Acknowledging we have undesirable feelings is sometimes so difficult that we reassign, or project, them onto someone else.
You don’t wake up and decide to project your feelings onto someone.
Psychological projection is usually a subconscious action. Your brain isn’t ready to process what you’re feeling, but it still wants an outside perspective of what’s going on.
Projection is not uncommon. Many people don’t even realize they’re doing it unless someone points it out.
While “projecting” on someone may sound sinister, there are harmless examples of projection in everyday life, too.
Projection is a psychological behavior explored initially and developed by Sigmund Freud.
It can occur when you’re feeling something you might not be mentally ready to deal with, so you deflect it onto someone else.
There are three common types of projection:
- complementary projection: assuming others already share your beliefs
- complimentary projection: assuming others have the same level of ability as you do
- neurotic projection: assigning undesirable emotions or feelings onto someone else
While in Freud’s original theory on projection, the thoughts and feelings you reassign were always inherently negative, this isn’t always the case.
Assuming everyone sees the same green hue as you, for example, is a more harmless form of projection not necessarily linked to an undesired feeling.
When you project onto someone, you may take an emotion you’re feeling — like anger — and say that the other person is actually the angry one.
It’s a way of addressing an experience without fixing the inner conflict.
Yen says he has personally experienced projection during an interaction with someone he knew.
“I found him really obnoxious and attention-seeking, which bothered me,” he says. “Upon deeper reflection, I was projecting my own disgust of seeking attention, and being with him took away the attention that I actually wanted for myself.”
According to Yen, criticizing this person would have made him hypocritical, so the projection was a safer psychological way of expressing his thoughts and feelings.
Not every accusation or reaction is projection.
For example, someone may be accusing you of infidelity based on evidence or rumors and not because they’re secretly harboring their own thoughts of cheating.
According to Freud, feelings being projected are often:
When these feelings are projected onto you, they can come as a surprise because they’re often unwarranted.
Try to be on the lookout for extreme reactions without reasonable cause or explanation.
The old saying “the punishment must fit the crime” can be a good standard to use when evaluating if someone may be projecting onto you.
Projection is a psychological defense mechanism.
Defense mechanisms help prevent you from feeling stress, mainly related to inner conflict. They buffer you against things that might hurt your sense of self.
Projection falls into the same category as self-preservation processes like denial or dissociation.
According to Yen, projection is seen most commonly in relationships. It can manifest as traits that would bother you, seen in your partner.
“I’ve heard it said that being married or in a long-term relationship is like looking at oneself in a mirror and seeing our real selves,” he explains. “By spending so much time with another person, we may start to see our own flaws in the other person.”
One of the most common relationship examples of projection is that of unfaithfulness. The partner who is unfaithful or has unfaithful thoughts may accuse the other partner of infidelity.
Projection in a relationship can happen in other ways, too.
You might make decisions without consulting your partner because you think they share your opinion. For example, you might buy an orange lamp because you thought your partner loved orange. But that’s your favorite color. Their favorite color might be purple.
But you projected your preferences onto them.
Projection can occur with no underlying mental health condition. It can be the result of a stressful day or current life choices.
Sometimes, however, projection can be a sign of something more.
Projection and paranoia can sometimes be linked in mental health. Paranoia is a form of projection where an irrational mistrust of others may cause someone to view innocent people as threats.
Projection may also be seen as a trait in other mental health conditions, particularly personality disorders.
“Like with any defense mechanism, stopping projection requires self-awareness that it is occurring in the first place,” says Yen.
Because most people project without realizing it, recognizing the signs can be an essential part of breaking the behavior cycle.
According to Yen, one of the most significant tell-tale signs is the presence of strong feelings toward another person.
Are you feeling unreasonably angry toward someone? Is there a co-worker at the office you don’t like to be around? Do you feel heavy anxiety about bumping into your neighbor at the mailbox?
When you feel strongly toward another person, Yen recommends taking a step back and evaluating your response.
Is it something about them that bothers you, or something about you that you’re seeing in that person?
“When we’re able to see the issue that we’re projecting,” he notes, “then we can find a healthier way to address it.”
You may be able to help decrease everyday projection through self-reflection processes like mindfulness.
Mindfulness teaches you to be aware of your thoughts without judgment. It can help slow down those gut reactions that may lead to projection.
Projection is a mental defense mechanism that pushes your feelings, thoughts, and emotions onto those around you.
Some projections can be harmless, but some projections can cause lasting damage to relationships.
If you think you may be experiencing projection that’s impairing your daily life, consider reaching out to a mental health professional. They can work with you to determine whether there’s something else going on and come up with a plan to move forward.