Projection is a psychological concept that Sigmund Freud borrowed from neurology to refer to seeing the self in the other. Although projection can be negative or positive, it is often used as a defense mechanism and is associated with attributing your unwanted urges to another person. Recognizing your tendency toward projecting is the first step toward finding new ways to respond and relate to others.
Projection isn’t inherently negative. It can be the basis of warm empathy or cold hatred. Psychological projection may take different forms, such as in the following examples:
Perceiving that someone’s facial expression is indicating that they are sad because you know when you feel sad, you make a similar facial expression
Believing that someone dislikes you because you do not like them
Parents pressuring you to succeed because they find it difficult to achieve their own goals
Believing that your partner may be cheating because you want to cheat on them
How Does Projection Work As A Defense Mechanism?
Think of how a movie theater works. There’s a screen in front of you on which you can watch a film. However, the film is not coming from the screen itself but rather from a projector, which casts images on the screen. This is similar to how we use projection as a defense mechanism, casting our flaws and feelings onto someone else. This is separate from the splitting defense mechanism, in which people split people, things, beliefs, or situations into two extreme, polarized categories, declaring them good or bad with no in-between.
Let’s say you have a tendency to feel jealousy frequently. You may hover constantly over your spouse or feel paranoid that you’ll lose them. If your spouse confronts you about this behavior, you may say that they are the jealous one. This is likely a projection. Most of the time, in these situations, we are unaware of what we are doing, as the projection is largely unconscious. We mistakenly believe that our problem belongs to the other person. Other times, projection is intentional. Politicians, celebrities, and others who have power may wield it to distract and avoid admitting fault.
Besides projecting feelings during an argument, a projector may also do other damaging things, including:
- Bullying: There are many reasons someone may bully you, and projection is one of them. Chances are that the person exhibiting relational aggression is insecure, and they may choose to torment you because they perceive qualities in you that they are uncomfortable with themselves. Their insecurities come out as projections.
- Victim Blaming: If a projector commits a crime or injustice against someone, they may blame the victim. For example, if a projector steals goods from someone’s home, they will say that it is the fault of the victim because they didn’t have enough security.
How To Handle Projection
If someone is projecting their emotions onto you, what is the best way to handle the situation? First, you may want to stop listening to what the projector is saying or physically remove yourself from the conversation.
Should you confront a projector? That depends. If you believe they are projecting their feelings unconsciously and are open to change, then it may help to find a time when they are calm and speak with them about projection. However, if they protest more, it may be a losing battle. You do not want to make yourself vulnerable to being attacked.
Many of us get defensive when we receive criticism. We may want to be self-aware, but some of us struggle to remain self-composed when we feel vulnerable. Projection and other defense mechanisms, like deflection, are ways in which we may inadvertently react when we feel threatened by criticism.
Why Is It So Hard To Admit When We’re Wrong?
To understand projection, you first need to realize why many people have a hard time admitting they are wrong. For some, it may seem silly. Admitting you’re wrong may be associated with an earnest willingness and desire to learn from your mistakes, while doubling down on your faults or errors can make you seem stubborn and unable to be self-aware. However, in part because of our evolution, it is hard to admit when we are wrong.
Most of us picture ourselves as the hero, or protagonist, of our story. We believe that the hero represents good and is never wrong; to be wrong or to admit we have flaws may mean, to some, that they are a “bad” person. However, this is not the case. Think about it—even in a story, a character without flaws is two-dimensional and boring. Also, being wrong doesn’t make you a bad person. It makes you human. Here are some reasons people may have a hard time admitting they are wrong.
We Are Hard-wired To Be Defensive
While a typical day in the twenty-first century does not usually include the same threats that our ancestors encountered (like vicious predators or warring tribes), we still experience the same “fight or flight” response due to a rush of cortisol in the face of situations that cause us to feel vulnerable or anxious.
We May Be Prideful
Most of us have pride and want people to look up to us. It may seem like admitting faults can threaten your sense of pride, as well as your reputation. However, you can have pride and still admit you’re flawed without getting defensive. The people we look up to, including parents and celebrities, all struggle with not getting defensive. In fact, more people may look up to someone who is comfortable admitting when they’re wrong, hearing other people’s opinions, and growing from constructive criticism.
We May Fear Disappointing Others
Sometimes we fear that in admitting we’re wrong, we’re afraid of letting people down. We may want to avoid disappointing others. However, if the people around you are upset when you admit you are wrong, they may need to take a look at themselves.
How To Stop Yourself From Projecting
Most people project unconsciously, so working on self-awareness is a good first step to tackling this problem.
