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.
SalinaDecember 9th, 2017 at 12:19 PM
yOU ARE SUCH AN INSPIRATION AND YOU HAVE A SUCH A POSITIVE OUTLOOK AND MINDFRAME. hOW LONG DID IT TAKE YOU TO LEAVE IF YOU DON’T MIND ME ASKING?
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 …
CandiceDecember 25th, 2017 at 9:19 PM
Yes. My mother has tried to convince me and others, my whole life, that i am the one who is crazy and not her. She is severely narcissitc and is very good at manipulations and creating chaos and drama.
JamesDecember 26th, 2017 at 12:59 AM
I would share my sad story.
My wife has spent the past 14 years of our marriage asserting that I suffer from depression. At first I went along with her and even took some pills that her non-English speaking psychologist friend prescribed (My wife is Polish), without actually assessing me. I didn’t take many, only when she was with me, but pretended I was as it was clearly making her happier. A year later I told her I was stopping the treatment but she insisted that I continue. She told me that to get off of them I would need to be re-assessed and I agreed provided it was by another qualified and English speaking psychologist. I was re-assessed and declared me normal. My wife’s reaction, she cried and said ‘she can’t handle this’. I thought that a very strange reaction.
We went on for a few years with her insisting from time to time that I get therapy, which annoyed me and began to cause arguments. I agreed we would go to marriage guidance therapy instead, which we did and the therapist quickly identified that my wife just wants me to take some anti-depressant pills but the Councillor confirmed that in her opinion I in no way need them and that the issue was with my wife. Although the Councillor did not tell my wife, my wife quickly decided that marriage guidance was not working.
A year or so passed and again my wife is insisting that I take pills to control my anger; we were arguing a lot now. I suggested that we both go to psychological therapy and she reluctantly agreed. This began with a test that identified that we were both borderline depressed. Probably as a result of our many years of unhappy marriage and more recently persistent arguing.
So we began family counselling sessions where we were given tasks to complete and behaviours to modify. Whilst I tried very hard and did modify my behaviour and believe I am a better person for it, particularly in my handling of stress and avoiding arguing and shouting; I am quite good at that now, my wife did not change anything, she was clearly waiting for me to change sufficiently. But I am done, she is the same and is an unhappy person. I have never been unhappy, just disappointed in her, you see she has never worked; I provide all the family income, and by never worked I mean she also does not do any of the housework; washing, cooking, cleaning, ironing, I had to hire a full time housemaid to do all of that.
I have come to accept that she is projecting and I no longer argue with her and so the kids 15,13 and 11 are happier but I don’t know where to go from here. I think divorce is the way now as I have just run out of patience and tolerance for her.
But I am happy, even when I am sad.
I like that phrase, I think it’s the way to be.
ChiaraJanuary 13th, 2018 at 10:16 AM
Definitely, my partner of 20 years as he getting more depressed ( don’t know what’s was the trigger for him??) he started projecting his uncomfortable feelings on me. Like i was selfish (i was always cooking for him , and he was just watching tv), i was fat (not true), and was crazy (never yelled at him).
At the beginning i didn’t realize that he was projecting but I was somehow feeling guilty, and thinking that he was mad at me for somthing else.
One day he completely lushed out at me saying that he hated me, i should leave (also my house ) and he never loved and so own
… At that point i went to se several therapist and one told me about psychological projections as a defense mechanism.
I guess if had known earlier own about this I would not have take the bite and react differently. I think feeling bad about myself didn’t help me and also didn’t help him. I should i put ealtier boundaries earlier own.
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.
