Understanding Psychological Projection

Medically reviewed by Majesty Purvis, LCMHC
Updated October 11, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Psychological projection refers to the process of displacing negative qualities about oneself (feelings, emotions, actions, traits, etc.) onto a different individual, institution, or object.

Psychology researcher Sigmund Freud first developed the concept of psychological projection to explain and address the process of externalizing feelings. He further defined the concept of projection as a psychological defense mechanism against internal anxiety that an individual cannot otherwise resolve.

According to the theory of psychological projection, internal feelings are externalized, which means that feelings are brought from the inner world and placed onto something in the external world.

Freud thought an individual might also experience psychological projection to reduce anxiety and avoid conflict if possible. He also speculated that projection might be one of many people’s defense mechanisms against the impact of a threatening experience (whether internal or external) by moving it from the conscious to the unconscious realm.

Freud also applied this concept to situations involving paranoia and phobias by conjecturing that once a phobia is projected onto something external, the threat might be more easily managed.

Is Projection Complicating Your Relationships?

Projection In Relationships

Psychological projection can cause problems in any relationship, but it may be especially common in intimate relationships. For this reason, couples therapy often includes helping partners learn to withdraw their projections. There are many examples of projection, but one may be someone projecting their own challenges with dependency onto their partner, whom they may then criticize for being needy or too dependent. This projection can provide a false defense mechanism for the individual’s own neediness and dependency on their partner and can potentially create problems within the relationship.

Authoritative Projection

Another possible manifestation of projection is when it is placed upon an authority figure. An individual may experience internal difficulty as a result of external conflict with an authoritative figure. For example, some people project onto their bosses their own struggle to manage their workload, their tardiness, or their missed deadlines. Such an employee may project their own behavior onto their boss because they can’t cope with their feelings about their job. This can also deflect attention from the employee’s sub-par performance when the employee claims their boss exhibits the same behavior.

Projection In Daily Life

Projection can occur in everyday life through phenomena such as road rage, off-color jokes, and rudeness. Jokes, including those about racism, sexism, and homophobia, may have underlying roots. Exceptionally strong feelings that are difficult for an individual to process may result in forms of hatred toward others who are different.

For example, small jokes that target a particular group often invite a response for others to either agree or disagree about it. One of the potential concerns with these seemingly smaller projections is that they may create a culture of accepting intolerance, which may lead to more serious projections that result in the oppression of an entire targeted group. Some psychologists posit that individuals may project upon others what they feel uncomfortable about within themselves.


Projective Identification

Another concept in psychoanalytic theory is projective identification. This refers to the unconscious projection of different parts of the self, including experiences, feelings, and functions, onto another person. An individual may experience projection by viewing another person in distorted ways. Furthermore, the individual may exert pressure on the other person so that they begin to experience and view themselves according to those unconscious expectations. This projection can be harmful to both the person projecting and the person being projected upon.

Three Phases Of Projective Identification

Researchers believe there are three phases of projective identification: 

  1. Phase one may be so intense that the individual blurs the boundaries between themselves and their subject. The individual wishes subconsciously to get rid of their negative parts by placing them onto the subject. The individual creates a fantasy of the subject.
  2. Phase two begins when the individual interacts with the subject. The interaction is done in a way that exerts pressure on the recipient to feel and behave according to the fantasy of the projector. This occurs through different interactions between the two.
  3. Phase three occurs when the projection becomes intense enough or lasts long enough that the subject experiences themselves in ways that are similar to the fantasy.

Like projection, projective identification is also an unconscious process. Ideally, it can be handled in a healthy way in which the individual recognizes their projection and the subject can reject the fantasy.

In the case of therapy, the therapist will ideally be able to deal with the projection better than the individual, and the individual will use a new coping skill.

Is Projection Complicating Your Relationships?

Exploring Projection With A Therapist

Projection is a powerful process that can occur in families, couples, and groups, as well as between a therapist and client. A therapist may be able to provide insight into ways in which you may be projecting. If you don’t feel that traditional in-office therapy is right for you, you might try online therapy, which numerous studies have demonstrated to be effective. With an online therapy service like BetterHelp, you can talk to a therapist from the comfort of your own home via audio or video chat. You can also contact your therapist in between sessions via in-app messaging, and they’ll get back to you as soon as they can.

Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors:

Counselor Reviews

"Glenda Velez makes me feel as if she's really hearing me, and helps me clarify my feelings more than I've done in "face to face" situations because I don't feel as if I need to "act" a certain way. I think she's doing an excellent job of enticing me out of my ego and shell. And I'm grateful for that."

"Chris was an excellent counselor who helped guide me through some pretty big life decisions, including but not limited to, making a serious career transition, salvaging friendships, and relationship matters. I highly recommend him as a counselor. He was open, friendly, professional, and relatable."


If you think you may have experienced projection in some area of life, you don’t have to face it on your own. By connecting with a therapist, you may be able to identify it and figure out how to manage it effectively. BetterHelp has a network of more than 25,000 licensed therapists, and you can be matched with a therapist who has knowledge of projection and whatever areas of concern you’re facing. Take the first step toward healing from projection and reach out to BetterHelp today.

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