Projection in Psychology: Definition, Defense Mechanism

Written by Resurchify | Updated on: January 27, 2023

Projection in Psychology: Definition, Defense Mechanism

The act of attributing undesirable psychological drives and attributes from oneself to others is known as projection.


When projection happens, unwanted impulses that generate psychological conflict are handled by assigning those same impulses to someone else. The impulses in issue have their source in the person, and by projecting them, people are coping with severe anxiety brought on by psychological conflict. Still, none of these things are conscious throughout this process. An illustration would be when one's aggressiveness vanishes from conscious awareness, and someone else is mistakenly thought to be experiencing the same emotions. Another instance is when the sexual desire for someone other than the current relationship is suppressed and mistakenly attributed to the spouse, leading to chronic jealousy without justification.

What Is Projection?

As a kind of self-preservation, psychological projection is attributing one's emotions, goals, or character traits to a different individual, group of people, animal, or object. For instance, projection can be seen in the bully who mocks other kids for weeping but then cries easily. As a form of self-defense, they are projecting their feelings of guilt and weakness for sobbing onto others. Defense mechanisms are all irrational responses to negative feelings and internal conflict. People adopt defensive mechanisms without completely understanding what motivates their conduct to shield themselves from worry and internal discomfort. They enable people to maintain their sense of self and deal with challenges, yet, abuse of defensiveness can become problematic and obstruct normal functioning and interpersonal connections. Of course, not all defense systems that ignore or alter reality are harmful. Projecting, however, is viewed as harmful and maladaptive. It's an avoidance that keeps people from confronting their negative feelings and traits in ways conducive to progress.

Structures of Projection

Some projections appear different. Sometimes the person projects their undesirable traits or feelings onto someone else. In other instances, people blame someone else for their good traits or feelings.

The five types of projection are as follows:

  • Putting one's annoying traits on someone else
  • Putting someone else's good traits above your own
  • Assuming that other individuals have the same values, beliefs, and priorities as you do (i.e., complementary projection)
  • Assuming that others possess the same abilities and skills as you (i.e., complementary projection)
  • Trusting the projection and its effects irrationally (i.e., delusional projection or paranoia)

It's crucial to remember that even if you don't experience projection difficulties yourself, you can find yourself the target of someone else's projection. For instance, someone projecting that unfavorable attribute away from himself would accuse you of laziness.

Projection as a Defense Mechanism?

To prevent unconsciously realizing undesirable features or impulses in oneself, projection is a protective mechanism wherein a person sees those undesirable traits or impulses in someone else. For instance, someone who ridicules someone for anxiety and insecurity may be doing so to avoid admitting they have these traits. Defense mechanism projection frequently alters reality from how it is. It places a person's flaws or undesirable attributes outside of themselves, which need not be other people. Instead, the environment, the government, society, or even inanimate things may be held responsible. For instance, a teenager may project by thinking that ladies avoid him because of his awful automobile.

Three different categories of psychological projection exist:

  1. The most prevalent sort of projection, neurotic projection, involves someone attributing sentiments, motives, wants, and attitudes they find objectionable. This kind matches the psychological projection definition.
  2. This is known as complementary projection when a person thinks everyone else has the same beliefs and thoughts. For instance, a lady worries about climate change but is surprised to learn that not everyone shares her concerns.
  3. Complimentary When someone projects their abilities onto others, projection happens. For instance, a skilled chef can believe that everyone should prepare the same foods so they can play with ease.

Psychological Projection

Psychological projection is a coping strategy people use to deal with challenging sensations or emotions. Psychological projection is transferring unfavorable sentiments or emotions onto another person rather than facing or acknowledging unwelcome emotions. For example, have you ever despised someone and then believed they held a grudge against you? A typical illustration of psychological projection is this. Fortunately, there are techniques you may employ to pinpoint the reasons behind your emotional projection and cease using it as a coping mechanism.

