Are you projecting onto others?
If so, why do you do it?
And how can you stop projecting?
Those are the three things this article explores. So, by the time you finish reading it, you should have all the answers you need to take positive action.
Speak to an accredited and experienced therapist to help you stop projecting your feelings onto others. You may want to try speaking to one via BetterHelp.com for quality care at its most convenient.
What is projection?
First coined by Sigmund Freud and expanded upon by Carl Jung and others, self-projection is a defense mechanism in which people attribute disliked traits and impulses of their own to other people to avoid inner conflict, stress, shame, or other emotions that are unappealing or unacceptable to them.
Am I projecting?
How do you know if you’re projecting onto someone?
Since projection is an unconscious reaction, you may not be immediately aware that you’re doing it, but you can try to be more conscious about how you relate to, and react to others.
The behaviors below are a few of the more common ones you may exhibit when you are projecting:
Being hypersensitive to comments or actions that aren’t directly about you.
A lot of people “read into” things too deeply and jump to assumptions if they’re feeling insecure or vulnerable. This is particularly true if something in the present triggers unwanted emotions such as shame or anger that are based on past experiences.
So, if you find yourself overreacting to phrases spoken or situations instigated by those around you, pause and ask yourself: “Is this reaction justified? Or am I projecting experiences from my past onto what’s happening now?”
Criticizing others around you.
Do you find yourself being overly critical of everyone around you, and never turning the same critical eye toward yourself?
For example, do you criticize your partner or children for never doing any housework, but you don’t take the time to analyze how many of the household chores you do on a regular basis?
In a scenario like this, stop and try to view the situation from all perspectives.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Is my criticism based on truth or personal bias?
- If someone else saw what everyone does in the house, would they feel the same way?
- If I calculated how many hours my partner and children put into housework, and checked that tally against the number of hours I spend cooking and cleaning, would the results show that my assessment is fair and valid?
- Is there a possibility that I’m projecting my feelings of shame or inadequacy as a housekeeper onto my family members?
Perhaps you feel you aren’t putting enough time or effort into keeping the house clean and tidy because you’re exhausted from work and other life responsibilities, and you feel shame and guilt about it.
In this case, you are projecting your shortcomings—and the emotions you feel about them—onto other people and deciding that they aren’t doing enough.
Overreacting to things with strong emotions.
Do you occasionally get sudden waves of emotion that seem disproportionate to the situation or issue at hand? For example, do you feel the desire to swear at your boss and quit your job if your work is corrected or criticized?
People who are prone to projection often have emotional reactions that are intensely out of proportion to whatever triggered them.
They are reacting to the past root cause of that emotion rather than the current situation.
Feeling that you “know” things about people you haven’t interacted with.
People sometimes attribute various behaviors or traits to those they don’t know in person or have barely interacted with.
You may project traits you either value or despise in yourself onto people you barely know.
For example, you may take a dislike to a coworker at your office, deciding that they’re lazy, judgmental, or arrogant, even though you hardly know them. You’ve simply decided that’s how they are based on an arbitrary whim or cognitive bias.
Do you find that you keep having the same experiences with different people over and over again?
For example, do you keep seeing the same behaviors in coworkers no matter how many different jobs you do? Or that your housemates or partners always end up behaving the same way?
If that’s the case, it’s likely that you’re projecting the same traits onto them rather than them all behaving the same way.
Many people end up projecting insecurities, blame, and other feelings or traits onto those around them, especially if they have difficulty resolving those issues themselves.
Defensiveness based on assumption.
If you’re dealing with low self-esteem or have dealt with excessive amounts of criticism in the past, you may become instantly defensive in various scenarios.
For instance, let’s say your superior at work asks if you were the one who wrote the report for that afternoon’s board meeting. They’ve been completely neutral in this inquiry, but your go-to response is to ask them what you’ve done wrong now, or to claim that someone else worked on it in order to avoid criticism.
Examples of projection.
Here are some further, more specific examples of how a person might project their feelings onto others. This is not an exhaustive list, but it should give you some idea of what projection can look like.
