Understanding Projection Psychology

Updated October 5, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Often referred to as “psychological transference”, psychological projection involves an individual transferring negative qualities about themselves (feelings, emotions, actions, traits, etc.) onto a different individual, institution, or object. Projection allows the individual to take their unwanted feelings and put them into an external threat. Freud first theory used this conceptto explain and address the process of externalizing an individual's feelings. He further defined the concept of projection as a defense mechanism against the internal anxiety that the individual could not otherwise deal with. 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.
Do You Experience A Lot Of Projection In Your Relationships

How Freud Explains Psychological Projection

He thought an individual might also use psychological projection to reduce anxiety and avoid 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.

Freud also applied this concept to situations involving paranoia and phobias. He thought that a phobia might then be projected onto something external that is real. Once this psychological informed projection has occurred, the threat might be more easily managed. He thought that projection influenced the way everybody constructs their inner and outer world. In therapy today, projection is used as a general term to describe any externalized feelings placed upon another individual. 

Projection in Relationships and Between Couples

A couple might have issues from psychological projection 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. One partner can project their aggression, or lack of control, onto the other partner. For example, someone may project their dependency and needs onto their partner, who they then criticize for being needy or too dependent. This projection then allows the individual to distance themselves from their neediness and dependency on their partner.

Authoritative Projection

Another example is when projection is placed upon an authority figure. The individual may experience internal conflict as an external conflict with the authoritative figure. For example, bosses are often projected upon as a result of an employee struggling to manage their workload, showing up late, or missing deadlines. The employee uses projection to place a negative view of their boss because they cannot handle their own negative feelings about their job.

In Daily Life

Projection occurs in everyday life through indirect and unnoticed actions such as road rage, jokes, and rudeness. Jokes, including those about racism, sexism, and homophobia have underlying roots in this projection. Exceptionally strong feelings that are difficult for an individual to handle often result in forms of hatred toward others who are different.
For example, small jokes that target a particular group often invite a response to others to either agree or to have a disagreement 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 group being targeted. Individuals tend to project upon others what they feel uncomfortable about within themselves.

Projection In Cyberspace

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 LGBT must be hidden may be able to express their internal identity on the internet.

Projective Identification

Another form of projection is projective identification. This refers to the unconscious idea of different parts of the self, including experiences, feelings, and functions, into and onto another person. The individual experiences projection by viewing another person in distorted ways. Furthermore, the individual also exerts pressure so that the subject begins to experience and view themselves under the client's unconscious expectations. This projection is very harmful to the individual and the person that is being projected upon.

Do You Experience A Lot Of Projection In 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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