Understanding Projection Psychology

By Nadia Khan

Updated December 18, 2018

Reviewer Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

What Is Projection?

What is projection? According to author Sandler, "projection is a psychological process that involves the attribution of unacceptable thoughts, feelings, traits or behaviors to others that are characteristic of oneself."

In psychological transference, the therapist or another individual who is the object of the transference is perceived as having the same attributes as the individual that the transference is coming from. In contrast, during projection, the rejected aspects of the patient are transferred onto the targeted individual.

Freud first used the concept of projection to explain and address the process of externalizing an individual's feelings. He further defined the concept as a defense mechanism against the internal anxiety that the individual could not otherwise deal with. Freud believed that an individual used it to help protect himself from a perceived threat. He thought an individual might also use it to reduce anxiety and avoid any conflict if possible. Freud thought an individual might also use projection as a defense to reduce the impact of a threatening experience (whether internal or external) by moving it from the conscious to the unconscious realm.

Source: commons.wikimedia.org

Freud also applied this concept to situations involving paranoia and phobias. He thought that a phobia (in this definition, a phobia is an instinctual threat the individual considered authentic) might then be projected onto something external that is real. Once this happened, the threat might be more easily managed. Freud again eventually altered the concept of projection to include the idea that projection is a normal psychological trait. He thought that it influenced the way everybody constructs their inner and outer world.

In psychotherapy today, projection is used as a general term to describe any externalized feelings placed upon another individual. Therapists often purposely use techniques of projection to study a patient's unconscious by examining what is being projected onto others.

Projection Situations

Projection occurs in various settings. Family can often be a major target of an individual's projection. For example, a couple might have issues that result in one or both partners projecting certain aspects of themselves onto the other partner. Because of this common situation, couple's therapy often includes helping partners learn to withdraw their projections.

For instance, a couple has been married for ten years. Jenny wants to leave the marriage because she has grown tired of Fred's accusations of her cheating and flirting with other men. Fred has even been abusive at times during his accusations. However, Fred is convinced that Jenny flirts with other men and goes beyond that even cheating with them. Jenny has never been involved with any other man, but Fred blames their marital problems on Jenny's flirting and cheating.

Fred can't see his destructive behavior in the marriage. He wants to save their relationship and tries to get Jenny to come back and continue the marriage where they left off. Although Fred desperately wants to save the relationship, he attempts to do this through coercion. He is constantly telling Jenny that she is the cause of their problems. He even thinks she needs to ask his forgiveness for all the incidents she has caused that has damaged the relationship.

In this situation described above, Jenny is the recipient or victim of projections by her husband, Fred. Fred cannot look objectively and see his destructive behavior in the marriage. He defends against this lack of awareness by projecting the destructive behavior onto Jenny. In Fred's opinion, Jenny is the one who has destroyed the relationship. This projection is so powerful that without intense therapy and a new understanding of his behavior, there is little hope for Fred to change his behavior in time to save his marriage.

There are also other, less serious types of projection among couples. One partner can disown his or her dependency, aggression, or lack of control and project it onto the other partner. For example, a male partner may project his dependency and needs onto his female partner, who he then criticizes for being needy or too dependent. This then allows him to distance himself from his neediness and dependency on his partner.

Authoritative Projection

Another example of projection is that placed upon an authority figure. The individual may project feelings toward someone who is an authority figure to that individual. The individual then plays out the internal conflict as an external conflict with the authoritative figure.

Projection in Daily Life

Projection occurs in everyday life through secondary type actions. Jokes including those about racism, sexism, and homophobia have underlying issues with projection. Exceptionally strong feelings that are difficult for the individual to handle often result in forms of hatred toward others who are different than they are.

For example, small jokes that target a particular group often invite a response to others to either agree with the projection or to have a disagreement about it. The problem with these seemingly smaller projections is that they may create a culture of acceptance leading to more serious projections that result in oppression of the entire group being targeted. Individuals tend to project upon others what they feel uncomfortable about within themselves.