Making assumptions to cope with a fear of the unknown.
If you’ve ever had an anxiety or panic attack, it’s likely stemmed from a situation in which you haven’t had all the information necessary to calm you.
When we don’t have all the answers to our questions, we experience something known as “cognitive distortion”—a thinking trap or error in which we fill in the information gaps with worst-case scenarios in an attempt to plan for self-preservation.
In simplest terms, we make assumptions and then start spiraling based on them.
This is where projection based on past experiences comes into play. You take past experiences and overlay them onto a completely different person or scenario as a means of avoiding potential discomfort or harm.
Criticism due to self-loathing.
Sometimes, people insult or abuse others about a particular trait of theirs, and then later discover they also have that trait.
An example of this is if someone who has internalized homophobia projects feelings of self-hatred and shame onto other people. They might use homophobic slurs and treat same-sex couples with contempt because they’re incapable of processing the conflicted feelings within themselves.
Similarly, someone who dislikes certain physical traits in themselves will often insult those who share those traits.
This type of behavior often manifests when someone wants to avoid punishment. Maybe they were punished severely as children when they made mistakes, so instead of taking accountability for their missteps, they project that behavior onto another in the hope that they’ll be punished instead.
Blame-shifting can also be employed if a person doesn’t want to take responsibility for their behaviors or personal choices.
A classic example is an abuser telling those they’re mistreating that those people “made them angry” or that they wouldn’t have had to hit them if they hadn’t provoked them, instead of acknowledging that their behaviors are entirely their own responsibility.
People with personality disorders often use blame-shifting as a means of processing personal behaviors they know deep down are unacceptable. For example, a narcissist who’s been lying through their teeth might accuse their partner or child of lying instead.
Making baseless accusations.
This type of behavior usually stems from insecurity or inferiority. The one who feels insecure will project their insecurity onto another and accuse them of things that have no basis in fact.
They might do so to feel better about themselves if they face any kind of rejection—either of themselves or their interests.
For example, let’s say someone is feeling insecure about their looks. They may accuse their partner of watching dirty videos or talking to other people romantically behind their back, even though their partner has no interest in anyone but them. Their insecurity will make them project the worry of infidelity onto their partner.
Personal insecurities and subsequent projection bias may stem from negative experiences that occurred at any point in life. These can result in a person showing unreasonable—and often unfounded—jealousy towards a person or situation.
For example, let’s say a man didn’t have much when he was growing up, and thus developed a fair amount of anxiety related to scarcity.
If he sees a friend’s child receiving items that he always wanted but never had when he was growing up, he might feel an unhealthy amount of jealousy and resentment toward the kid.
Deep down, he may be fully aware that his envy is unjustified and even unhealthy.  As such, he’s projecting shame that he’s feeling about this jealousy in addition to feeling the envy itself.
This stems from insecurity and may be used to alienate others in an attempt to elevate oneself.
Let’s say Leslie was hoping to get a promotion at work, but Rania got it instead. Rather than acknowledging that Rania might have earned said promotion through her own diligence and hard work, Leslie projects her own insecurity and inadequacy onto Rania.
She may imply that Rania got promoted by stealing Leslie’s work and claiming it as her own, or that she slept with someone in management to get special favors.
By doing so, Leslie is unconsciously seeking to elevate herself in her peers’ eyes while degrading her rival.
She’s also undermining her rival’s position by calling her competence into question.
Why do I project onto others?
To understand why projection happens, it’s important to delve into its origins. How does projection work? Where does it stem from? And why do people project instead of working through their emotions in a healthy manner?
Although the emotions being projected may differ, it all starts when people are unable to acknowledge or accept the emotions that they’re feeling.
By projecting these feelings onto others, they don’t just distance themselves from the discomfort they’re feeling, they also step away from feelings of responsibility associated with those unwanted, unaccepted emotions.
For instance, someone might feel intense guilt about having mistreated another person badly. That guilt hurts them deeply, and they don’t know how to go about making it better, so they take that guilt and throw it at someone else. Once they do that, the discomfort they feel will dissipate significantly, and they can punish that other person like a whipping boy instead. If it isn’t their own fault, they don’t have to feel bad.
