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    What is projection and how to tell whether it’s you or them

    Projection is the act of displacing our thoughts and feelings onto another person, animal, or object.

    Like a mirror, those who project their feelings onto others are (unconsciously) using them as mirrors.

    Essentially, such emotions reveal what is happening inside the person doing the projecting.


    Projection is a term commonly used to describe defensive – projection, where a person assigns their thoughts, ideas and emotions onto others.

    An excellent example of projection is when someone accuses their co-worker of stealing money from the cashiers till, when in reality, they are the ones guilty of theft.

    Defense mechanisms

    The concept of projection first came about from Sigmund Freud’s earliest work on defence mechanisms. Other notable psychologists further expanded such a concept, including Freud’s daughter, Anna Freud.

    Projection theories

    There are several theories about projection emerging from Carl Jung, Marie – Louis Von Franz, and of course, Sigmund Freud.

    Jung argued that people use projection as a defence mechanism to avoid negative feelings, such as a fear of the unknown or as an act of self-protection.

    For example, Jung hypothesized that people project archetypal concepts and ideas onto things they do not understand.

    An unconscious act

    Jung believed that the above is an unconscious act done out of the desire to live in a more orderly, clearly -patterned world. 

    Inherently, humans crave predictability and order to make sense of the world, hence why they often project.

    Protecting the ego

    Modern research has challenged Freud’s original concept around projection in which people project their feelings to protect or defend their ego.

    Some psychologists and researchers argue that projection is a byproduct of the mechanism that protects or defends one’s ego – rather than a component of the defence itself.

    Additionally, repressing our thoughts pushes them into the mental spotlight, where such perceptions become the lens through which a person views the world.

    How projection shows up in everyday life

    How projection shows up in everyday life - White River Manor

    The act of projection might occur as a single event where someone projects how they are feeling onto another person, such as a spouse, sibling, friend or co-worker.

    On the other hand, projection may be a pervasive problem where someone constantly projects onto those around them.

    The above can create many complications in a person’s life, such as social, personal and professional relationships.

    Indeed, projection occurs in numerous ways and a variety of contexts. 

    Therefore, learning to identify and recognize the signs of projection can be an excellent way to improve a person’s self-concept and the quality of their relationships.

    Projection examples

    Broadly, one of the best ways to describe projection is the mirror example above.

    However, we might be feeling in any situation, or whatever concepts or ideas we have about a person or event is often a projection of our inner thoughts, motivations or ideas.


    Another example of projection is when a brother accuses his sister of being selfish for not attending a family gathering. 

    Usually, the brother is guilty of not showing up to family get-togethers, hence the projection.

    Or when a married couple gets invited to a party and the wife accuses the husband of flirting with other women, in reality, the wife is concealing her impulses to flirt with other people.

    Ego protection

    In the above scenarios, the projectors protect their egos by displacing their urges and impulses onto others. 

    A person may be utterly uncomfortable at the concept of having selfish tendencies or a propensity to flirt with others while married.

    Hence, projection is an excellent way to deflect one’s flaws and destructive tendencies while avoiding responsibility.

    Signs that you might be projecting

    It is perfectly natural for humans to have fears and insecurities.

    However, our innate responses to uncomfortable feelings and sensations often lead us to projection.

    Stepping back

    In the instance where you think you might be projecting, a good rule of thumb is to take a step back from the conflict, giving you time to think more clearly.

    By temporarily stepping away from the person or situation, you give your defensiveness adequate time to settle, allowing you to think about the situation more logically.

    Advantages of calling time-out

    Researchers say that when a person suspects they might be projecting, taking a three-pronged approach helps achieve emotional equilibrium, thus, returning to a healthier mental state.

    Key things that a person should consider are:

    • Thinking about the conflict in more objective ways
    • Identifying any actions the person (projector) took and what kind of assumptions they made 
    • Describing the steps that the other party took and the beliefs they made

    When individuals ask themselves the above questions, they can assess the situation rationally and figure out whether or not they might be projecting.

    Projection in romantic relationships

    Projection in romantic relationships - White River Manor

    One of the most common ways that projection manifests in relationships is when one person projects their feelings about a parent onto their partner.

    Projective- identification 

    In the above scenario, where the other person expresses and identifies with the feelings and emotions projected onto them, this is called projective – identification.

    Signs of projective – identification

    The literature suggests several signs of projective – identification a person should look out for in their romantic relationships.

    They include: 

    • A couple having the same argument over and over again
    • Getting confused about the way a partner reacts to your reaction
    • Being angry or upset with your partner and not knowing why

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    How projection plays out in therapy

    Freud and his colleagues had a field day when it came to describing how patients project onto therapists.


    Often, projection reveals a person’s attitudes, beliefs or insecurities in therapy.

    Transference is an integral component in projection and the dynamic between client and therapist.

    Moreover, transference is a phenomenon in which clients transfer their emotions toward another important person in their life to the therapist.

    For example, the therapist is especially attuned to signs of projection and may notice that the client is projecting either onto the therapist or other people in the individual’s life.

    In this instance, a person may believe that others do not like them when, in fact, they are the ones with the issue.

    A therapist will want to explore such interpretations and whether the client is secure in themselves and their relationships.

    Difficult emotions

    Additionally, projection can be an excellent opportunity to identify and address any challenging emotions that need processing and resolving.

    Feelings associated with projection

    Perhaps one of the most helpful descriptions of projection comes from Freud, where he identified projection as a defence mechanism often used to avoid uncomfortable repressed feelings.

    Projected feelings may include:

    • Anger
    • Jealousy 
    • The need to control people or situations

    Freud also reported that projection could occur in the therapeutic relationship between client and therapist where both parties project their feelings and emotions onto each other.

    Therapists must be profoundly attuned to projection and its integral role in therapy to avoid projection from hindering a person’s recovery and understanding of self.

    Types of projection

    Researchers have identified three types of projections. They include:

    • Neurotic projection – involves a person projecting their feelings, attitudes, or motives onto others, especially the kind they find unacceptable in themselves and those around them.
    • Complementary projection – involves a person believing that others think and feel the same way as they do. 
    • Complimentary projection – is when a person believes that others are just as good at something. For example, a pro-footballer might think that everyone is as good at the sport as he is – thus, he projects his talent onto others.

    Projection and mental health 

    Projection and mental health - White River Manor

    Research shows that projection can also be a symptom of certain mental health conditions such as narcissistic and borderline personality disorders, with paranoia being the most pervasive symptom.

    For instance, a person with a borderline personality disorder may fear getting abandoned by those closest to them.

    The above is a classic symptom of borderline personality disorder, yet; the person may project this fear onto others by accusing them of wanting to leave.

    Another example is when a narcissist accuses a person of malicious gossiping when they are the guilty party.

    When an individual enters therapy, they may decide to address and resolve these projections with a mental health specialist.

    By exploring a person’s projections, it is possible to prevent and reduce such occurrences in the future, thus leading to a better quality of life for all. If you want to learn more about the topics covered in this article, contact a specialist at White River Manor today and find out how the team can help.