Projection is the process of displacing one’s feelings onto a different person, animal, or object. The term is most commonly used to describe defensive projection—attributing one’s own unacceptable urges to another. For example, if someone continuously bullies and ridicules a peer about his insecurities, the bully might be projecting his own struggle with self-esteem onto the other person.
Unconscious discomfort can lead people to attribute unacceptable feelings or impulses to someone else to avoid confronting them. Projection allows the difficult trait to be addressed without the individual fully recognizing it in themselves.
Freud first reported on projection in an 1895 letter, in which he described a patient who tried to avoid confronting her feelings of shame by imagining that her neighbors were gossiping about her instead. Psychologists Carl Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz later argued that projection is also used to protect against the fear of the unknown, sometimes to the projector’s detriment. Within their framework, people project archetypal ideas onto things they don’t understand as part of a natural response to the desire for a more predictable and clearly-patterned world.
More recent research has challenged Freud’s hypothesis that people project to defend their egos. Projecting a threatening trait onto others may be a byproduct of the mechanism that defends the ego, rather than a part of the defense itself. Trying to suppress a thought pushes it to the mental foreground, psychologists have argued, and turns it into a chronically accessible filter through which one views the world.
An example of projection would be the following: A married man who is attracted to a female coworker, but rather than admit this to himself, he might accuse her of flirting with him. Another would be a woman wrestling with the urge to steal, who comes to believe that her neighbors are trying to break into her home.
People tend to project because they have a trait or desire that is too difficult to acknowledge. Rather than confronting it, they cast it away and onto someone else. This functions to preserve their self-esteem, making difficult emotions more tolerable. It’s easier to attack or witness wrongdoing in another person than confront that possibility in one's own behavior. How a person acts toward the target of projection might reflect how they really feel about themselves.
Projection is thought to be an unconscious process that protects the ego from unacceptable thoughts and impulses. Attributing those tendencies to others allows the person to place themselves above and beyond those urges, while still being able to observe them from afar. Although this occurs unconsciously, these patterns can be brought to conscious awareness, especially with the help of a therapist.
Projective identification occurs when the target of projection identifies with and expresses the feelings projected onto them. This represents a deeper stage of the distortions raised by projection, one that often occurs in relationships. For instance, a man could displace his own feelings of frustration towards a distant parent onto a romantic partner, who then withdraws emotionally after an argument.
Projection can occur in a variety of contexts, from an isolated incident with a casual acquaintance to a regular pattern in a romantic relationship. But learning to recognize and respond to projection can help people understand and navigate social conflict.
When your fears or insecurities are provoked, it’s natural to occasionally begin projecting. If you think you might be projecting, the first step is to step away from the conflict. Time away will allow your defensiveness to fade so that you can think about the situation rationally. Then you can 1) Describe the conflict in objective terms 2) Describe the actions that you took and the assumptions you made and 3) Describe the actions the other person took and the assumptions they made in order. These questions can help you explore whether and why you may have been projecting.
If someone has an unusually strong reaction to something you say, or there doesn’t seem to be a reasonable explanation for their reaction, they might be projecting their insecurities onto you. Taking a step back, and determining that their response doesn’t align with your actions, may be a signal projection.
A harmful consequence of continual projection is when the trait becomes incorporated into one’s identity. For example, a father who never built a successful career might tell his son, “You won’t amount to anything” or, “Don’t even bother trying.” He is projecting his own insecurities onto his son, yet his son might internalize that message, believing that he will never be successful.
Although it’s difficult to do so, individuals who experience this can try to remember that the criques are about the other person, and to be confident in who they are outside of that relationship.
A common source of projection in romantic relationships emerges when unconscious feelings toward a parent are projected onto the person’s partner. If the partner then identifies with and expresses the feelings projected onto them, projective identification is at play.
Signs of projective identification in a relationship include having the same fight over and over again, feeling upset with your partner but not knowing why, and confusion about your reaction or your partner’s reaction to a situation. Couples can overcome projective identification by recognizing it, slowing down in conflicts, checking to make sure that they understand each other correctly, and considering couples therapy if needed.
Narcissistic people often resort to projection to protect their self-image. Complaining about how someone else is so “showy” or “always needs attention” is one example of how a narcissist might project. They may also blame others for things that have gone wrong, rather than taking responsibility themselves. As the narcissist projects more shame and criticism onto another person, that individual’s self-doubt often grows, leading to a self-reinforcing cycle.
Setting boundaries can help you respond to projection. Responding with clear statements such as “I disagree” or “I don’t see it that way” can deflect the projection and may prompt the person to reflect or take responsibility. It can also prevent you from internalizing unfair criticism or blame. But if the person continues to project, and seems unable to move forward, it may be necessary to remove yourself from the conversation.
Projection can reveal hidden insecurities or beliefs that are valuable to explore in therapy. It also relates to the phenomenon of transference, in which a patient transfers feelings he or she has toward another important figure in their life onto a therapist. While projection can occur in different contexts, transference is primarily understood through a therapeutic lens. (For more, see Transference.)
While psychodynamic and psychoanalytic therapists are more likely than others to invoke projection as a behavior of note, therapists trained in all modalities are familiar with the construct. Some may discuss a person misattributing or misunderstanding their own biases, without labeling such behavior "projection."
Through their conversations, a therapist may observe that a patient seems to be projecting, either onto the therapist or toward other people in the patient’s life. For example, a therapist might realize that a patient continuously posits that their partner is having an affair, with no evidence. The therapist might explore whether the patient is secure in the relationship or is perhaps the one struggling to remain faithful. Projection can be an opportunity to identify difficult emotions that need to be processed.
If a therapist suspects that a patient is projecting—either onto the therapist or onto other people in the patient’s life—they will likely explore the patient’s reaction. Understanding why the patient is reacting to the therapist with such a strong emotion, or misinterpreting a therapist’s statements, can help reveal underlying relationship challenges that should be discussed and resolved.