Melanie Klein, an Austrian psychoanalyst and student of Sigmund Freud, developed a concept known as object-relations theory.
This theory encompasses the idea that anxieties people have in preverbal infancy will contribute to how their personalities develop, especially if those anxieties are not allayed by others, or via the individual’s ability to develop healthy coping mechanisms. 
As a result, they don’t learn to integrate the “shadow” aspects of themselves—emotions often considered “negative” such as anger, guilt, fear, and resentment—and instead decide that those around them are the ones embodying those traits instead.
By doing so, they have tangible scapegoats upon which to paint their own unwanted thoughts and emotions, and can punish that “other” for the very things they feel.
Object-relations theory is important for your understanding of the next two points.
How past traumas influence projection behavior.
When we’re infants, our only understanding of the world revolves around whether something is a threat to our survival (“bad”), or will nurture and protect us (“good”).
As a result, we learn to push away anything that we consider “bad,” even if it’s something inherently ingrained within ourselves, such as uncomfortable emotions like anxiety, guilt, grief, and so on.
We then project those emotions onto other objects so we can deal with them at a safe distance.
With emotional projection, the objects we end up projecting onto happen to be other people, rather than inanimate things. By doing so, we can disassociate anything our psyches perceive as harmful, and make other people responsible for them instead. 
Not all projection behavior stems from early childhood experiences. Any traumatic experience can instill a profound sense of insecurity in a person and make them project onto others to deal with their unwanted vulnerability.
For example, a person who has experienced traumatic abandonment or rejection by an intimate partner may end up projecting their fears and insecurities onto subsequent relationships.
They may get overly clingy and insecure and believe that their partner has run off and ghosted them if they’re gone for too long, or inform their partner that they know they aren’t attracted to them anymore and are planning an exit strategy, and so on.
There may be zero evidence for these accusations, but the person has been so scarred by past experience that they’re attempting to preempt potential pain via projections and assumptions.
Another way in which past traumas may influence projective assumptions has to do with negative conditioning and personal experience. For example, the assumption that since you were able to deal with something in a certain way, overcome an obstacle, or learn a skill, that means everyone else can too.
The role of childhood experiences.
Yes, childhood experiences can help explain why we project onto others instead of taking responsibility for our own emotions and actions.
One example of how projection in childhood can cause both emotional baggage and repeated behaviors is when parents who dislike aspects of themselves end up criticizing their children for those same traits, even if they don’t embody them.
For instance, a mother who suffers from an eating disorder may have projected her insecurities and body dysmorphia onto her children and bullied them for seeming to be overweight, even if they weren’t. Those kids may have developed anorexia or bulimia in turn, and might grow up to continue that same behavioral pattern with their own offspring, if they have any. 
Alternatively, some parents project their hopes and dreams onto their kids and try to live vicariously through them. They don’t see their children as individuals with their own ideas, but rather extensions of themselves; another opportunity to fulfill the dreams that they were never able to accomplish.
Children aren’t born with emotional regulation skills. If they aren’t taught how to analyze and process their own feelings, they end up projecting thoughts and emotions onto others.
For instance, instead of saying “I feel frustrated because I’m struggling to understand this,” they’ll imply that others think they’re stupid. They might also put another person down or call them an idiot to compensate for their own feelings of inadequacy.
How to stop projecting.
Once you become aware of your projection issues, you can take steps to stop yourself from continuing those behaviors. Below are some of the strategies that you may find effective:
Take a step back to observe and analyze, rather than assuming.
One of the best ways to stop projecting is to become aware of how you’re responding to a given scenario, and then draw back to look at the entire situation from a neutral perspective.
For example, let’s say your partner makes an offhand comment and your heart starts to beat in your chest. Your immediate instinct may be to lash out at them and punish them for making you feel uncomfortable.
Instead, pause and try to look at what just unfolded from an outside perspective. While doing so, try to determine what exactly it was that triggered you, and why.
