When you’re arguing with someone, it can be difficult to break through their defenses. One technique they may be using is projection. You have more than likely met someone who projects when they are angry or all the time. You have probably done it as well. Projection is something everything does. In this post, we’ll explain what projection is, how you can argue against someone who is projecting, and how to check your projection.
What Is Projection Psychology?
The best comparison we can make to projection is a movie theater. In a theater, you see a big screen, and that’s where you see the movie. The movie comes from a projector, locating in the back, in a small area. Sometimes, you may not even notice the projector. Please think of the projector as someone trying to cast their flaws onto that screen where other people see it.
Projection is when someone tries putting their feelings, flaws, and other quirks towards someone else, usually someone they argue with. Someone who projects will shift the blame to ignore their problems.
What’s an example of projection? Let’s look at jealousy. Say a person is always jealous they’ll lose their spouse, and they constantly cling to them and watch their every move. One day, the spouse confronts them about their clinginess. The projecting person will call the spouse jealous for an irrelevant reason. Projecting jealousy onto the spouse is an obvious defense tactic for someone who knows about projection, but you may believe the other person if you aren’t familiar with projection.
Projection can be made on an unconscious level, but other times, it’s done deliberately as a defense tactic. A politician, for example, will use projection to distract from their flaws and shift the blame.
History Of Projection
The first modern psychologist to point out projection was Freud. He believed that every thought, desire, and feeling could be projected to another person if you could not accept their reality.
The concept of projection has been constantly revised since it was first discovered. Everyone has their theory of projection, but the gist is that people will use projection to shift the blame.
Why Do People Project?
The biggest reason, conscious or unconscious, that a person project is that they can’t admit they were wrong about something. For some, the idea of admitting you were wrong is an honest one. It’s a sign you are willing to grow and learn from your past mistakes. If someone doubles down and shifts the blame, it makes them seem like they are stubborn.
Humans tend to have a hard time admitting fault. No matter who you are, it takes some courage to shatter your ego and admit your mistakes. With that said, why do some people have a harder time admitting fault? Here are a few ideas.
The Belief You’re A Bad Person If You Are In the Wrong
Many people see themselves as the hero, and if the hero has a flaw or admits they were wrong, they are no longer the hero but the villain. This is a binary view that is skewed the more you think about it. Many heroes have flaws, and a good hero is willing to correct themselves should they have a flaw. Sometimes, even the best people make mistakes. That doesn’t mean they are bad, but instead, simply human. If you can admit that you were wrong, that means that you are strong enough to admit your flaws.
Defense Comes Naturally
Defending yourself is an emotion that is embedded in our minds. We used to be part of tribes that would defend each other, and our mind still behaves in ways that shield us from danger. Whenever you’re confronted, your mind thinks you’re in danger, and you must defend yourself or die. While some people know that they are not in physical danger, others will fight, flight, fawn, or freeze.
We Have Pride
Someone’s sense of pride comes before wanting to admit they were wrong, which is a challenge for many. You may think that admitting you were wrong means sacrificing your pride, and you may think that people will dislike you. But being prideful can sometimes mean that you admit you were wrong. The people who we look up to have their problems as well, so admitting fault isn’t a bad thing.
We Don’t Want People To Get Mad At Us
In some situations, admitting fault means that people are going to criticize us harshly. This especially applies to a famous person. If a celebrity or politician admits they were wrong, the public tends to go after them. Sometimes, the public goes after a famous person due to the projection of their own. With that said, if people are harsh with you for admitting you were wrong, you should probably see new people.
There are more reasons why we get defensive. Humans have many motivations, both unconscious and conscious. Sometimes, we may be defensive because of our society, where it seems that admitting you were wrong is the end of the world. However, if everyone could be humble and admit fault, the world would be a lot better.
A person who projects may use other techniques not to admit fault. Here is a list of projection techniques that you may find people using against you.
The projector may use other tactics to seem honest. This is just a small sample of what they may do.
Fighting Back Against Projection
Let’s first talk about what you should do if you’re the person who is projecting. Self-awareness is the first step to stop. The projection may come unconsciously, and if there is self-awareness, you can take steps to fix it.
Awareness is a good first step to stop projecting. You can then learn how to cope with your arguments by speaking to a professional or changing them with time. You won’t change them overnight, and that shouldn’t stop you from working on your techniques.
Arguing With A Projector
How does one argue with someone who is a projector? Do they tell them about their projection, and the projector realizes it? Probably not.
The best approach to confronting a projecting person is after the argument. During an argument, emotions fly high, and the person will probably not listen. Once the argument is over and there are cooler heads, talk to them about it. If they see their flaws and they want to improve, then good job. Don’t feel like you are obligated to change a person. Unless you are a professional, you may not be able to. Instead, the person projecting needs to talk to a professional to live a better life without projection.
Projecting is a way for you to ignore your flaws. If you’re noticing you’re projecting and want to change, or help a loved one change, don’t be afraid to speak to a therapist. A therapist can help bring the projecting to the conscious forefront of your mind and teach you how to project less. Often, the projecting is unconscious. A therapist can teach a person how to be more mindful during a conversation and teach them ways to explain their points without projecting. Then, they can improve on the flaws they find themselves projecting onto others. There are many ways to treat projecting so you can stop projecting and start improving.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What is an example of projecting in psychology?
