How Does It Work?: Projection Defense Mechanism

Medically reviewed by Arianna Williams, LPC, CCTP
Updated September 11, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

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.

Is Your Projection Interfering With Your Relationships?

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

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

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.

iStock/Ivan Pantic

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.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Is Your Projection Interfering With Your Relationships?

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 understand why you may use projection as a defense mechanism, you can take the necessary steps to stop projecting onto other people. Talking to an online therapist can be a helpful tool in identifying defense mechanisms and finding healthier coping strategies and responses.

Learn how your defenses may hold you back

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