By taking a step away from the emotional response and analyzing the situation dispassionately, logic and reason come to the forefront.
You realize that your partner had no idea that, for example, your parent(s) said a similar phrase to you in anger when you were a child. They weren’t trying to wind you up—they didn’t view what they said as offensive.
Thus, the projection is neutralized in the cool, clear light of reason and mindful presence.
Learn to be open to constructive feedback.
If you’re prone to projecting insecurities and other unwanted emotions onto others, you may find it very difficult to accept any kind of criticism—even if it’s constructive and loving.
As such, you’ll need to learn how to listen to and process feedback without taking it as a personal attack. You can do this by:
- Practicing active listening: focusing entirely on what’s being said instead of getting defensive or retaliatory. Avoid interrupting them, then echo back to them what you heard for the sake of clarity.
- Reflecting on the validity of the feedback: take your time to evaluate whether the feedback was malicious, or if there was logic and reason behind it. Something might just be a suggested course correction rather than a personal attack.
- Asking questions about the feedback: this gives you the opportunity to ask for clarity about what was discussed. Avoid being accusatory, but instead, express where you are coming from while asking for precise guidelines.
- Recognizing the feedback as separate from your sense of self-worth: a criticism doesn’t mean that you’re a useless idiot who can’t do anything right. Instead, see it as instructional, and an opportunity for growth and learning. Other people taught you how to do every skill you know now, and their instructions weren’t cruel criticisms, but guidance. Try to see other people’s feedback the same way.
- Getting other perspectives: your knee-jerk reaction might be to disagree with the person who is course-correcting, so it’s a good idea to see what others think. Ask people you trust and respect about the situation, as they can offer insights from different perspectives. If you get the same feedback from different people, that lends extra validity to the course correction you received.
Mindfulness: learn to leave the past in the past.
If you’re prone to projecting anger, inadequacy, or other emotions because of past traumas, it’s likely that you haven’t worked through the difficulties you’ve experienced.
While it can be beneficial to work through these with a counselor in order to find closure, it can also be effective to remind yourself that what’s passed is past.
When you feel anger or hurt in the present moment because of a triggered memory, bring your focus entirely back to the present moment. Look at the person you’re feeling strong emotions about and ask yourself if your reactions are due to what they’re doing or saying right now, or because they remind you of past damage.
If it’s due to a past trauma, take a few deep, grounding breaths, and bring yourself fully into this moment. You are not a victim of your past experiences, so make a conscious choice to be here and now.
Self-reflection: get to know yourself.
This is one of the most important strategies to stop projecting as it will require you to move past previously held perceptions to learn about who you truly are.
Many people who were raised in challenging circumstances never really had the opportunity to get to know themselves. Instead, they learned to adapt to whatever circumstance they were in and perform according to other people’s expectations of them.
It’s difficult to live authentically when your entire existence has revolved around pandering to what other people want of you. As such, getting to know who you are deep down may inspire emotions and reactions ranging from fear and discomfort to elation, depending on the moment.
For instance, you may have achieved accolades in a particular field, but deep down you’ve always despised it—you only pursued it because it’s what your family expected and demanded from you, and since you weren’t allowed to pursue your own path, you’ve spent years projecting your subconscious anger and resentment onto others.
If you’re self-reflecting and being utterly honest with yourself, you may feel as though your life is coming apart at the seams. Aspects that may have brought you comfort and stability are now called into question, and the life you’ve cultivated for yourself may turn out to be the polar opposite of what you actually want on a soul-deep level.
You may have the immediate tendency to lock all of that down so as not to upset the status quo, but the projection you’ve been taking part in won’t disappear by doing so.
It’s okay to feel scared and uncertain as you unpack past and present challenging circumstances and learn to live a new, more authentic and fulfilled way.
Ask instead of assuming.
This is one of the best and most important approaches when learning how to stop projecting onto other people. It involves asking open-ended questions and listening actively, rather than jumping to conclusions and then assigning those assumptions to others.
