbal defense in a debate. 

What is the projection defense mechanism?

Projection is a psychological response. The projection defense mechanism is when you project fear or insecurity of your own onto someone else. For example, think of someone who struggles with body dysmorphia. If that person tells a friend that the friend is overeating, that would be a projection of personal concerns and anxieties.

Most of the time, projection is made in the process of trying to understand another person’s thoughts or behaviors. Say there is someone in your office who rubs you the wrong way. For no evident reason, this person bothers you. But when others notice a conflict between you and your coworker, you say that the other person hates you. You have no support to justify this claim, but neither of you gets along, and it might be easier to dismissively project this emotion than to admit that you’re the instigator.

Many people cannot identify when they are projecting feelings because it is an unconscious defense that your ego uses to justify or make sense of a situation.

Where did the projection defense mechanism originate?

Defense mechanisms and empirical research go hand in hand, all the way back to the Freudian era. Sigmund Freud and his daughter, Anna Freud, are responsible for the concept of psychological projection. Freud spent a long time identifying and developing the idea of the projection defense mechanism. In short, he coined it as a method for the ego defenses to deal with all the insecurities it cannot change by attributing them to someone else.

Freudian defense mechanisms are focused on sexual and aggressive desires that conflict with the ego. According to the psychologist, a Freudian defense is used so frequently that the personality is developed by hiding these desires.

Of course, psychological projection is just one of the ego defenses within the original defense mechanisms.

What are the defense mechanisms?

To understand the projection defense mechanism, it is important to understand the umbrella under which it falls. Though the list of psychological defense mechanisms has developed since Freud, these are commonly acknowledged as the original mechanisms of defense:


This psychological defense mechanism involves figuratively pushing fears, stress, and anxieties far down to an unconscious level. Repression can be seen frequently with people who have experienced trauma as a method to try to forget.

Even if the emotion or trauma is pushed down, it will often still stubbornly resurface differently.


Most people are familiar with denial because it is fairly common and easiest to spot. Denial is the refusal to accept the reality of a situation. It is common when information or a situation is too overwhelming for the brain to process.

Denial is also one of the common stages of grief. Upon first hearing about a loved one’s death, people may sometimes reject the information, claiming there must have been a mistake.


Regressing involves figuratively moving backward. Another example is toddlers or elementary school children who develop responsibilities or experience jealousy of a younger sibling.

What regression looks like may depend heavily on your childhood. It could be seen when someone exhibits coping behavior like throwing a tantrum, shouting, or crying in inappropriate contexts.

Reaction formation

This psychological defense involves the act of overcompensating. If someone is self-conscious about being too loud, they might do the exact opposite in an exaggerated form by whispering.

For example, if a person is mocked as a child for crying, then develops insecurity about being perceived as weak, they might exhibit overly ‘tough’ behavior to rebel against this insecurity. Sometimes this manifests itself as what is sometimes called “toxic masculinity.”


Freud considered this to be a sign of maturity and the healthiest psychological defense mechanism because you take your frustration or anxiety and put it towards something productive. For example, if you experience tension and anger, maybe you let it out through an excellent workout.


As previously mentioned, this is the act of projecting your emotions and insecurities onto another person.

Generally speaking, we all use a variety of defense mechanisms from time to time. Whether it involves internal or external means, repression, projection, denial, repression, reaction formation, and sublimation all require getting rid of unwanted feelings. For example, getting rid of these anxieties externally would involve sublimation, and denial would be the product of attempted internalization.

Though it is not an original defense, rationalization is a defense used in the process of justifying something that typically stands against the ego. A person partaking in hyper-rationalization may try to explain away their emotions by placing them in a more rational context. In their mind, this justifies and excuses the emotion. For example, after being turned down for a job, you may rationalize your rejected feelings away by saying, “That company isn’t anything special anyway.”

This article will pay closer attention to recreation formation, projection, and the overall ego.

What the projection defense mechanism looks like

There are other ways defense manifests itself in projection; displacement, undoing, isolation are a few examples.

Displacement, like projection, involves taking negative emotions out on another person, usually one who is undeserving. Say you get in trouble with a supervisor. Instead of yelling at your boss, you might take that out on a roommate or spouse. This is considered displaced aggression. Projection displacement is probably the most likely combination to work in tandem.

Undoing involves the process of unraveling a negative thought or behavior by doing the opposite, while isolation consists of removing the emotion from experience you wish to get rid of. Therefore, the feelings and the event stand alone, almost like disassociation.