Part of the reason projection exists in a social setting is to create a group who does not have those undesirable characteristics. Examples might include cliques of girls in school or even adolescent gangs. Both groups project what they reject themselves toward other groups and seek to remain within their group for protection.

Source: commons.wikimedia.org

Projection In Cyberspace

Because of the emergence of the internet and social media, the projection has become a common practice through these avenues too. There are many more opportunities through social media to portray oneself, especially through discussion forums or support groups, as a different person or have a different persona than who they are.

Projection on social media allows for greater exploration and expression than individuals can show in person. For example, people can inject other projection aspects including different sexual orientation, gender, or other personal characteristics.

Projection in A Therapy Setting

Therapy groups provide different opportunities for individuals to observe and work with projection issues. The group itself may be treated as an entity for projection of those disowned states of fear within itself. There are several examples of setting circumstances.

Source: coub.com


A group of individuals is participating in a workshop led by a therapist. The group meets once every two weeks, and then for a two-day workshop once per month. On the second day of the two-day workshop, the therapist notices that the group seems withdrawn and reluctant to interact in the same manner as they had before during the first day.

The therapist asks about what reasons are making it difficult for the group to engage with each other. Several members expressed that they do not feel comfortable or "safe" talking about different subjects within the group. Some members think the group is too big (with nine members), while others express that they feel they don't meet frequently enough to open up and share their feelings. Several individuals trust other individuals in the group, but not the group as a whole. Another individual says that they feel judged by the group as an entirety but does not give exact examples.

This is an example of individuals seeing the group as its entity and are viewing themselves as if they are not a part of the group; more like an outsider. Because of this, their opinions and judgments of their internal issues are projected onto the group as a whole. It is only through more interaction and questioning of who and what situations specifically feel unsafe, that members will begin first to process and address their issues and fears.

In therapy groups, it is common for projection to create a scapegoat for the group. In these cases, group members unconsciously get rid of their feelings of vulnerability, failure, weakness, and aggression by projecting them onto other group members. The scapegoats are often then subjected to ridicule and criticism.

Projection is often an emotional and very intense process for the one who is projecting and should be treated with sensitivity by the therapist. Assisting individuals to realize and then own their projections is usually the goal of the therapy. Therapists are typically nonconfrontational and approach projection in ways that are helpful and supportive of the work the patient hopes to complete in therapy.


During the second meeting of a therapy group, Audrey asked for the door to be left open. The room felt hot and stifling to her. Vicki expressed her disagreement that she didn't feel safe conducting the therapy session, with people walking up and down the hall past the room. Audrey became irritated with this response. The therapist examined the interaction and said that it felt that her needs were unimportant to the group and that Vicki, in particular, had forcefully imposed her will.

The therapist empathized with her feeling unimportant in the group and asked if she had felt this way before. She said yes and had that experience all the time in her family. Her mother was too busy seeing men and involved in the consumption of alcohol to worry about her well-being. The therapist inquired whether it was difficult for her to give her own needs priority in her life. Audrey responded it was impossible given the demands of her full-time job and her children.

This interaction helped Audrey gain insight into the depth of her feelings. However, it still did not minimize the problems caused by her interactions with Vicki. In later sessions, Audrey told Vicki that in her opinion Vicki was highly critical of her.

When Vicki asked about what gave her that impression, Audrey talked about her body language. Vicki wasn't aware of having body language that seemed critical towards Audrey and was lost in her thoughts often when Audrey and others would talk about their feelings. The therapist helped them empathize with the sad and angry feelings that occur when people feel judged.

Similar events occurred during the workshops. During another session, Audrey was working through some personal emotions regarding her family. She chose Vicki to play the role of her aunt. At times, Audrey had lived with her aunt who had been highly critical of her. During the re-enactment, Audrey suddenly realized her problems with Vicki were related to those with her aunt. Vicki reminded her of her aunt, and she never realized it.

