What Is Projection Psychology And What Does It Reveal About People?

Updated June 17, 2024by MyTherapist Editorial Team

When you’re arguing with someone, it can be difficult to break through their defenses. People may use a variety of psychological defense mechanisms to avoid feeling uncomfortable emotions, anxiety, and psychological pain. 

You have more than likely met someone who projects when they are angry (or all the time). Maybe you have projected your emotions onto others, as well. Projection is something that everyone will likely do at some point in their lives. In this post, we’ll define projection, explain how it manifests in tense situations, and provide guidance for checking your ego and communicating with someone who engages in projection.

What is projection psychology?

There are many types of psychology out there, including transference psychology, transpersonal psychology, personality psychology, humanistic psychology, and projection psychology. Even though, Wilhelm Wundt is the father of modern psychology, the first modern psychologist to point out projection was Sigmund Freud. He believed that every thought, desire, and feeling could be projected onto another person if one could not accept their own 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. When it comes to projection psychology, the best comparison we can make to projection is to a movie theater. In a theater, you see a big screen, and that is where the movie is playing. The movie comes from a projector located in the back, in a small area. Sometimes, you may not even notice the projector. Imagine the projector as someone trying to cast their flaws onto that screen where other people can see them.

Projection is when someone attributes their own negative (or positive) feelings, flaws, and other quirks onto someone else or another group, and usually onto someone with whom they are having a disagreement. Someone who projects will shift blame to ignore their problems or weaknesses.

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Some people project their own insecurities onto others

What’s an example of projection? Let’s look at jealousy. Say a person is always fearful that 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 might 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.

Why do people project?

The biggest reason, conscious or unconscious, why a person may project is because they have an extremely difficult time admitting 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 can make 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 be vulnerable and admit your imperfections and mistakes. If our identity is forged on the belief that “I must achieve in order to be worthy,” then mistakes can test the verity of that long-held belief, which may have been engrained as early as childhood. With that said, why do some people have a harder time admitting fault? 

We want to align our identity with being good and strong and loved

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 rather, 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, just that they are human. If you can admit that you were wrong, that means that you are strong enough to admit your flaws.

We are naturally hard-wired to be defensive

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 act like you must defend yourself or die. While some people know that they are not in physical danger, others will fight, flee, or freeze.

We associate admitting error with sacrificing our pride 

Someone’s sense of pride often says, “Wait just a minute, there!” 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 if you do admit your errors. However, 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 want everyone to like us (at least, subconsciously)

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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 lambast them. Sometimes, the public goes after a famous person due to its own collective projection. With that said, if people are harsh with you for admitting you were wrong, you should probably associate yourself with more open-minded, accepting people.

There are more reasons why we might 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 unacceptable for certain age groups or genders. However, if everyone could be humble and admit fault, the world would be a lot better.

How can you tell if you’re arguing with someone who is projecting?

There are several nonverbal signals, communication patterns, and behaviors that may indicate a person with whom you are interacting is engaging in projection. Remember that people just don’t project their negative emotions and impulses onto others; in many scenarios, we can project positive attributes to people who represent a certain aspect of our identity (like a presidential candidate) and whom we want to believe embody certain desirable characteristics. Perhaps you have recognized the following exchanges:

  • Refusing to admit fault (i.e., refusing to say, “I’m sorry” or “I was wrong”)
  • Bullying people (projecting their insecurities onto another they perceive as “weaker”) 
  • Engaging in victim-blaming (as in blaming a person who experienced sexual assault for dressing in a provocative manner)
  • Flattering someone in order to get close to them, because that person represents a group to which they want to belong (like a CEO, political figure, or celebrity)

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. According to emotion psychology, most emotions are complex and may influence our actions and behaviors. 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 that’s a good step. 

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. If you know that you are engaging in projection, 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, but that shouldn’t stop you from working on your techniques.

Learn productive coping mechanisms in online therapy

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Some people project their own insecurities onto others

Projecting is a way for us to ignore our flaws. If you’re noticing that you’re projecting and want to change, or help a loved one change, don’t be afraid to speak to a therapist. A mental health counselor can help bring the projecting to the conscious forefront of your mind and teach you how to project less often. In many cases, 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. 

Online therapy may be an appealing option for people seeking support for projection. Often viewed as a more affordable alternative to in-person counseling, online therapy has been showed in numerous studies to be just as effective in treating the symptoms of commonly diagnosed mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and substance use disorders.

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.

People may find online therapy to be empowering because it enables them to book virtual sessions with their therapists at convenient times. There is no need to leave work early or hire a babysitter in order to attain excellent mental health support. You can meet from the comfort of your home, office, or anywhere with a secure internet connection. If you’d like to participate in online therapy with the person you notice is projecting onto you, that’s also a possibility for you to work together with your therapist to move forward.

Takeaway

Many people will likely read this article and think to themselves, “I have definitely projected onto someone at some point. Maybe even recently.” While projection is ultimately not an effective coping mechanism, it does not mean that anything is wrong with you, and it is absolutely something that you can practice in order to replace. There are some cases – such as in borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder – where projection is one of several diagnostic criteria. 

Regardless of why you are interested in learning more about project, the professional, empathetic counselors at MyTherapist are available to offer their guidance and resources. Reach out today to start learning how to manage uncomfortable emotions on empowered terms.

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