Think about some recent arguments you’ve had. Consider what you accused the other person of doing. Could what you’re saying about them also apply to you? If so, you may be projecting.
By being aware of what you may be projecting, you’re taking the first step toward choosing a healthier coping mechanism. For example, if you’re projecting anger onto someone else, you might investigate anger management techniques.
Once you are aware that you’re projecting and why, you can make efforts to stop. Here are some suggestions:
- Engage in self-reflection: Spend time considering why you tend to behave in certain ways when placed in uncomfortable situations. By understanding why you feel a particular way through a nonjudgmental lens, you can take steps toward being less defensive.
- Talk to others: Have a conversation with someone who is open and understanding—or even better, with someone who has pointed out that you have been projecting. Keep in mind that you will hear things that may make you uncomfortable. Try to keep in mind that someone generally has to care about you significantly in order to tell difficult truths and that taking the time to listen and share honest feelings represents someone who may be in your corner.
- Start taking more accountability for your actions: When you take responsibility for your flaws and mistakes, projecting behaviors will likely improve.
Seeking Counseling Can Help
In addition to the tips provided so far, if you find yourself projecting too much, or if someone significant in your life is projecting, it may help to talk to a counselor. A professional can help you be more mindful and learn how to communicate without becoming reactive.
Online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp can help you save travel time and enjoy sessions from the comfort of your own home (or wherever you have an internet connection). You can even attend a session with someone in your life who has brought concerns to you or with whom you have concerns regarding projection. An online counselor can serve as a nonbiased, fair observer who can help both parties understand how they may be projecting, reacting, or enabling certain negative behaviors.
Psychodynamic therapy (PDT) is one type of therapy that addresses defense mechanisms, including projection. According to a research study of 1080 participants, internet-delivered PDT is a promising treatment alternative to traditional face-to-face therapy, especially for depression.
Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp therapists from people experiencing similar issues.
Frequently Asked Questions About Projection And Defense Mechanisms
What Is An Example Of Using A Projecting Defense Mechanism?
When you use a projecting defense mechanism, it means that you attribute your unwanted feelings, motives, and thoughts to someone else. Defensive projection can appear in different scenarios, including the following:
- If you interrupt someone because you believe they are talking too much, you may in fact be an over-talker
- You may believe that someone dislikes you if you do not like that person
- If someone accuses you of being oversensitive and it doesn’t seem accurate, they may be uncomfortable with their own sensitivity
What Are The Eight Defense Mechanisms In Psychology?
Identified by Sigmund Freud and expanded upon by his daughter, Anna Freud, a defense mechanism is an unconscious mental process by which a person resolves their anxiety about unwanted emotions and urges. Defense mechanisms are normal, and everyone uses them; however, defense mechanisms can be unhealthy if the underlying anxiety is never addressed. The eight common defense mechanisms are explained below:
- Repression: Repression means that the mind inhibits disturbing or threatening emotions and ideas from becoming conscious. Freud believed that repressed memories appeared through slips of the tongue and dreams.
- Projection: Projection causes an individual to attribute unacceptable impulses (such as thoughts, motives, and feelings) onto another person. For example, you may blame your partner for cheating when you have the unconscious desire to cheat.
- Reaction Formation: Reaction formation involves behaving opposite to your true feelings to keep those feelings hidden from others. For example, you may be gushingly complimentary to a cousin whom you dislike. Exaggerated behavior may be a sign of reaction formation.
- Displacement: Displacement refers to the transfer of an unwanted impulse to a less threatening target. For example, you might displace anger toward your boss at work to your partner or children, snapping at them for no reason.
- Sublimation: Sublimation means that you channel unwanted impulses into constructive and socially acceptable behaviors. For example, you may play football when you are angry or sing when you are unhappy.
- Rationalization: Rationalization refers to the use of self-deception to justify behavior that is unacceptable or unwanted. For example, if you are feeling lazy and stay in bed all day, you might attribute that behavior to the fact that it was raining.
- Regression: This is a defense mechanism that occurs when someone is experiencing stress. In a stressful situation, a child might revert to younger behavior, such as a ten-year-old sucking their thumb, or an adult to childlike behavior, such as uncontrollable giggling.
- Denial: Denial means refusing to accept reality. For example, someone in denial might refuse to recognize that their smoking habit could lead to lung cancer.
How Do You Defend Against Projection?
Psychological projection can be harmful if it is directed toward you. You can take the following steps to defend against projection:
- Be conscious of situations that may involve psychological projection: This is an important step because it will help you prepare and defend yourself when projection occurs. If someone accuses you of something that does not sound right to you, think about whether they are actually describing something about themselves.