Projections only sometimes result in good things. People have a sense of mutuality and are better able to relate to others thanks to complementary projection. Additionally, it may be utilized to establish connections with others they desire to identify with. An illustration of this would be striving to identify with success by projecting sentiments onto a wealthy or powerful person, frequently leading to an exaggerated idealization of that person. Because it happens subconsciously, projection is frequently undetectable because it is subtle.

History of Projection

Sigmund Freud put forth the concept of defensive mechanisms as part of his psychoanalytic theory. People's unconscious strategies to protect the ego from problematic aspects of themselves that would make them anxious if they were aware of them consciously are known as defensive mechanisms.

The Psychological Projection of Sigmund Freud

As the "father of psychoanalysis," Sigmund Freud and an Austrian neurologist was the first to conceptualize psychological projection. Later, Karl Abraham and his daughter Anna Freud improved it much further. During his sessions, Freud noticed that some of his patients would accuse others of actions they had during their own. He saw that by acting this way, his patients could better manage their emotions. He held that people would instinctively project their ideas, emotions, wants, and feelings, positive or negative, outside of themselves onto someone else if they couldn't accept them. It served as a mechanism for rebuffing uncomfortable emotions and urges, such as those that may be sexual, envious, or furious.

Development Of A Projection

Therefore, until the person develops a conscience throughout middle childhood, projection cannot be employed as a protective strategy. Projection depends on an internalized concept of good and evil. Though projection is founded on a binary concept of good and evil, it is nevertheless regarded as rudimentary. Because of this, studies have shown that children are less likely to utilize projection as a defense mechanism in late adolescence as they begin to use more adult ones, such as identification, which involves internalizing and imitating the conduct of another. According to research, men tend to have higher physical health, job results, and marital happiness when they use more mature protection systems. In contrast, a study of young people found that women who used projection frequently tended to be gregarious, trusting, and undepressed. In contrast, males who used it frequently tended to be suspicious and hyper-alert.

The Implications Of Projection

In severe circumstances, projection can drain a person's personality since it entails a sort of disassociation. In addition, it has been linked to moral anxiety and paranoia, in which a person projects the aspects of themselves they find objectionable such that they assume others feel the same way.

Furthermore, projection damages relationships and fuels interpersonal disputes and difficulties since it rationalizes unwanted behavior.

Though most of those who project does not have any underlying problems, the projection has been a common sign of mental health conditions such as borderline personality disorder (BPD). For instance, people with BPD may project their fear of abandonment by erroneously believing that their friends and family are about to leave them. It has also been generally established that the projection occurs in narcissistic personality disorder. For example, if someone is selfish, they may tell them, "You never listen to me and respect me," yet they won't listen to or respect them back. Or he can blame his spouse, claiming that she had him go to the movies with her the night before, which is why he didn't do well in a business presentation.

However, projection can eventually prove to be destructive because it may sabotage interpersonal interactions and result in problems like bullying, envy, and victim-blaming. The person may also unconsciously imagine a hostile social environment full of people who show the qualities they find most repulsive and are least prepared to address in themselves. Additionally, research has indicated that defensive projection is linked to traits of borderline, narcissistic, histrionic, and psychopathic personality disorders when used often.

Recognising Projection As Emotional Abuse And Distortion

Neither internal nor external projection can attach when we have solid boundaries and self-esteem. We just don't put up with the conduct; not only does it stop, but we also eject the offender from our life. The projection escalates despite our polite complaints, but when our self-esteem and defenses are weaker, we are vulnerable and too afraid to exclude them from our life. Since failing to project the issue may result in it falling back on them, which would give them existential anxiety since it could shatter their fragile ego to pieces, projectors escalate to generate overwhelming pressure to force us to accept their projections.

