What Is Projection? Psychology, Example, And Application For Your Relationships
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 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:
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.
Complementary Projection occurs when an individual believes that everyone else shares 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.
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?
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
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 an accessible 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. They can meet virtually with a licensed therapist from the privacy of their own home, or any other location with a secure internet connection. 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.
“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.”
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.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is An Example Of Projection In Psychology?
Here's an example of a psychological projection that could happen in a relationship.
Suppose your partner talks and talks when you're trying to tell them something. You usually just let them finish, but this time it's urgent. So, you finally cut in and say, "There's something I have to tell you right now." Then, feeling hurt, your partner begins to talk about how you never give them a chance to speak. Instead of giving you a chance to relay your message, your partner focuses on themselves. In this case, your partner is making an unfair generalization by saying this always happens. But because they're accusing you of something that they themselves are doing in an attempt to boost their ego, it would be considered projection. The projection may be only one part of your communication problems, but it is a significant one.
And here's another example of psychological projection that can happen in a family.
You always wanted to be a ballet star, but now that you've reached maturity, you probably don't have much hope of doing it. Then, you have a child, and you're sure they want to be a dancer. But your child mysteriously keeps getting sick on rehearsal day. After many trips to the doctor with no diagnosis and much frustration, you talk to a family therapist about it. Eventually, your therapist helps you realize that you are projecting your childhood dreams onto your child. This is a type of defensive projection because it keeps you from feeling like your dreams are lost.
However, once you understand that projection is behind your insistence that they want to be a ballet dancer, you can change the way you interact with your child. You can begin to encourage your child to discover the things that make them happy and follow their own path. And, at the same time, you can learn to accept your own reality – whatever that is – and find goals and things to do that make you happy.
How Can You Tell If Someone Is Projecting?
Someone might be using defensive projection on you in a relationship if they do the following things:
Only listen when it suits their needs and desires
Seems to think of you as a substitute for someone from his past
Assumes something that happened before, either with you or even with someone else, will happen again
Overreacts to small disagreements or conflicts
Behaves the same way, no matter whether the argument is major or minor, and no matter what it's about
Talks about their exes too much
Seems detached from you and doesn't allow you to get too close
Accuses you of something that you are not doing, but they are doing it themselves
What Is Projection, According to Freud?
Freud was the first to discuss psychological projection. For Freud, the projection was all about how people cope with thoughts, wants, and emotions they find unacceptable by saying someone else is the one who is thinking, wanting, or feeling those things.
In his later work, Freud began to think that projection happened because whatever you are projecting on the other person is true, but perhaps to a very small degree compared to yourself.
What Is A Projection Defense Mechanism?
Freud was the one who first produced the idea of defense mechanisms, and projection is one of them. Projection is a defense because it pushes your bad feelings or unwanted desires onto the other person.
Some defense mechanisms include:
Identifying with the aggressor
In modern social psychology, reaction formation, projection, displacement, and other defense mechanisms have been questioned. While social psychology studies have shown, some proof for Freud's defense mechanism theories of psychology, reaction formation, projection, isolation, and denial have been better studied than some of the other defense mechanisms.
Projection, displacement, undoing, and other defense mechanisms might occur in normal relationships, but they would probably be more likely to happen in a dysfunctional relationship. So, if you and your partner seem to be engaging in a lot of defensive behavior with each other, it might be a good idea to seek help from a couples therapist. If you see such signs in your behavior – projection or any other defense mechanisms – seeking help is one way to learn how to communicate more directly and support each other in your relationship.
What Is Toxic Projection?
Toxic projection happens when the person projects their thoughts and feelings on you to such an extent that it causes you emotional harm, which can be considered abuse. Someone who displays toxic projection is so intent on avoiding the consequences of their words and behaviors that they blame everything on you, even if they are the one perpetrating the undesirable actions.
If toxic projection is happening in your relationship, you need to address it as soon as possible. If your partner refuses to participate in couples therapy, you can still talk to a therapist for help in coping with the toxic projection.
What Is Narcissistic Projection?
For example, suppose your narcissistic partner cheats on you and projects their guilty feelings about that onto you. They might accuse you of cheating or say they can see you want to cheat on them. This constant scrutiny may make you question your own sense of reality. So, in a way, it can be a form of gaslighting, which is common among narcissists.
What Do You Do If Someone Is Projecting Onto You?
You can do several things when you realize someone is projecting their thoughts and feelings onto you. Here are a few things to try:
Learn to recognize projection when you see it by reading about it or talking to a therapist.
Establish boundaries for what you will and won't accept regarding their words and behavior towards you. State your boundaries clearly.
Avoid being your own worst critic. If someone is projecting on you, avoid agreeing with them, either verbally or in your own thoughts. Remind yourself that you are worthy of better treatment.
Don't be afraid to tell them you disagree.
Tell them you won't take responsibility for what they're accusing you of when they're projecting.
What Is Projection Behavior?
Projection behavior refers to your words and actions when projecting your feelings and thoughts on someone else. For example, if you scream at your partner, asking why they are angry, your behavior might be projecting your own feelings.
On the other hand, it might just be a case of fighting back when you're abused. The best way to tell is to talk to someone trained to recognize both projection and abuse, such as a relationship therapist. If you believe that you are experiencing abuse, you can visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline website or call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).
Is Everything A Projection?
Some people do believe that everything is a projection. If you think that's true, you might have come to that conclusion because you often recognize that you see in others what is true of yourself. And many philosophers agree with that position. After all, you are your true center. Everything you know about the world, you know from your own perspective.
However, others believe that you can not only see yourself in other people, but you can also sometimes discern things about them that are not true of you. Here is an obvious example. If you met a murderer, you would know that they killed people. Does that mean if you say they are a murderer that you have also killed? Certainly not. In fact, you can even recognize their murderous thoughts without ever having thought of doing those things yourself.
Many people find that the best way to think of projection is that it often happens, but not always. Learn to identify it when it does happen so that you can block its formation. Projection, displacement, and other defense mechanisms can be difficult to recognize, cope with, and prevent. However, a psychologist or counselor can help you learn how to do it more successfully.
What Causes A Person To Project?
What Does Projection Mean In Speaking?
What Are Some Examples Of Social Projection?
What Is The Opposite Of Projection?
What Is Projection In Judging Others?
Is Projection A Defense Mechanism?
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