What Is Projection? Psychology, Example, And Application For Your Relationships

By: Jenny Chang

Updated December 29, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Aaron Horn

Have you ever disliked someone and convinced yourself that they resented you too? Have you accused others of cheating on a test when you did the same? Or have you ever had a bad haircut and became paranoid, thinking that everyone was staring at you because of it? These are common examples of projection, a psychological defense mechanism used to protect an individual against negative and unwanted feelings and thoughts.

What Is Psychological Projection?

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Projection is unconsciously employed by the ego and involves the process of attributing unwanted emotions you don't like onto someone else, rather than admitting that it exists within yourself. It includes blame-shifting and falsely accusing others of wrongdoing. One particular example of this, which has been proven by research, would be a man who cheats on his spouse with a colleague, but suspects that his wife is being unfaithful and accuses her of infidelity instead.

Projection is a commonly adopted mechanism that distorts reality from how it is. It externalizes a person's negative qualities or traits on outside forces, which does not necessarily have to be another person. Blame could be directed toward the environment, government, society, or even inanimate objects. For instance, a teenager thinks that his car is embarrassing and projects by believing it is the reason why women will not date him.

It operates on personal and international levels and has been warned against for thousands of years, with Jesus remarking, "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your eye?"

There are three general types of psychological projection:

  1. Neurotic Projection is the most common type of projection where someone attributes feelings, motives, desires, and attitudes they deem unacceptable onto someone else. This type most closely meets the definition of psychological projection.
  2. Complementary Projection occurs when an individual believes that everyone else shares the same opinions and thoughts he or she does. For example, a woman is concerned about climate change, but when she realizes not everyone feels the same way, she is shocked.
  3. Complimentary Projection occurs when someone assumes that other people possess the same skills they do. For example, a talented cook may think that everyone should be able to make the same dishes he can with ease.

Projection does not always have negative effects. Complementary projection gives people a sense of mutuality and helps them relate to others more easily.

It can also be used to connect with people that they want to identify with. An example of this would be attempting to attach yourself to success by projecting onto someone rich and powerful, which often results in the over-idealization of that person.

Because projection occurs on an unconscious level, it is often subtle and therefore not easily identifiable.

Sigmund Freud And Psychological Projection

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The psychological projection was first conceptualized by the Austrian neurologist and "father of psychoanalysis" Sigmund Freud. It was later refined further by his daughter Anna Freud and Karl Abraham.

Freud found that during his sessions, some of his patients would accuse others of behaviors that were evident in themselves. He noticed that his patients were able to deal with their emotions better by acting in this manner.

He believed that if an individual couldn't accept their thoughts, emotions, desires, and feelings (whether negative or positive), they would be unconsciously placed outside of themselves onto someone else. It was a way of rejecting uncomfortable feelings and impulses that may be jealous, angry, or sexual.

Why Do We Project?

Like all other defense mechanisms, projection is a coping technique employed by the fragile ego to protect itself from distressing thoughts and emotions that are difficult to accept or express. People engage in projection regularly, whether consciously or not, particularly when they feel attacked during heated arguments and discussions.

People tend to be more comfortable pointing out the negative parts of others rather than confront it in themselves. At the same time, the human ego wants to believe in and preserve its positive self-image and dignity at all costs. When this is threatened, a person subconsciously goes on the defensive and externalizes negative emotions, so they do not have to deal with it. In this way, the danger is seemingly diverted.

Projection can be learned; if a parent was emotionally unavailable and projected their emotions, the child can mirror that behavior and will learn to suppress certain emotions from their parents to appear good or loveable. Childhood trauma can contribute to the idea that certain emotions are unacceptable, such as sadness or vulnerability.

The people who are most at risk of a project are those who have a poor sense of identity or do not have a well-developed emotional intelligence. They backlog suppressed emotions that they feel ashamed or afraid of. Those with low self-esteem and inferiority complex are also more likely to project as they tend to direct their feelings of worthlessness onto others.