One of the most crucial components of recognizing projection is recognizing this overpowering escalation; when someone blames us and pressures us to accept the blame with an intensity that seems wholly absurd, it's a surefire indicator they are projecting. We can see why the stakes are so high for the projector and why their fury escalates to such a dramatic degree when it comes to placing blame on us once we comprehend the existential fear that they have regarding total ego destruction. Then, instead of empathizing with their particular attempt to place blame, we may relate to their state as a whole. An essential component of identifying projection is this. Then, we may "love them from a safe distance" and acknowledge that we cannot love them personally.

Self-Acceptance And Compassion As Remedies For Projection

Our negative actions may be acknowledged, and excessive self-shaming can be avoided when we learn to be loving, kind, and patient with ourselves. The ability to reflect on our actions, recognize the causes of the behaviors, and take remedial action is made possible by tender acknowledgment. After that, we may start constructing new, more desired behaviors. Making errors or acting in ways we're not proud of is entirely acceptable and natural. Even blaming others for our mistakes when we are so embarrassed about what we did is acceptable; after all, this is simply another error. The trick is to develop the capacity to recognize these errors in ourselves, to be able to forgive them, to discover strategies to deal with our emotions and to alter unproductive behaviors. It's crucial to avoid having a persistent victim attitude because of internal weakness. Projectors are emotional abusers who perpetually view themselves as victims because they lack the strength to reflect on their behavior and feel empowered to alter their situation. Therefore, if you always feel like the victim, consider your self-worth and ability to influence your situation. If you notice someone acting like the victim all the time, think about if they could be a risky friend who frequently places the blame on you.

Realizing and Overcoming Projection

Given the subconscious nature of defense mechanisms, it might be challenging to identify your protective projection, but it is feasible. Self-reflection comes first. To overcome your insecurities and anxieties, try being honest about what triggers them. Consider the qualities and tendencies you find least appealing in yourself. In order to determine whether you could be projecting any of your self-consciousness onto someone else, try to evaluate your actions objectively. During this investigation, try not to criticize yourself; instead, pay attention and provide an honest assessment without getting too caught up in what you find.

It may be advisable to go through this process alongside a mental health expert because it might be uncomfortable. However, you can be guided through this process and assisted in facing what you discover by a therapist or counselor specially trained in projection and defensive mechanisms. A therapist can also assist you in feeling more at ease with the traits, ideas, and emotions that first led you to project onto other people.

The Effect Of Defense Mechanism Projection

You feel justified in criticizing someone else for possessing such qualities or actions when you project your negative feelings, ideas, or behaviors onto them. Additionally, you feel justified in rejecting them because you believe such characteristics or actions are what they should receive.

  • Projecting makes you feel morally superior to others and improves your self-esteem.
  • Projection, like many defensive strategies, can be beneficial when applied in the short term.
  • When people temporarily conceal brutal realities about themselves, they are better equipped to handle their worries, anxieties, and overwhelm. Because of this, they could keep their self-esteem when losing it would be disastrous.
  • When you assign someone else your bad feelings, ideas, or actions, you feel justified in condemning them for possessing such characteristics or tendencies. You believe that they should be punished for having specific characteristics or habits. Therefore you feel justified in rejecting them.
  • It improves your self-esteem and gives you a chance to feel morally superior to the other person.
  • Similar to many other forms of defense, projection can be helpful when utilized temporarily.
  • When people temporarily conceal unpleasant realities about themselves, they may more effectively manage their fears, worries, and overwhelm. In circumstances when it would be disastrous to have poor self-esteem, this may help them keep it up.
  • Additionally, projection may be the same behavior as gaslighting, which is why it can be quite damaging to relationships.

Financial Effects of Defensive Projection

In terms of money, defensive projection may be both beneficial in the short term and detrimental in the long run. However, employing in the near run can enable you to overcome financial difficulty without losing confidence in yourself.

If you made a poor hiring choice in your business and are currently going through a temporary financial slump, Instead of recognizing that the individual you recruited lacked the qualities required to thrive at the position, it would be more advantageous to convince yourself that they were unqualified. This will provide you the assurance you need to move fast with your next employment choice and avoid getting bogged down.

