Projection is a psychological defense mechanism in which individuals attribute characteristics they find unacceptable in themselves to another person. For example, a husband who has a hostile nature might attribute this hostility to his wife and say she has an anger management problem.
In some cases projection can result in false accusations. For example, someone with adulterous feelings might accuse their partner of infidelity.
Types of Projection
Like other defense mechanisms, projection is typically unconscious and can distort, transform, or somehow affect reality. A classic example of the defense mechanism is when an individual says “She hates me” instead of expressing what is actually felt, which is “I hate her.”
There are three generally accepted types of projection:
- Neurotic projection is the most common variety of projection and most clearly meets the definition of defense mechanism. In this type of projection, people may attribute feelings, motives, or attitudes they find unacceptable in themselves to someone else.
- Complementary projection occurs when individuals assume others feel the same way they do. For example, a person with a particular political persuasion might take it for granted that friends and family members share those beliefs.
- Complimentary projection is the assumption other people can do the same things as well as oneself. For example, an accomplished pianist might take it for granted that other piano students can play the piano equally well.
What Is the Purpose of Projection?
Sigmund Freud believed projection to be a defense mechanism often used as a way to avoid uncomfortable repressed feelings. Feelings that are projected may be controlling, jealous, angry, or sexual in nature. These are not the only types of feelings and emotions projected, but projection most often occurs when individuals cannot accept their own impulses or feelings.
In modern psychology, the feelings do not necessarily have to be repressed to constitute projection. Projection can be said to provide a level of protection against feelings a person does not wish to deal with. Engaging in either complimentary and complementary projection can allow people to feel more like others or relate to them easily.
It is fairly common for people to engage in projection from time to time, and many people who project their feelings on occasion do not do so as a result of any underlying issue. In some cases projection can contribute to relationship challenges. Projection may also be a symptom of other mental health concerns.
Projection and Mental Health Concerns
Projection, one main mechanism of paranoia, is also frequently a symptom of narcissistic and borderline personalities. A person with narcissistic traits who does not respect their partner may say to the partner, “You don’t respect me or see my true worth.” Some individuals with borderline personality may be afraid of losing the people they love and project this fear by frequently accusing friends or partners of planning to leave. However, individuals who project their feelings in this way do not necessarily have either of these conditions.
A person in therapy may be able to address these projections with the help of a qualified mental health professional. When a person can explore the reasons behind any projected feelings, it may be possible to prevent or reduce occurrences of this behavior in the future.
- American Psychological Association. APA Concise Dictionary of Psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2009. Print.
- Corsini, R. J., & Wedding, D. (Eds.). (2007). Current Psychotherapies (Eighth ed.). Brooks Cole.
- Perry, J. C., Presniak, M. D., & Olson, T. R. (2013). Defense Mechanisms in Schizotypal, Borderline, Antisocial, and Narcissistic Personality Disorders. Psychiatry, 76(1), 32-52.
- Projection. (n.d.). Changing Minds. Retrieved from http://changingminds.org/explanations/behaviors/coping/projection.htm
Last Updated: 02-16-2016
SuzanneNovember 8th, 2014 at 5:01 PM
In my most recent relationship, my ex-boyfriend would wake me in the middle of the night, or begin discussions with me commencing with the accusation that I had been sleeping with other men. I knew it was a projection (he had many others too) and simply told him that I was sick of hearing this over and over again. I also asked him when he had ever seen me act inappropriately with any man. He could not think of any times when I had. He mentioned times when I had greeted a man warmly or given him a hug in my boyfriend’s presence. I also informed him that I was kind and loving and was not going to change my personality.
He also hated it when I suggested that perhaps he was the one sleeping with other women and the scenarios that he was ascribing to me, were actually ones he was enacting himself.
In the end, so many things about his behaviour; the pathological lying, sense of entitlement, stealing from my home and many other stressful things for me, made me decide to terminate the relationship. I was never a victim in this relationship and did love him dearly, despite the things that he would do. I learned a lot about me and my childhood and what I endured back then. I also learned to set inviolable boundaries and heaps of other positive things. This relationship was not a waste of time. It did teach me though, that some people have a long way to go to become half-way decent human beings and it is best to let them go and move on.
I am in a completely different place within myself and have grown so much because of this relationship so am thankful for the gift of myself that he gave to me. I have also learned to be completely happy with my own company whether or not I have a relationship with an intimate other. The most important thing I have learned is that I need to love myself first and foremost and live in my own integrity. Then life works well.
