Understanding Projection Psychology

Updated January 19, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Often referred to as “psychological transference,” psychological projection occurs when an individual displaces negative qualities about themselves (feelings, emotions, actions, traits, etc.) onto a different individual, institution, or object. 

Sigmund Freud first developed this concept to explain and address the process of externalizing an individual's feelings. He further defined the concept of projection as a defense mechanism against internal anxiety that the individual could not otherwise resolve. With 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 use psychological projection to reduce anxiety and avoid conflict if possible. He also speculated that an individual might 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.

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’s especially common in intimate relationships. Because of this common situation, couples therapy often includes helping partners learn to withdraw their projections. For example, someone may project their own issues with dependency onto their partner, whom they then criticize for being needy or too dependent. This projection provides a false defense mechanism for the individual’s neediness and dependency on their partner- and potentially creates problems within the relationship.

Authoritative Projection

Another example is when the projection is placed upon an authority figure. The individual may experience internal difficulty as a result of external conflict with the authoritative figure. For example, bosses are often projected upon because of an employee struggling to manage their workload, showing up late, or missing deadlines. The employee may project their own negative behavior onto their boss because they can’t cope with their feelings about their job. It also deflects attention from the employee’s sub-par performance when the employee claims their boss exhibits the same behavior. 

Projection In Daily Life

Projection occurs in everyday life through actions such as road rage, off-color jokes, and rudeness. Jokes, including those about racism, sexism, and homophobia, often have underlying roots in this projection. Exceptionally strong feelings that are difficult for an individual to process often 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. The problem with these seemingly smaller projections is that they may create a culture of accepting intolerance, leading to more serious projections that result in the oppression of the entire targeted group. Individuals often tend to project upon others what they feel uncomfortable about within themselves.

Projection Online

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

Projection on social media allows for greater exploration and expression than individuals can show in person. The freedom of the internet allows an individual to externalize feelings in a safer setting. For example, a person who identified as LGBT living in a place where their preferences must be hidden due to fear of retaliation may be able to express their true identity on the internet.

Projective Identification

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

Is Projection Complicating Your Relationships?

There Are Three Phases To Projective Identification:

  1. Phase one is 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 by the fantasy of the projector. This occurs through different interactions between the two.
  3. Phase three is 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 realizes their projection, and the subject can reject the fantasy.

In the case of therapy, the unconscious wish is that the therapist will be able to deal with the projection better than the individual and that a new coping skill can then be used by the individual.

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You may have experienced projection in your life, with yourself or others. BetterHelp can help you identify it, and figure out how to manage it. If you're interested in learning more of its impact on your life, counseling, and coping skills, you can speak with a therapist at BetterHelp today.

Online therapy options are emerging now more than ever as effective, viable alternatives to in-person therapy. In fact, internet-based therapies, like those offered by BetterHelp, have been found to be just as effective in treating a broad range of mental health issues as face-to-face therapy. They have participated in all kinds of supervisory activities, including parallel processing, to serve you better, no matter what issue you are struggling with. Therapy is a personal decision, and so is the therapist you choose. Select the right therapist for you-BetterHelp has more than 17,000 to choose from.


Projection from either side is a tough issue, but a therapist can set you on the right path. Help is right around the corner. Take the first step today.

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