Defensive projection, however, might be detrimental in the long run. For instance, if you consistently choose high-risk investments that don't yield a profit, If you don't admit that these high-risk investments are what you're doing, you could be tempted to persuade yourself that "the market has to right itself."

Investments aren't benefiting you, and you might need to change your investment strategy.

How to Overcome Projection

Always take stock of your defensive projection before trying to overcome it. Be sincere with yourself about your fears and anxieties. Examine the tendencies and characteristics you possess that you are blaming on others. It might be challenging to cease projecting since the underlying assumptions are frequently subconscious. But that doesn't make it impossible. If your relationships are suffering and you think you may be unintentionally projecting, consider talking to a sympathetic friend or seeking professional help.

Speak with a Comprehensive Person

To overcome projection, it might be beneficial to enlist a supporter. Choose a confidant with whom you feel comfortable sharing your most personal feelings and experiences. Sometimes all it takes to get valuable insights is to go through the dynamics of your relationships, including your behavior and other people's responses. However, there are situations when projections originate from ingrained ideas that are firmly held but hidden under the level of conscious awareness. Because of this, doing so with a specialist's assistance might be more accessible. If talking to a sympathetic friend or loved one isn't enough for you, consider seeing a therapist.

Consult a Therapist

You may learn to recognize patterns of thinking, mood, and behavior, as well as your behaviors, with the assistance of a professional therapist. Your therapist will see patterns and themes and will carefully go through them with you in order to help you become fully aware of your subconscious thoughts, feelings, and actions. You may explore any outstanding concerns. It is helpful to select a therapist who is a good fit and knows to deal with defense mechanisms. Use our directory and therapist finder to locate the best therapist for you.

Raise Your Level of Awareness

You may practice mindfulness and pay close attention to the moment you're in when you work with a therapist, especially during difficult or contentious ones. You may investigate what may be going on inside of you when you catch yourself projecting, including what emotions arise during particular confrontations when these emotions start and whether there is current evidence to support your beliefs in your current relationships.

Pay Attention to How Others Are Responding

Deepening your impressions of how other people respond to your actions, words, and beliefs is critical to awareness. Please make an effort to be receptive to the thoughts and feelings of others, and pay attention when they speak to you. Your previous views are less likely to arise and disrupt your current interactions the more intently you listen.

Calm Your Reactions

You may be more deliberate in your relationships with others once you understand what you're projecting and where your beliefs, words, and actions may come from. During disputes, go more slowly and ensure you and the other person communicate clearly. It could be beneficial to leave an unpleasant talk to give oneself space and time to think about what has happened. Instead of allowing your subconscious memories to form assumptions that distort your perceptions, try to think about your disagreement objectively while searching for specific facts describing what is occurring.

Consider your presumptions, behaviors, and the responses of the other person. This could make it easier for you to recognize when you're projecting and adjust how you interact with people. Practicing active listening, enabling others to express themselves completely, paying attention to what they have to say, and choosing your reaction intentionally rather than responding automatically are all beneficial.


Dealing with projection psychology can be challenging. Because you frequently aren't entirely aware that it's happening, it has a detrimental influence on relationships in mysterious ways. Finding out about old issues that are still bothering you now may be made so much easier by working with a therapist. Then, you can get past your protective mechanisms, such as projection, and live a more purposeful life with happier relationships. The secret to this approach is to refrain from condemning yourself for the characteristics and actions that you might have been judging others for. When going through this process, it's crucial to avoid invoking sentiments of guilt and shame. It might be good to work with a therapist or coach to examine your defensive systems and learn to accept aspects of yourself that you may have previously thought undesirable.

It has to do with how defensive systems are formed. However, suppose projection becomes persistent and negatively affects your relationships and well-being. In that case, it may be prudent to examine your inner "shadow" and develop the ability to accept your wide range of emotions in their current state. Doing this may increase your sense of self-worth, develop your interpersonal connections, and build emotional resilience.





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