The ego

We’ve talked about the ego quite a few times, so let’s break it down. Freud split the study of the human psyche into three categories:

  1. Id: Otherwise described as your most basic needs and desires.

  2. Ego: The liaison that operates to make the id’s desires realized in the world.

  3. Super-Ego: The part of the psyche that is all aware—both of the id, the ego, and the world in which it is to succeed. The super-ego has the highest responsibility to reach fulfillment within the confines of our society.

You’ve probably heard someone be called “egotistical.” This term typically has a negative connotation and is used to describe someone who is primarily self-involved. This type of person might be more drawn towards the projection defense mechanism since psychological projection is rooted in pushing one’s own personality traits onto another.

But, according to Freud, we all have an ‘ego.’ The ego is your conscious mind. However, it sometimes conflict with the ego. For example, perhaps your id desires to leave an important exam and get a hamburger. But your superego tells you that that would not be socially acceptable. This creates a conflict, even within your own mind. Maybe you are happily married, but your id wants to have an affair. Your id desires these primal, strange things that might hurt your perception of yourself as a loyal, moral person.

Conflicts and anxieties also come from the realities of everyday life. Maybe the news is violent and disturbing, and you don’t want to process it all.

This is a lot of conflicts, even just in one day! It would be exhausting to confront it all head-on.

Spotting the projection defense mechanism

In its simplest formation, projection can look almost like manipulation.

This form of psychological projection is sometimes seen with more narcissistic people. Narcissism and projection make sense in tandem because narcissism, like projection, involves thinking first of oneself rather than the person you are speaking to. Is projection a mental illness? No, but narcissism can be a personality disorder. The signs for narcissistic personality disorder include:

  • Grandiose sense of self-importance
  • Prioritizes power, success, and idealism
  • Struggles with empathy and intimacy
  • Actively seeks attention
  • Relatively unstable or unadaptable to unexpected situations

However, it is essential to note that everyone uses this defense mechanism. You probably will use it or have used it at some point in your life. It’s not a conscious decision—you might not even realize you are doing it.

But next time you feel frustration or anger toward another person, ask yourself, are they exhibiting a quality that I myself have? Am I projecting my own insecurities onto them?

It is mentally healthy to be aware of your insecurities. The more you can forgive yourself, the better you will be at forgiving other people.

How do I respond to projection defense mechanism?

Of course, not everyone who uses psychological projection is a narcissist. Think about a friend who worries a lot, do they worry about you too? Or do they worry about you?

Psychological projection is not typically used with malicious intent. If you feel as though a person’s psychological projection is having a negative impact on your mental wellbeing, you can always consider cutting them out of the conversation.

It is essential to recognize when someone is projecting because it may prevent you from taking their frustration personally. It is difficult to be offended by someone’s attacks if you recognize that they are simply using you as a canvas to handle their own insecurities.

Also, ask yourself if you’ve used this mechanism as well. Have you ever chastised someone for exhibiting insecurity that you struggle with yourself?

Modern research on projection

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Projecting may be a more common defense mechanism than you think

Together, defense mechanisms and empirical research are essential for understanding how humans and psychology have evolved. Since Freud’s days, psychologists have been studying and unpacking the ego defenses ranging from reaction formation, projection, and displacement to isolation, sublimation, and denial to determine both credibility and patterns.

Reaction formation (as we reviewed earlier) involves overcompensating defense mechanisms, and empirical findings show that this psychological defense has links to racism and homophobia.

A person who is insecure about their sexuality may attack or belittle others who are more open. Similarly, a person who might be reasonably nervous about appearing racist might go out of their way to be uncomfortably kind to a person of color.

In reality and academic psychology, reaction formation, projection, and the formation projection displacement are important to identify before other people are affected. Similarly, other ego defenses such as denial, repression, and repression are important to identify before damage to oneself.

Be honest with yourself about your insecurities and anxieties. You’d be surprised how normal they are. Once you acknowledge and understand them, you can prevent them from controlling you and your reactions.

Carl Jung, another psychoanalyst, once said, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life, and you will call it fate.”

Work through defensiveness in online therapy

The subconscious is a powerful tool that is often misunderstood and mishandled. We must understand these defense mechanisms, like psychological projection, to grow in our communication skills and take care of our mental health and the mental health of those around us.

This article is in no way meant to serve as a substitute for professional, psychological help. If you would like to speak with a professional counselor, you can speak to someone online on a website like Regain. Get a free consultation to find out if you should seek out further help. Online therapy has been proven to offer comparable care to in-person therapy, while typically featuring factors such as greater convenience, personal space, and affordability.

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