On the other hand, people who can accept their weaknesses and failures are less likely to project. If a person can acknowledge and experience a range of emotions without self-judgment, whether they are positive or negative, they do not feel the need to project.

What Are The Implications Of Projection?

Projection involves a form of disassociation, and in extreme cases, may result in an individual being depleted of their personality. It has been attributed to moral anxiety and paranoia, where the parts of oneself that a person dislikes are projected so that they believe others dislike them too.

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What is more, because projection justifies unacceptable behavior, it has a largely negative effect on relationships and contributes to interpersonal conflicts and challenges.

Most people who project do not have any underlying issues but projection has been proven to be a frequent symptom in mental health concerns such as borderline personality disorder (BPD). Someone struggling with BPD may, for example, have a fear of abandonment and project this by wrongly accusing friends and family of wanting to leave them.

Furthermore, the projection has been widely proven to be present in narcissistic personality disorder. A narcissistic person may say to someone, "You never listen to me and respect me," but does not listen or respect that person in return. Or he may direct blame on his partner, saying that he performed badly at a work presentation because she made him go to the movies with her the previous night.

Empathy and identification are believed to be the reverse forms of projection, where someone 'projects' the perceived emotions and thoughts of others onto themselves.

Examples Of Projection

A woman who is stealing objects from the supermarket fears that her wallet is going to be stolen.

A man constantly talks throughout dinner, but when he is interrupted, blames the other person for wanting attention and being a bad listener.

A woman projects all her hope onto her therapist, hoping that she can fix her.

His feelings of anger threaten a man, so he accuses another person of having hostile thoughts about him and having anger management issues.

A mother pressures her children to be successful when she has not achieved her own goals in life.

A man complains about an 'evil' politician but is not aware of the ways he is unkind or cruel to people in his own life.

An extremely critical woman blatantly points out when others are being critical.

How To Stop Projecting In Your Relationships

Most people do not realize that they are projecting, and because the process involves keeping unwanted parts of themselves out of conscious awareness, it can be tricky to identify.

If you think you are projecting, the good news is that there are things you can do to take that first step toward change. It will not happen overnight, though, and is a process that involves complete transparency with yourself and the full spectrum of your emotions.

The first and most important thing you can do is to recognize when you are engaging in projection. Awareness is the greatest tool for change. Once you start noticing the moments you are criticizing or blaming another person; the defense mechanism automatically starts to weaken.

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Then, you can start to investigate your weaknesses by writing them down. Self-reflection is vital when it comes to dismantling the habit of projection. This does not mean judging yourself or putting yourself down, but viewing yourself with unattached curiosity.

Ask someone you trust and who knows you well if your project. Explain to them that you are trying to understand how you may be jeopardizing your relationships with defense mechanisms. Even though what follows may be hard to hear, this information can help you prevent or reduce occurrences of it happening again-and that is invaluable.

Examine the relationships in your life where there is a significant amount of resentment or negativity. Have you projected your unwanted emotions onto that person? You may find that speaking with a licensed therapist will help you explore those relationships and your inner landscape more authentically. Therapy is one of the best tools for overcoming projection as a psychologist can help you recognize patterns of projection and help you rebuild relationships that may have been damaged by it.

Lastly, remember that having a range of emotions is a sign of a healthy mind. Feelings always serve a purpose, even if they are uncomfortable to experience, and can lead to greater self-awareness and positive change. For example, anger can help you set boundaries, and sadness can reveal what is important to you in life.

The Takeaway

It is natural for your ego to protect you from painful feelings and intense impulses. It is the way defense mechanisms are designed. But when it turns into chronic projection and harms your well-being and relationships, it may be wise to take a close and hard look at your inner 'shadow,' as Carl Jung would say, and learn to accept your rich emotional repertoire as it is. Doing so can improve your self-esteem and relationships and strengthen your emotional self-awareness and resilience.


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