What Is The Projection Defense Mechanism And How It Works  

By Michael Puskar

Updated March 20, 2020

Reviewer Aaron Dutil

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 is one way 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!

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What Is the Projection Defense Mechanism?

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.

Say you're a very jealous person. You are always hovering over your spouse, and you're afraid that 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.

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, it is likely some by-product of our evolution that makes it hard to admit when we are wrong. Here are some reasons people may have a hard time doing so.

Most of us picture ourselves as the hero in a story. To us, the hero is always a good guy and is never wrong. 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.

We Are Naturally 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 defend.

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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 and your reputation. However, you can have pride and still admit you're flawed. The people we look up to, including parents and celebrities, have all sorts of problems.

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, then they may need to take a look at themselves.

Related to Projecting

Besides projecting feelings during an argument, a projector may also do other damaging things, including:

  • Bullying. There are many reasons why someone may bully you, and projection is one of them. Chances are, the bully is insecure and chooses you to torment because they perceive their own flaws in you.
  • Victim blaming. If someone is the victim of a crime, the projector may blame the victim. For example, if they had their goods stolen, the projector may say that it's their fault that 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. If the projector manages to make you believe that you're the flawed one, then they win.

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Ask A Professional. Chat With A Licensed Counselor Online Now.

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Should you confront a projector? That depends. If they are projecting their feelings unconsciously and want to change, find a time when they are calm and speak with them about projection. However, if they protest more, then perhaps you're not the right person to be dealing with them. Odds are, you are not a professional. You may end up doing more harm than good.

How to Stop Yourself from Projecting

Most people project unconsciously, so working on self-awareness is a good first step to tackle this problem.

Next, think about all the arguments you've had, or even try recording one. Look at what you accuse the other person of. Could what you're saying also apply to you? If so, you may be projecting.

By being aware of the feelings you're projecting, you're taking the first step toward figuring out how you can deal with your flaws. For example, if you're projecting anger onto someone else, maybe you should look into anger management techniques.

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

Self-Reflection: Spend time considering why you a tendency 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-even better, 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 accept that you are at fault, taking accountability 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 be helpful 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). Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors 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!

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