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

Updated February 27, 2024by Regain Editorial Team

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 individuals against negative and unwanted feelings and thoughts.

What Is Psychological Projection?

Projection Can Create Significant Challenges In Relationships

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. 

Projection includes blame-shifting and falsely accusing others of wrongdoing. One particular example of this, which has been proven by research, would entail 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 defense mechanism commonly distorts reality. It externalizes a person’s negative qualities or traits on outside forces, which do 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 why women will not date him.

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. This type most closely meets the definition of psychological projection.

  2. Complementary Projection occurs when an individual believes that everyone else values the same opinions and thoughts they do. For example, a woman is concerned about climate change, but she is shocked when she realizes not everyone feels the same way.

  3. Complimentary Projection occurs when someone assumes that other people possess the same skills they do. For example, a talented cook may think everyone should be able to make the same dishes they can make 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 feelings 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

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

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

He believed that if individuals 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?

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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 confronting the same within themselves. At the same time, the human ego wants to believe in and preserve its positive self-image and dignity at all costs. When the ego is threatened, a person subconsciously goes on the defensive and externalizes negative emotions, so they do not have to cope with them. In this way, the danger is (temporarily) 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 most at risk of developing projection as a commonly deployed coping mechanism are those who have a poor sense of identity or who do not have a well-developed emotional intelligence. They backlog suppressed emotions of which they feel ashamed or afraid. 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 positive or negative, they do not feel the need to project.

What Are The Implications Of Projection?

Projection 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. What is more, because projection justifies unacceptable behavior, it negatively affects relationships and contributes to interpersonal conflicts and challenges.

Most people who project do not have any underlying issues, but projection has been 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 they may direct blame on their partner, saying that they performed badly at a work presentation because they made him go to the movies with them the previous night.

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

Examples Of Projection

Are you still not quite sure if what you’re experiencing in your relationship qualifies as projection? Some of these more specific examples may help you understand what project can look like in its various forms, and how it can lead to challenges in relationships.

  • A person who is stealing objects from the supermarket fears that their wallet is going to be stolen.

  • A person constantly talks throughout dinner, but scrutinizes another person for wanting attention and being a bad listener when they are interrupted.

  • A person projects all their hope onto their therapist, hoping that they can “fix” them.

  • A parent pressures their children to be successful when they have not achieved their own personal goals.

  • A person complains about an ‘evil’ politician but is unkind and cruel to people in their own life.

  • An extremely critical person blatantly points out when others are being critical.

How To Stop Projecting In Your Relationships

Getty/AnnaStills
Projection Can Create Significant Challenges In Relationships

Many 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 criticize or blame another person, the defense mechanism automatically starts to weaken.

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 detached curiosity.

Ask someone you trust and who knows you well if you 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.

Lastly, remember that having the ability to recognize and feel 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.

Seeking Therapy For Projection

As a final piece of guidance, it is worth examining 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. A psychologist can help you recognize projection patterns and help you rebuild relationships that they may have damaged.

Online therapy can be a convenient option for people who want to explore topics like projection, narcissistic personality disorder, and defense mechanisms. Online counselors can provide treatment for mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Studies have shown online therapy’s efficacy in treating people who are living with these conditions, among others.

Through online therapy platforms like Regain, users can schedule therapy sessions at convenient times. If need be, they can even send a text message to their therapist if they need help in the moment. You can read reviews of licensed Regain therapists below.

Counselor Reviews

“Sessions with Natalie are very insightful and give practical advice on implementing new habits and changes. Be prepared to engage and be challenged to think in a different way. I know that my partner and I can already see improvements in our relationship and feel more positive about working through our issues together.”

“Austa has been wonderful thus far. She has helped my partner and I during an unimaginably difficult time... She has also guided us in communicating effectively and setting appropriate boundaries in our relationship. I was hesitant to pursue counseling at the beginning, but I truly believe that it is making a difference for our relationship. Austa is easy to talk to and she is a great listener. I would wholeheartedly recommend her as a counselor.”

Takeaway

When defense mechanisms turn 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. When you’re ready to start naming and replacing your defense mechanisms with empowered choices, you can reach out to a Regain therapist for support.

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