ChrisOctober 4th, 2016 at 2:33 PM
I’d suggest that very few relationships are a waste of time, as they all (hopefully) take us one step, one lesson further along the path to the relationship we deserve.
SueJuly 10th, 2016 at 9:46 PM
Thank you for this…where you were is where I still am. I couldn’t figure it out at first, but I knew something was wrong. My husband lies, sneaks, steals and denies everything or tries to minimize his actions. Then I noticed that when we would argue, I would become so frustrated. I felt like nothing made sense and we got nowhere. I started to notice that things I said yesterday were being thrown at me today…like they were my issues. I thought he was weird and told him he needed help. He won’t leave although I have asked him to many times. I wait.
Lisa h.January 28th, 2017 at 12:37 PM
I also have a husband like this. He won’t leave. But I’ve made use for him as a project has I’m now training to be a psychotherapist
SueJanuary 29th, 2017 at 8:57 AM
That is great, perhaps you can advise me how to best handle my situation. I would appreciate it if you would keep me up to date on your research and progress.
AndrewFebruary 20th, 2017 at 10:53 PM
Hi guys, I have a wife who is irrationally jealous but also extremely sexual and flirtatious, which is not that uncommon and perhaps a common form of projection. I’m not jealous, and have never been unfaithful, so I’m not overly fazed by this aspect of her behavior and just coped with it by responding with great calm. The hurtful accusations have receded so that’s great. But something that really does concern me is an incessant assertion that I am bipolar. Certainly I can be very focused, for instance am famous for working, say, up to 18 hours with barely a few minutes break to complete a newspaper article or report. I’ll focus on pretty much any job until it’s done and won’t give up, working around problems because I can see the goal and that’s the only thing in mind. Super focused on anything I do until I can master it, even things at which I’m mediocre. But I can’t help wondering whether people who are a little unstable themselves tend to project or attribute mental illness to their spouse? Anyone had that kind of experience? Do emotionally unstable people like to project instability onto others? It tends, over time, to engender more and more self-doubt …
Lisa hFebruary 21st, 2017 at 12:52 PM
My husband has a long-term depression, he, at times accuses me of been depressive and having mental health issues ie. Been passive aggressive, . I’ve never had mental health issues, so yes I do think they project there condition on to there partner.
AndrewFebruary 21st, 2017 at 6:47 PM
Hi Lisa, thanks for responding to me. I’m sure I have “issues” as anyone does, but it’s reassuring to hear this from someone else. I think it’s likely very common but certainly not well documented. The only reference I could find is where a patient tends to do this to their therapist or psychologist.
SmithApril 21st, 2017 at 5:30 AM
Thank you, I have been dating a woman who lives this exact behavior daily. I knew it was a psychological imbalance but didn’t know where it was coming from. The hardest part is how much I absolutely love her but I don’t know if I am able to live with it. She accuses me of wanting to leave her, she states things then minutes later denies them and accuses me of making them up, she has accused me of being with someone else and every time we have the slightest disagreement, she breaks up with me and says that that is what I want.
I had no idea where this was coming from and after last nights episode, I don’t think I am equipped. After telling me to leave due to Hingis she did the accused me of, the told me not to text, e-mail or call her….. then she continually texted, e-mailed and called me while accusing me of not leaving her alone. How does one manage this “if” you decide you still love and want to be with this person. Are they capable of recognizing their psychological projection?
I know she will not accept it but is there a pill that I can take that will help??? Not funny but I’m at this point.
JeanineApril 25th, 2017 at 2:41 PM
I’ve dealt with this in three individuals. It is very difficult to converse about any issue. This is used as an excuse. Everything is always my problem, nothing gets addressed. I can’t deal with this anymore. I am not making headway, they deny this is happening totally. Any suggestions as to how I can show that counseling is badly needed to live a normal life? Facts on this topic, please.
MaggieApril 25th, 2017 at 8:06 PM
Our Daughter has mental issues possibly bipolar we (myself and my husband) know this from speaking to a professional psychologist. Everything that has ever gone wrong in her life is our fault. We have helped her numerous times but we have come to the end we can’t take the projection and verbal abuse anymore.
There is nothing you can do the person projecting has to realise they have a problem and that can take months , years maybe never.
Take care of yourself and know that you have tried everything that you can.
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