Learn to recognize projection, a common psychological defense mechanism, in different life scenarios.
Projection is stating that other people have certain traits or characteristics, or engage in certain behaviors, when you yourself are actually the person who acts or engages that way (Freud, 1956; Holmes, 1978).
How do we end up projecting our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors onto other people? It was Sigmund Freud (1956) who first described the cause of projection. He proposed that projection unfolds as follows:
First, you may notice a thought, feeling, or action that doesn’t align with your perceived values. For example, you might be eating more dessert than planned, which could go against your values of healthy eating and self-care. This insight could make you uncomfortable and instead of accepting that you’re doing something you don’t like, you would try to find somebody else to point to and say that they are engaged in unhealthy eating.
In this way, you are trying to deal with a situation that has thrown your self-concept, or emotional equilibrium, off-balance (Vaillant, 2011). Your brain has determined that it will take less effort to blame somebody else for this behavior than deal with the negative emotions that may come up. Simply put, that’s a shorter, easier path to feeling better and moving on from this uncomfortable realization.
Projection is a Defense Mechanism
Projection is generally thought of as a classic defense mechanism (Freud, 1956). Defense mechanisms are psychological actions that (1) reduce the distress of negative emotions or cognitive dissonance, (2) aren’t apparent to the person doing them, but are often obvious to anybody observing that person, and (3) can be adaptive, but often contribute to mental health challenges (Vaillant, 1977).
As you can probably see by now, projecting something negative onto somebody else can reduce the negative feelings that come with associating that negative thing with the self (Holmes, 1978). In this way, projection is clearly a defense mechanism – it defends the self from having to accept something undesirable.
Projection can be very common in interpersonal relationships. Couples are particularly likely to engage in projection because their relationships are so complex and involve both positive and negative feelings (Klein, 1964).
To make that more concrete, Klein (1964) points out that our romantic partners are people that we love, but sometimes dislike or even hate, and the tension between these feelings can be quite difficult for many of us to endure. Instead of accepting the negative thoughts and feelings we have about our partners, we may instead project those negative feelings into them, making them the bad guys instead of us.
As you might imagine, this might take care of the initial issue – unconscious anxiety about disliking a partner – but it then creates unnecessary conflict in the relationship (Cohen & Levite, 2012). Much of couples therapy revolves around helping partners identify and change these patterns in their relationship.
You may be thinking, “if this is an unconscious behavior, how does anybody change it?” I have two suggestions for people interested in reducing the extent of their own habits of projection:
1. Be open to feedback. Our emotions and thoughts often hold powerful sway over us. If you find yourself insisting that somebody else feels a certain way or did a certain thing, and they honestly disagree with you, consider whether you yourself are actually doing or feeling that way.
2. Consider seeing a therapist. Therapists have been trained to watch for patterns of thinking and feeling where the evidence doesn’t quite add up. They can be helpful in gently challenging you to consider moments where you may be projecting onto others.
Cohen, O., & Levite, Z. (2012). High‐conflict divorced couples: combining systemic and psychodynamic perspectives. Journal of Family Therapy, 34(4), 387-402.
Freud, S. (1956). Collected papers of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 1. London: Hogarth Press.
Holmes, D. S. (1978). Projection as a defense mechanism. Psychological Bulletin, 85(4), 677.
Klein, M. (1964). Contribution to Psychoanalysis. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Vaillant, G. E. (1977). Adaptation to Life. Boston, MA: Little Brown.
Vaillant, G. E. (2011). Involuntary coping mechanisms: a psychodynamic perspective. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 13(3), 366-370.