- Handle the situation with understanding: One way to defend against projection is to recognize what other people are going through with respect to their feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Try to put yourself in their shoes and understand that their psychological projections are merely a defense mechanism to push away unwanted impulses.
- Don't be bothered: This may be difficult sometimes, but it can be a good thing to do. Learn to handle what others say without getting upset, even when what they say is insulting. You can do this by not responding negatively to others’ remarks. This does not mean you need to accept criticism that is not justified but rather, try to keep things in perspective and not lose your temper.
- Maintain a joyful attitude: If your joy is solidly grounded, it will be harder for hurtful projections to penetrate.
What Is An Example of Rationalization?
Rationalization refers to the use of self-deception to justify behavior that is unacceptable or unwanted. It also refers to making up a logical reason for why something disturbing has happened. Examples of this psychological defense mechanism include the following:
- In response to not being promoted at your workplace, you state that you wouldn't have wanted more responsibility anyway.
- You may justify spiteful behavior against your partner by claiming that your partner failed to meet their responsibilities.
- You may justify a natural disaster as God's will.
What Is Projection According To Freud?
Freud was the first person to describe defense mechanisms. He defined projection as one person attributing their unacceptable impulses, such as thoughts, motives, and feelings, to another person. Like many defense mechanisms, the purpose of projection is to avoid the anxiety that comes from having feelings that are unacceptable to oneself. Projected feelings may include jealousy, a tendency to control, or anger.
What Is A Delusional Projection?
Delusional projection refers to a defense mechanism that involves attributing unacceptable thoughts, emotions, and impulses to another source that is not based in reality. For example, a person may project their anxiety about being unemployed by believing in an underground group that takes jobs from people.
How Can You Tell If Someone Is Projecting?
There are several ways to tell if someone may be projecting their own urges onto you:
If someone accuses you of being overreactive when they are clearly upset by something you are saying and you have been calm
When someone blames you for cheating on them when you know or suspect that they have been cheating on you
When someone holds you responsible for starting an argument even though that person actually started it
What Is Projection In Narcissism?
Narcissism is a term in psychoanalytic theory that describes an inflated self-image, a lack of regard for others, and the excessive need for admiration. Sigmund Freud believed that narcissism existed on a continuum from normal to a disorder, depending on both the person’s developmental phase and the extent to which the narcissism occurred. People with narcissistic tendencies derive their sense of self-worth from how they are perceived by others. Because it is too painful for them to acknowledge their own flaws, they may transfer them onto others. For example, a person with narcissistic personality disorder may accuse someone else of being vain or lacking empathy.
Is Deflection A Defense Mechanism?
Deflection is a defense mechanism that involves diverting attention from one’s own negative actions to those of another. Deflection is used to distract from one’s accountability. For example, when it is pointed out that a child broke a glass, they might point to the fact that their sibling spilled a cup of milk.
What Is Identification As A Defense Mechanism?
Identification is a defense mechanism used when you take on the behavior of someone else to avoid anxiety. For example, to avoid rejection and be accepted in a new community, you might imitate the attitudes of your new neighbors. Anna Freud described identification with an aggressor, in which a person takes on the characteristics of someone who is both superior and a threat to them. An example here is a child taking on the traits of someone who bullies them.
What Is An Example Of Repression?
Repression is a psychological projection that involves the mind preventing troubling thoughts, motives, or memories from becoming conscious. Instances of this psychological defense mechanism may include:
- Someone who was bitten by a dog as a child may not remember the bite but may develop a phobia of dogs
- Those who experienced childhood abuse may not remember that they were abused, but it may affect their adult relationships.
- Repressed memories may be expressed in dreams or “Freudian slips,” where you accidentally say a word that represents a memory instead of the word you intended to say
How Do You Interact With People Who Project?
Since projection can get in the way of forming healthy relationships with others, learning how to cope with this defense mechanism can be helpful. Here are some ways you can engage with people who project:
- Be aware of your situation: The first step toward mitigating projection is to recognize it. If someone accuses you of something that does not sound right to you, think about whether they are actually describing something about themselves.
- Do a body assessment: You can sometimes recognize projection by checking the way your body responds to the situation. You may know in your gut that something you are being accused of is not true and something is off. That gut feeling could mean that someone is projecting something of their own onto you.
Is Fantasy A Defense Mechanism?
Fantasy is considered to be one of the psychological defense mechanisms. It involves retreating into the imagination to avoid the pain and frustration of reality. For example, if you are presently struggling at your job, you might imagine becoming a successful executive.
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