How Does It Work?: Projection Defense Mechanism

By Michael Puskar|Updated August 31, 2022

Projection is a psychological concept identified in the 1890s by Sigmund Freud, a neurologist and psychoanalyst. Freud is referred to as the father of modern psychology. It refers to the process of attributing your unwanted urges to another person. Another form is projective identification, which means that not only do you see your unwanted characteristics in someone else, but that person actually takes on those characteristics because of subtle ways that you have prompted them to do so.


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What Does Projection Mean in Psychology?

 Psychological projection may take different forms, such as:

  • Believing that someone dislikes you because in fact you do not like them;
  • Your parents pressuring you to succeed because they find it difficult to achieve their own goals;
  • Believing that your partner may be cheating because you actually want to cheat on them.

Projection Mechanism

What Is Projection As A Defense Mechanism & How Does It Work?

Think of how a movie theater works. There’s a screen in front of you on which you can see 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 the gist of projection as a defense mechanism as well: as a defense mechanism, projection is when someone casts their flaws and feelings onto someone else. This is separate from splitting defense mechanism.

Say you’re a very jealous person. You are always hovering over your spouse, and you’re afraid you’ll lose them. When confronted about this, you may say that your spouse is the jealous one. This is projection. Most of the time in these situations, we are unaware of what we are doing, as the projection is unconscious. In these cases, we believe that our problem belongs to the other person. Other times, projection can be done on purpose. Politicians, celebrities, and others who have power will use it to distract and not admit fault.

Many of us get defensive when we are criticized. We all want to be self-aware, but some of us struggle to remain self-composed when we feel vulnerable. Projection and using other defense mechanisms, like deflection, are ways we may inadvertently react when we feel threatened by criticism. But what exactly is projection? How does it work? And what can you do, not only to stop projecting yourself, but also to defend yourself against someone who is projecting? Let’s dive in!

Why Can’t We Admit 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 is a sign that you’re honest and willing to learn from your mistakes, while doubling down on your faults or errors makes 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 in a story. We believe that the hero is always good and never wrong, and to be wrong or to admit we have flaws is to be a bad person. However, this is not the case. Think about it: even in a story, a character with no 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 Naturally Defensive

Defensiveness is something that is ingrained in humans. From the time we were in tribes, trying to protect or defend ourselves from other tribes, we have been programmed to defend ourselves.

We Are 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.

We’re Afraid People May Get Mad

Sometimes we fear that in admitting we’re wrong, we’re inviting people to criticize us. This is especially true for public figures. However, if the people around you are upset when you admit you are wrong, they may need to take a look at themselves.

Related to Projecting - Results of Projection

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 bully is insecure and chooses you to torment because they perceive qualities in you that they are uncomfortable with themselves. Their insecurities come out as projection.
  • Victim blaming. If a projector victimizes someone, for example by committing a crime against them, they will 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 Deal with Someone Who Is Projecting

If someone is projecting their emotions onto you, what is the best way to handle the situation? First, you should not listen to what the projector is saying.

Should you confront a projector? That depends. If you believe they are projecting their feelings unconsciously and  are open to change, then 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.

How to Stop Yourself from Projecting

Most people project unconsciously, so working on self-awareness is a good first step to tackling this problem.
Next, think about some recent arguments you’ve had, or even try recording one. Look at what you accuse the other person of. 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 figuring out how you can deal with your psychological issues. For example, if you’re projecting anger onto someone else, you might look into anger management techniques.

Once you are aware that you’re projecting and why, you can make efforts to stop. Here are some suggestions:

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 to change yourself and stop projecting.

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.

Start Becoming Accountable:According to Walter E. Jacobson MD., projection, at its core, is used to avoid taking responsibility. When you take responsibility for your own flaws, projecting behaviors will likely improve.

BetterHelp 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 argue without your emotions flying. When you use an online counselor, you can save travel time and enjoy sessions from the comfort of your own home (or wherever you have an internet connection).

Psychodynamic Therapy Online

Psychodynamic therapy (PDT) is the type of therapy that addresses defense mechanisms, including projection. Research has shown that online PDT (IPDT) is an effective treatment for social anxiety disorder (SAD). Findings showed a large treatment effect for clients with SAD after for a 10-week course of IPDT, as compared to clients who were waitlisted but did not receive treatment. Moreover, improvement continued between termination of therapy and follow-up two years later.

The Benefits of Online Therapy


Do You Want To Better Understand Defensiveness?

As discussed above, psychodynamic therapy, which includes exploring defense mechanisms such as projection, can help with symptoms of social anxiety disorder. But when you are feeling anxious, it can be difficult to attend in-person sessions. This is where online therapy comes in. You can access BetterHelp’s platform from the comfort and privacy of your own home. In addition, online therapy offers lower pricing than in-person therapy because online therapists don’t have to pay for costs like renting an office.BetterHelp’s licensed therapists have helped people own their own behavior and communicate more effectively. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp therapists from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

“Kelly has shown me how to be accountable for my thoughts and how to navigate them in a healthy manner. Though the knowledge was somewhat there she has a way of helping me understand what or why I’m going through what I am. I appreciate all the time we’ve spent together so far and look forward to learning how and being a healthier version of myself through our sessions.”

“Charles has helped me immensely since starting counseling. I have seen my life improve in all aspects as he has helped me through the issues that I have communicating with my love ones.”


By taking an active approach to understanding why we use projection as a defense mechanism, we can take the necessary steps to stop projecting onto other people. Seek help today and learn how to avoid resorting to projection and defense mechanisms.

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