Psychological projection is any behavior in which someone asserts that someone else has beliefs, behaviors, problems, or insecurities that they themselves have. This includes complementary projection, in which people assume that others “complement” their way of thinking (e.g., share certain viewpoints or attitudes), and complimentary projection, in which they assume that others have the same skills they do (e.g., that everyone can drive a car).
Sometimes, projection can be toxic. For example, some public figures who expressed homophobic opinions or voted against gay rights later admitted to struggling with their sexual orientations. They picked up on negative attitudes about homosexuality projected onto them, and they internalized that negativity. Over time, these negative feelings welled up and caused them to fight against homosexuality publicly. This is an example of projective identification.
One of the most common types of projecting is when someone accuses others of being angry or a bully. This can be a way to deflect attention from that person’s own feelings of anger and their guilt over having those feelings.
However, psychological projecting is not always this cut-and-dry. Complimentary projecting is very common and can lead to relationship issues when people assume that everyone around them shares the same skills, talents, and knowledge they do.
How can you tell if someone is projecting?
Common signs of psychological projection include unprovoked or exaggerated statements about other people. People who project may claim to know what someone else is thinking or feeling, or they may accuse them of poor behavior. If a person’s statements don’t add up, or if they seem to whip out accusations whenever they are uncomfortable, they may be projecting. Another tell-tale sign is when you talk to someone about their behavior or thoughts, and they immediately re-direct the conversation to you or another person.
Is projection a sign of mental illness?
Yes and no. While psychological projection itself is not a mental illness, people experiencing depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and/or codependency may struggle to cope with negative feelings or perceive criticism. This can lead to projection as a defense mechanism to deflect those uncomfortable feelings rather than process them healthily. These people are also more susceptible to projective identification, in which they internalize feelings that are projected onto them. For example, someone who feels overweight may project their anger onto a friend who has low self-esteem. The first person feels better after the project, but now the friend with low self-esteem feels fat.
Of course, projection is also a natural occurrence. It partly stems from our assumptions as we relate to others. For example, complementary projection happens when you assume that other people feel the same way you do, and complimentary projection is when you assume they can do things as well as you can. These types of psychological projections aren’t necessarily harmful, although they can lead to confirmation bias (e.g., you don’t see others’ viewpoints because you assume they’re thinking the way you are).
What is the difference between transference and projection?
Technically, psychological projection is a natural result of egocentric bias. We all tend to assume that other people have similar thoughts and feelings to us. This concept of projection is called social projection, and it’s the basis of projection behavior that can be problematic.
Transference is a bit more nuanced. When your feelings about one person are subconsciously shifted to another person, especially if that person holds a similar role to the original person, for example, after you move away from home and get your first job, you may see your boss's mannerisms that remind you of your father. The psychological projection may happen if you have unresolved feelings toward your father that you act upon toward your boss.
What is toxic projection?
Most types of projection, while frustrating, are relatively benign. People project when they feel stressed. In the workplace, someone may project their insecurities onto a coworker. Couples may quarrel over household chores, each partner projecting their annoyances onto the other. These situations can often be resolved by good communication. But in some cases, projection behavior becomes toxic and potentially abusive.
For example, in emotional abuse, psychological projection and gaslighting often go hand-in-hand. The abuser will deflect their problems and flaws onto the victim, then create situations to justify that deflection. One classic example is the woman who complains that her husband is distant and forgetful. In response, he turns on the lamp after she’s already turned it off, then accuses her of being forgetful and nearly burning the house down. After he repeats this behavior, she begins to doubt her sanity. This is projective identification in action: eventually, the victim feels full responsibility for the projected feelings from their abuser. Toxic projection creates a powerful sense of self-blame in the victim, while the abuser gets to absolve themselves of responsibility.
What is projection in narcissism?
People with narcissistic tendencies tend to project differently than many other people. In the narcissist’s mind, any criticism is unacceptable. Any mentions of their flaws or poor behavior cause a cognitive dissonance that runs counter to a narcissist’s exaggerated self-image and feelings of power. Rather than admit any problems or weaknesses, they redirect the conversation to someone else.
Many narcissists also feel an overpowering need to control other people. This is not necessarily malicious but rather a side effect of their deep-seated sense of superiority. Psychological projection can be an effective tool for manipulating a social situation. For example, a narcissist may respond to someone’s complaint about their behavior by deflecting the accusation onto them. This makes the other person feel uncomfortable and defensive, while the narcissist feels relief because they no longer have that cognitive dissonance.
What to do when someone is projecting onto you?
Remember, the primary goal of psychological projection is to shift the focus to someone else. So as soon as you take that bait, the projector has successfully avoided taking responsibility for their negative thoughts or behavior. The best way forward is with compassion, not defensiveness. If you’re trying to talk to a loved one about your concerns, do not let them redirect the topic to your flaws. Ask constructive questions to help them identify their projected feelings. Never respond to their accusations with more accusations.
If a stranger is projecting onto you, it is best to disengage from their behavior. The projection reflects their issues more than yours.
Why do I project my feelings on others?
Psychological projection is often a subconscious activity. When you’re projecting, your mind is trying to protect itself from perceived harm. People project to deflect that threat away from themselves. So if you harbor negative feelings toward yourself, struggle with feelings of inferiority, or are guilty about something you’ve done, you may find it easier to identify that behavior in other people — even if they are not doing it. This is a defense mechanism meant to protect your reputation and prevent you from feeling slighted, stupid, or powerless. However, it can lead you to cause projective identification, in which someone else is left feeling bad or prevent you from processing your feelings healthily.