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Projection: The Great Threat to Intimate Relationships

Part 2: This handy defense can offer us only temporary relief for what ails us.

  • Projection is often learned in childhood and may keep individuals in a state of feeling like helpless victims if left unaddressed.
  • Once someone recognizes their tendency to project things they don't like in themselves onto others, they can work on stopping it.
  • Developing self-confidence, letting go of the past, and establishing a clear identity separate from one's partner are all techniques that can help prevent projection.

Blaming others for reminding us (however accidentally) of our never-healed emotional pain and projecting that pain back onto them is something like taking an anesthetic for physical distress. The painkiller may reduce, or even extinguish, the ache temporarily, but until the wound actually heals, that pain will return.

Alex Green/Pexels
Source: Alex Green/Pexels

So, at best, this ready-made defense offers us only passing relief for what, internally, continues to ail us. And the hidden costs of constantly employing this self-protective device are substantial. Plus, the single most serious longer-term cost is that, similar to other defense mechanisms, it thwarts the maturation and personal growth that are correlated with living a happy, contented life.

In addition, by not summoning the courage to go inside and reflect on the defects we perceive in others as possibly portraying our own shortcomings, we can’t begin to fix them—or at least note it’s high time we accept them.

After all, joyful people are so not simply because they’re multimillionaires, but because they’re unconditionally self-accepting, their inborn limitations no longer hindering them from loving and caring for themselves in a healthy (i.e., non-narcissistic) way.

Whether the psychic wounds we’re afflicted with originated in childhood or from major disappointments, rejections, or betrayals suffered since then, it’s finally our own responsibility to heal them. And that’s tenable only if we’re willing to revisit them—either to forgive ourselves or the person(s) who hurt us.

One central problem with projection is that it makes us feel as though we’re life’s victims. As such, it keeps us from realizing that how we regard ourselves is a matter of choice and far more changeable than, till now, we may have imagined.

Instead, if we self-sabotagingly continue repeating the same toxic behaviors that initially created our ongoing tensions and conflicts—even with those we’re most committed to and would like to feel more securely attached to—our lives will remain static and unfulfilling. Enduring projections will interfere with our developing the insights that would enable us to see others as they really are—versus how others’ earlier projections may have compelled us to see ourselves in a negatively distorted way.

It can hardly be overemphasized that projection is essentially a childhood defense, devised unconsciously to assuage scary feelings of vulnerability. And these feeling states can be terribly destabilizing when we’re young and relatively defenseless against felt assaults on our tenuous self-image.

But what happens to so many of us is that, emotionally, we never truly grow up. Emotional maturity necessitates perceiving others and ourselves as we really are, not wavering in our judgment merely because someone close to us makes a comment or criticism that feels threatening.

Projecting onto others, particularly our intimate partner, everything in ourselves we disapprove of or feel guilty about inevitably impedes our evolution toward genuine self-awareness and the ability to connect authentically to others. So it’s critical to remember that as a defense, displacing our thoughts and feelings in this way is woefully outdated.

Its birth wasn’t as an adult, but as the child you once were when your emotional and intellectual resources weren’t developed anywhere near as much as today.

As regards your present-day relationship, keep in mind that the more stressed and angry you get when (rightly or wrongly) they allude to one of your faults, the more likely you’ll self-righteously project these deficiencies right back onto them—and with an intensity, even a sense of superiority, that makes resolving your differences well-nigh impossible.

And not only is blaming and shaming them for what you’re feeling, thinking, saying, or doing futile, it also prevents you from focusing on yourself. For this is where the answers to your frustrations can be discovered.

That is, when you begin analyzing your own vulnerabilities, you can start to uncover what’s happening to your so-reactive child self, never adequately integrated into your adult being.

So if your partner’s psychic wounds complement your own, ask yourself whether you both may be projecting what neither of you has addressed individually. If you fight incessantly about the same things, chances are, neither of you feels appreciated, understood, or respected by the other. And how could you if you’re similarly attacking your partner for what exists as much from within as without?

The term resentment literally means feeling something over and over, and many couples are infested with this indignant emotion because they’re in repeated, non-constructive combat. And that, regrettably, is what the childhood defense of projection does to us.

But consider as well that if you’re involved in an abusive relationship where the projection isn’t mutual but rigidly one-sided, and all your partner’s negative impulses and traits are unceremoniously dumped on you, it might be wise to consider bidding farewell to such a harmful relationship.