For Audrey, these interactions and interventions were necessary to reach this insight about her projections. Audrey internally projected her critics onto Vicki. She had created this critic through her internalization of her highly judgmental aunt who at times had even been emotionally abusive to her. Audrey even projected her self-deprivation, established through her relationship with her mother, onto both Vicki and the group. These projections need to be worked through by exploring where these experiences had occurred before and helped her relate to them. Once the insight is reached, the individual can begin to work on it and create change.


Jenny is in a weekly training group specifically for training and teaching counselors. However, she is quiet, and not very verbally involved during group time. She would like to be focused on more and receive additional attention from the group, especially the trainer. However, Jenny is torn between her feelings of not wanting to take up too much group time, but still having a desire of attention for herself.

Another group member named Tiffany is a lively, extroverted group member. She is always interactive, responsive to the group, and actively engages in dialogues relevant to issues about herself and others in the group. During one particular session, Tiffany requests feedback about herself. Jenny says that she experiences Tiffany as always wanting to be the center of attention. Jenny claims that Tiffany's actions keep her as the center of attention and there is little time left for any others in the group to express their feelings and needs.

This puzzles the trainer, Tiffany, and others because Jenny is not seen as a very active group member, and hardly one who is looking for more attention. The trainer helps Jenny deal with her feelings regarding Tiffany's amount of attention and her actions within the group. Jenny works with the trainer to assert herself more among the group. Once Tiffany is made aware of Jenny's issues, she holds herself back to become less of the center of attention in the group setting.

Projective Identification

Another form of projection is projective identification. Projective identification refers to the unconscious projection of different parts of the self, including experiences, feelings, and functions into and onto another person. Through personal interaction, the recipient is pressured to identify with disowned aspects and behave in certain ways that conform to the ejected feelings and representations.

Projective identification moves beyond transference. The client experiences the therapist in distorted ways based on past relationships, but beyond that, he also exerts pressure so that the therapist begins to experience in himself ways that fit the client's unconscious expectations.

Source: en.wikipedia.org

There are three phases to projective identification:

  1. Phase one includes a wish to get rid of the part of the self that feels threatened. This is usually accompanied by a fantasy of placing that part in another person and then controlling them from within. This creates a blurring of boundaries between self and the other person.
  2. Phase two begins when the individual interacts with the recipient of the projection. The interaction is in ways that exert pressure on the recipient to feel and behave by the fantasy of the projector. This occurs through different interactions between the two.
  3. Phase three is when the recipient experiences himself in ways that are congruent with the projection or projective fantasy. However, because the recipient and the projector are different, their feelings are usually handled differently and hopefully more maturely. It works in that the recipient digests the projection and offers back a different product that is less than what is expected. The projector internalizes interactions with the recipient, but they are now available in some new ways of handling deeply disturbing feelings that had previously been disowned.

Like projection, projective identification is also an unconscious process. In the case of therapy, the projector's unconscious wish is that the therapist will be able to deal with the unwanted experience better than the client and that this new model can then be taught to and used by the client.


Projection and projective identification are both powerful psychological processes that occur in families, couples, and in groups as well as between a patient and a therapist.

Projection occurs when an individual puts forth what they consider unacceptable qualities of themselves toward another person. There is then a distancing or judgment from himself toward the other person. This process works as a defense mechanism. To resolve projection, the therapist must help the patient explore his internal feelings that have caused the projection. Eventually, over time, the therapist helps the client withdraw their projections and own more of it.

Projective identification is a form of projection. The projector not only projects intolerable characteristics onto another but also engages in such a way that the recipient is encouraged to assume those projected qualities. Working with projective identification involves becoming aware of it, containing the projection, and offering a more digested version of it through an explanation back to the client.

Understanding projection and projective identification enables therapists to manage what are often very intense therapeutic situations. An ability to understand projection in your own life can be helpful as you work to resolve problems in relationships.

If you think you need help or if you would like more information about projection, there is help! Go to https://www.betterhelp.com/start/ and let the professionals help you!


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