Deep in the recesses of our minds lurk many thoughts and feelings that we’d like to deny ever having.
These desires and impulses are so offensive to the conscious part of the mind that it launches various psychological defense mechanisms to keep them out.
One way it does this is by projecting these feelings onto other people (for the most part, but also onto events and objects) in an attempt to externalize the problem.
What does this mean? Well, let’s begin with a simple definition:
Psychological projection is a defense mechanism that occurs when a conflict arises between your unconscious feelings and your conscious beliefs. In order to subdue this conflict, you attribute these feelings to someone or something else.
In other words, you transfer ownership of these troubling feelings to some external source.
You effectively trick yourself into believing that these undesirable qualities actually belong elsewhere – anywhere but as a part of you.
This approach, Freud theorized, is a way for our minds to deal with aspects of our character that we considered to be flawed.
Rather than admit to the flaw, we find a way to address it in a situation where it is free from personal connotations.
By projecting these flaws, we can avoid having to consciously identify them, take ownership of them, and deal with them.
Projecting emotions onto others is something we all do to some degree, and it has some psychological value, but as we’ll discuss later, it also has its drawbacks.
There’s no end to the types of feelings we can project onto others. Whenever any internal conflict arises, there is always the temptation (though unconscious) to shift the troubling feeling elsewhere.
The more upsetting we find the feeling, the greater the impulse to project it onto someone else.
But let’s look at some clear examples to help explain the idea. Here are 8 of the most common examples of projection:
1. Attraction To And Arousal By Someone Other Than Your Partner
The classic example often used to explain projection psychology is that of the husband or wife who feels a strong sense of attraction to a third person.
Their inner values tell them that this is unacceptable, so they project these feelings onto their spouse and accuse them of being unfaithful.
This blame is actually a mechanism of denial so that they do not have to deal with, or feel guilty about, their own wandering desires.
This sort of projection in relationships can put a great deal of stress and strain on things.
After all, the innocent party is being accused of something they haven’t done. They will quite rightly defend themselves, often quite adamantly.
Before long, you’ve got a breeding ground of mistrust, poor communication, and doubt.
2. Body Image Issues
When you look in the mirror and regard your reflection as in some way imperfect, you might choose to overlook these so-called flaws by taking every opportunity to spot them in others.
Proclaiming someone else to be overweight, ugly, or to have some other unappealing physical attribute is most likely to occur when you have deep-seated image issues yourself.
Projection allows you to take the loathing you may have for your looks and distance yourself from it by focusing it on other people.
You may also project behaviors that you are uncomfortable with onto others.
For example, you may criticize someone for being greedy at the dinner table, or for wearing unflattering clothing in order to hide your own insecurities regarding these things.
3. Disliking Someone
When we are young, we tend to get along with everyone, and this desire remains a part of us as we grow older.
With this in mind, it should come as no surprise to learn that when we find ourselves disliking someone, we seek to project this feeling onto them so that we may justify our own less than friendly behavior.
To put it another way, if you dislike Joe, but are not willing to consciously admit to this, you might convince yourself that it is Joe who doesn’t like you.
This protects you against feeling bad for disliking someone, no matter what your reasons are.
Because let’s face it, if you had to really say why you disliked Joe (perhaps he is charming and you are not, or maybe he has a successful career and you’re unfulfilled in yours), you’d come face to face with qualities that you don’t want to admit exist in you.
4. Insecurity And Vulnerability
When we feel insecure about some aspect of ourselves (such as the body image discussed above), we seek out ways to identify some insecurity in other people.
This is often the case with bullying behavior where the bully will target the insecurities of others in order to avoid dealing with his/her own concerns.
This is why they will look for the most vulnerable individuals who can be easily attacked without risk of emotionally painful retribution.
It doesn’t have to be exactly the same insecurity that is targeted; often any will do.
So the person who worries that they are not smart enough will pick on the lack of romantic confidence in another who might target the financial anxieties of a third person.
In an attempt to mask the anger that may be raging on the inside, some people project it onto those they are angry with.
During an argument, for instance, you may try to maintain a cool and measured exterior and even tell the other person to ‘calm down’ so as to deny the anger you are harboring.
Or you may use the actions of others to justify your anger towards them, even when an alternate approach could have been taken.
Projecting anger onto someone else transfers the blame in your mind. No longer are you the reason for the conflict; you see yourself as the attacked, not the attacker.
We may not like to admit it, but we all partake in behavior that could be considered irresponsible.
Whether it’s having a few too many drinks, taking unnecessary risks with our safety, or even being reckless with our money, we are all guilty of doing things that we probably shouldn’t.
To avoid feelings of remorse, we project our irresponsibility onto others and criticize them for their actions.
Sometimes we hone in on things that bear no relation to our own misdemeanors, but other times we scold people for doing precisely the things that we, ourselves, have done (the hypocrites).
When we perceive ourselves to have failed at something, it is common for us to push others to succeed in an attempt to deny our failure.
This is borne out by the parents who enthusiastically – sometimes overbearingly – encourage their children to try hard at something that they, in their mind, failed at.
Take the failed athlete who forces their child down the sporting road, or the musician who never quite made it who pushes their child into learning a musical instrument.
It makes no difference to the parent whether the child actually wants to pursue these activities, because, for them, it is a chance to make amends for their own shortcomings.
This is one of those rare instances where we actually project positive aspects of our own personality onto others, although it doesn’t always come across that way.
Take the animal welfare activist who projects his dislike of cruel farming practices onto everyone else, only to be shocked when they don’t seem to share his concerns.
Or consider the business owner who struggles to understand why his employees aren’t as driven as he is to make the business a success.
The Problem With Projection
This element of psychology may appear to be effective in defending our minds against pain, but there are two fundamental problems that run counter to this argument.
The first is that projection makes us feel superior to everyone else because it allows us to overlook our own faults and inadequacies while simultaneously honing in on what we perceive to be imperfect in others.
This can not only be the source of much conflict, but it gives us a false impression and false expectations of other people. We fail to see all the good in people, because we are too busy examining their flaws.
The second issue with projection as a defense mechanism is that it fails to address the underlying feelings themselves. As long as we continue to deny the existence of these feelings, there is no mechanism that can help us to tackle and overcome them.
It is only when we accept they are a part of us that we can begin to work through them and eventually rid ourselves of them altogether.
The first step is, as you’d expect, the hardest one to take because it effectively invites pain upon yourself.
Yet, until dealt with, this pain is always present, and while you may not feel its full effect when it is being suppressed, it contributes to an unease that never quite leaves you.
Moving Away From Projection
Projection can be a conscious thing, but much of the time, it takes place below the surface as a function of the unconscious.
Before you can begin to tackle the underlying issues, you must first recognize when and how you might be projecting onto others.
While bringing your own awareness to the situation might help uncover some instances, it is not always easy to identify those feelings that you’ve buried deepest.
You might find great value in talking to a psychotherapist who is trained to spot and gently tease out things that we might not immediately be aware of.
They can help to bring these issues to the surface where they can be examined and, finally, dealt with.
Projection is often damaging to our relationships with others, so any attempt to eradicate it as a habit – either by yourself or with professional help – is worth it.
When you are capable of facing unwelcome feelings head on, you’ll find they are far less draining or damaging in the long term.
Are you aware of projecting feelings and issues onto those around you? Do you now think that you’ll be in a better position to stop? Leave a comment below and tell us what you think.