When you catch yourself assuming something about someone, ask yourself one question: “Do I have evidence that proves this to be true?”
If the answer is “no,” turn that accusation into a question instead. This gives the other person an opportunity to express their side of things.
For example, if you come home to find your child is there rather than at school, ask them why they’ve come home early rather than berating them for skipping class. You may discover that the school nurse sent them home with a note and the suggestion to see a doctor soon.
Examine what you avoid.
Try to examine areas and situations that you shy away from, rather than lean into. Another way of phrasing this is “identifying your triggers.”
Any time you come across something in your daily life that causes a negative or uncomfortable reaction, write it down in a journal or notebook. For instance, this could be an image or word that makes you feel vulnerable, angry, or insulted.
Later, when you’re in a place where you feel calm and secure, try to unpack why you shy away from that particular trigger.
Does it remind you of a past trauma that you were never able to resolve? Or do you feel insecure or shameful about it because you see something in that image that you can never be, and hate yourself for it?
When you can hold the mirror up to your own actions, you can learn a great deal about why they happen, and then take conscious steps to change behaviors in the future.
Set and enforce healthy boundaries.
Boundaries and setting healthy limits relate to projection because, on the most fundamental level, projection is a defense mechanism.
Those who find themselves projecting anger onto others tend to be people who were never allowed to express anger without punishment, or whose personal boundaries were not honored or respected.
As a result, they learned that there was no point in having boundaries because others would overstep said boundaries and punish or hurt them if they even tried to uphold them.
Because of these experiences in their formative years, they learned to disassociate from the anger and frustration they experienced when they were mistreated and resorted to projecting onto other people instead.
If this has been your experience, it’s important to learn how to set healthy limits and protect your boundaries with other people. Doing so will lead to less unspoken ill-feeling, resentment, and anger toward others.
This may be incredibly challenging for you, especially if you grew up in an abusive environment and you’re afraid of confrontation.
Work with a good therapist
Finding a great therapist with whom you can cultivate a solid rapport cannot be recommended highly enough.
While it’s possible to work through and overcome challenges in life, a therapist can be an invaluable ally to help support and guide you through them.
Furthermore, their experience allows them to offer techniques that can make the experience go far more smoothly and spare you a great deal of confusion and emotional pain as you move forward.
You could muddle through all of this on your own, but the healing process will undoubtedly be easier with their help.
A therapist can be of immense help regardless of the type of projection that you’ve been taking part in up until now. Whether you’re contending with anger or anxiety projection, or feel as though others are judging you harshly, they can help you get to the root of these behaviors, while providing you with solid coping mechanisms for them.
For example, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been proven to be immensely effective in helping people learn how to stop projecting onto others . Your therapist can create customized worksheets for you, and then help you to unpack and work through everything you’ve written down at your sessions together.
BetterHelp.com is a website where you can connect with a therapist via phone, video, or instant message.
While you may try to work through this yourself, it may be a bigger issue than self-help can address. And if it is affecting your mental well-being, relationships, or life in general, it is a significant thing that needs to be resolved.
Too many people try to muddle through and do their best to overcome complex issues such as projection, but they never really get to grips with them. If it’s at all possible in your circumstances, therapy is 100% the best way forward.
Here’s that link again if you’d like to learn more about the service BetterHelp.com provide and the process of getting started.
It’s important to note that people with certain personality disorders are more prone to using projection as a defense mechanism than those who don’t have them. We mentioned narcissism earlier, but borderline personality disorder (BPD) is another cluster-B disorder characterized by projection.  CBT has been proven effective in helping to reduce this type of projection in those with BPD , improving interpersonal relationships and individual wellbeing overall.
A therapist can also offer safe, neutral ground for you to work through issues with other people such as partners or family members. If your tendency to project stems from unresolved past conflicts with these people, being able to finally address and work through them may be immensely helpful in healing and moving forward.
You may also like:
- The Psychology Of Displacement And 7 Real-World Examples Of It In Action
- The Psychology Of Deflection (How To Respond + How To Stop)
- The Psychology Of Sublimation And How To Employ It In Your Life
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