How to Move Beyond Projection to a Clear, Compassionate Understanding of Ourself and Others

Obviously, the first thing you’ll need to do here is to ascertain how much of an issue your defense mechanism of projection has, unawares, been sabotaging you. So ask yourself:

  • Are you easily hurt by the words and actions of others?
  • Do you think your hot buttons might be hotter and quicker to react than others—or might others have suggested this to you?
  • Do you have a habit of blaming others, even at times when, admittedly, the situation is rather ambiguous?
  • Do you daydream of getting even with others you perceive as hurting you, attributing negative motives to them you haven’t actually verified?
  • Is it hard for you to put yourself in another’s shoes? Or have others told you they frequently feel you’re misreading them?
  • Do you emotionally detach from situations in order to assess them more accurately?
  • Have you been told you have problems controlling your anger?
  • Are you especially reactive to individuals who remind you of people in the past with whom you still have unfinished business?
  • When you consider people you particularly dislike or disapprove of, do you ever ask yourself whether you share certain traits with them that you’ve yet to accept in yourself?

If you recognize yourself in these characterizations, here are some things you can do to rectify this self-defeating programming. And mostly, it’s a matter of setting better boundaries between yourself and others.

But to do this, you may need to develop more self-confidence. And although you’ve probably demonstrated much greater self-assurance than you possessed growing up, you may never have given yourself much credit for it.

So consider: Have you ever explored the many things you’ve done because you had to, despite your not being at all convinced you had the capability to do them? Don’t let your failures dominate your thinking here, for many of them likely resulted from things you avoided for fear your efforts would be in vain, and you’d only feel worse for trying.

Once you’ve “updated” your confidence level, here are some important factors to reflect upon, all of which pertain to learning how to separate your essential identity from others. For how you view them as seeing you shouldn’t be identical to how you see yourself since, to whatever degree, their regard for you will depict their own outdated tendencies toward projection:

  • When you were young and hadn’t yet grown into the unique person you are today, how much might you have been conditioned by your parents to take on the identity that they, because of their own never-resolved self-doubts, projected onto you? Talk to that insecure child inside you and help them understand why they can now let go of those aversive thoughts and feelings unfortunately assimilated from their caretakers.

Inform them that their harsh inner critic—which they may have engendered to strengthen their bond with their parents and which, unknowingly, compromised their self-esteem—can now be transformed into something much milder.

Tell them they now live within you, that (for all intents and purposes) you’re now both their parents, that you can and do love them unreservedly, and that you’ll never ever leave them.

And because all these comforting reassurances will take many, many repetitions (cf. the 12-step slogan, “Fake it until you make it”), be sure to meet up with them daily, perhaps with a relatable picture of them on your dresser or nightstand to make your “reunion” as real, as enduring, as possible.

  • Reevaluate your past generally, seeking to understand how you may have interpreted others' thoughts and actions arbitrarily because of unresolved feelings of fear, pain, and shame. This step is simply about bringing a new understanding that can free you from hurts, grudges, and animosities you may still be holding onto.
  • In locating your authentic self, buried somewhere beneath all your projections, ask whether in your present-day relationship you’ve implicitly defined your identity on the basis of your partner’s successes and/or failures, or messages you’ve received from them that may be more about themselves than you.

Projection most often manifests in intimate relationships, so this is where you want to inquire whether, positively or negatively, you’ve been “borrowing” part of your identity from them. No matter how much you may have in common, you still need to be your own person—and they theirs. Enmeshed relationships are codependent relationships and, almost by definition, are emotionally and mentally unhealthy for both of you.

So get clear that genuine intimacy can be achieved only when both of you recognize your projections and consciously set about individuating from one another. For to be truly intimately united, you need to learn first how to be truly separate.

Note: Here’s the link for Part 1—on thorny matters of definition and childhood origins of projection.

© 2021 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.


Clark, M. S. and Von Culin, K. R. (2017). Accuracy and projection in perceptions of partners’ recent emotional experiences: Both minds matter, 17 (2), 196-207.

Franzoso, E. (2020, Jun 01). Could psychological projections be ruining your relationships?

Hoyt, M. (2016, Mar 12). Projection in relationships: Stop it from ruining your connection.

Lamia, M. C. (2010, Apr 09). Rescuing yourself from rescuing relationship (4): Reclaiming your projections.…

Lancer, D. (2019, Mar 10). What to do when your partner uses projection in your relationship.…

Lindberg, S. (2018, Sep 15). Projection in psychology: Definition, defense mechanism . . .

Mathews, A. (2013, Apr 24). Projection and identity.…

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