Projection As A Defense Mechanism: How Does It Work?

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated March 5, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Projection can be defined as a psychological concept identified in the 1890s by Sigmund Freud—known by many as a neurologist and psychoanalyst. Freud is often referred to as the father of modern psychology. His definition of projection refers to the process of attributing your unwanted urges to another person. 

Identifying the many possible forms of projection and defense mechanisms can help people remain aware of the behaviors in their lives. They can then strategically avoid the behaviors, choosing instead to mindfully address their daily moments and events as presently as possible. Read on to learn more about what projection is, how it works as a defense mechanism, and how online therapy can help elevate your quality of life.

Is projection interfering with your relationships?

How does projection work as a defense mechanism?

Psychological projection may take different forms, such as the following:

  • 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.

Projection can occur when someone casts their flaws and feelings onto someone else. There can be many examples of this in our daily lives.

Let’s say you have a tendency to feel jealous frequently. When confronted with this hypothetical behavior, you may say that your spouse is the jealous one. This can be an example of projection. 

Most of the time, in these situations, we may be unaware of what we are doing, as the projection can be done subconsciously. Other times, however, projection can be 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 chooses you to torment because they perceive qualities in you with which they are uncomfortable in 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 safety measures.

Why is it so hard to admit when we’re wrong?

To understand projection, you might first need to realize why many people have a hard time admitting they are wrong. 

Most of us might picture ourselves as the hero (or protagonist) of our story. We may 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 isn’t generally the case. 

How to stop yourself from projecting

Most people project subconsciously, so working on self-awareness can be a good first step to tackling this problem.

To begin, you may think about some recent arguments you’ve had. You can then ask yourself: 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 can be better able to determine how you can cope with your urge to project.  

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

  • Engage in self-reflection: To do this, you can spend time considering why you tend to behave in certain ways when placed in uncomfortable situations, by understanding why, in a non-judgmental setting, you can take steps to change yourself and stop projecting.
  • Talk to others: It can be helpful to discuss your urge to project with someone who is open and understanding—or even better, with someone who has noticed that you have been projecting. 
  • Start taking more accountability for your actions: Projection, at its core, can be used to avoid taking responsibility. When you take responsibility for your own flaws, projecting urges and behaviors may decrease.

How online therapy can help

In addition to the tips provided so far, if you find yourself projecting too much it may help to talk to a counselor. A professional can help you be more mindful and learn how to communicate without becoming reactive. 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). 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 act as a nonbiased, supportive, and fair observer who can help both parties understand how they may be projecting, reacting, or enabling certain negative behaviors.

Research has found details that suggest that online PDT (IPDT) can be an effective treatment for social anxiety disorder (SAD). Findings showed a large treatment effect for clients with SAD after a 10-week course of IPDT, as compared to clients who were waitlisted but did not receive treatment. Moreover, improvement continued between the termination of therapy and the follow-up two years later.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Is projection interfering with your relationships?


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. You can seek help today and learn how to avoid resorting to projection and other defense mechanisms. BetterHelp can connect you with an online therapist in your area of need.
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