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What Is Projection?

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. The concept emerged from Sigmund Freud’s work in the 1890s.

Unconscious discomfort can lead people to attribute difficult 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.

For example, a married man who is attracted to a female coworker might accuse her of flirting with him. A woman wrestling with the urge to steal might come to believe that her neighbors are trying to break into her home.

Projection also encompasses projective identification, in which a person displaces an unconscious fantasy or feeling from a prior relationship into a new one. A man could displace his feelings of frustration towards a distant parent onto a romantic partner who emotionally withdraws after an argument, for instance. Unlike defensive projection, projective identification isn’t always related to protecting one’s ego and sense of self-worth.

How the Idea of Projection Has Evolved Over Time

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Sigmund 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. One study proposed that projecting a threatening trait onto others is 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, the psychologists argued, and turns it into a chronically accessible filter through which one views the world.

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