Joni A.October 31st, 2017 at 9:12 AM
My daughter is afflicted with mental illness too. I sought therapy on ways in which I can cope with this now that she is almost 31 with no hope of getting her to seek therapy for her deep-seated issues she’s yet to address. My therapist told me the same thing. Just take care of yourself and lovingly disengage. Don’t engage in conversation if you have to be in their presence and never be alone one on one with them…always have an audience. The one that’s going to get hurt the most, though, is my granddaughter whom she admitted in writing that she was withholding from me. So I just have to sit back and be quiet, not say a word to her, so she won’t have substance to use against me later. If she starts to insult me when it hasn’t been provoked, just get up and walk away! I’ve been enduring this verbal, emotional and mental abuse from her from years until I came to the realization she doesn’t know me at all…all of it she has manufactured in her mind and nothing will change her image of me…maybe never, so I have to love, respect and forgive myself enough to let her go!
Chaira VDecember 9th, 2017 at 11:18 AM
My partner of 20 years, has history of Child abuse. He dislikes his parents and used to argue with them every time they talked to each other. However, last year after his parents stopped calling him ..he became more isolated and nervous towards me. A couple of months ago after I came back from visiting my family he completely switch his personality started yelling at me leave the house, that he hates me, and I am just like his parents..?? When I suggested that I was concerned about him and we should go to see a doctor he yelled me that I was crazy. It really breaks my heart see him behaving this way. He want touch the food the I am cocking, he thinks is contaminated (he used to love the food I cocked for him all the time). He watches violent TV shows all the time.. and mimic the same behavior of me (like the soprano’s) ??
Would he ever get better??
BonnieFebruary 7th, 2018 at 4:13 PM
Maggie and Joni A, I feel like I’ve just read my own life story only I have two daughters with this mental problem and they feed off each other’s paranoia, manipulation and spitefulness. Nothing I have ever done (and it’s been considerable in terms of practical effort, unlimited time and finances and endless emotional support and sympathy) has ever been appreciated by them. Their opinion of me is about as low as it can be and yet, as their mother, I kept bowing to their demands out of a sense of responsibility (and possibly “guilt” for all the imaginary “bad things” they accused me of doing to them – all in their own fabrications and aberrated distortions and of reality). Then, at almost 70, I decided that they were the problem, not me. So I have taken their advice and decided to “die a lonely old woman” instead of putting up with their abuse any further. Luckily, I have a vast network of friends and a very supportive partner and son who have also suffered alongside me for more than 35 years. It seems that this mental condition manifests itself at about puberty. With the benefit of hindsight, I have done a lot of thinking about the behaviour patterns in the females on my mother’s side and I can see that this psychological issue has repeated itself for at least four generations and my older granddaughter nearing puberty is displaying the classic symptoms of it. I don’t think it can be fixed. Those who suffer from it remain stubbornly in denial, it’s part of the Projection: you are the problem, not them.
MaggieFebruary 12th, 2018 at 9:12 PM
Hope I am permitted to suggest a book that I have read which greatly helped me.
‘Done with the crying’ by Sheri McGregor she has gone through herself what we Mums have suffered.
Best wishes to you.
WallisFebruary 13th, 2018 at 11:06 AM
Thank you for the suggestion, I appreciate it a lot, it also reminded me of this book that I read some years ago, the name: How to hug a Porqupine by Charles Lund, anyhow, I ordered it from Barnes & Noble, it should come soon.
Thank you again
BonnieFebruary 13th, 2018 at 3:12 PM
Thanks Maggie, sounds like a helpful book. I just need to come to grips with the lies and the way that every negative thing they say and do is turned 180 degrees about and attributed to me. It’s so hard to defend.
carla hFebruary 7th, 2018 at 7:25 PM
My boyfriend, now ex-boyfriend, recently broke up with me. He blames me for his condition. His mental health broke down saying that he wasn’t like how he is now before we had a relationship. He was lonely without a partner then but he was happy. He blames me for my words that “life is not always full of rainbows and butterflies.” For me, every problems must be faced. What he was doing before was running away from his problems and kept blaming a particular person for how he got into his vices. Some people who knows him knew that what he did was wrong but I think I am to blame. Things started going down the drain after he was diagnosed with a chest condition. Doing the sports he love was prohibited and even the simplest exercises.
I’m in immense pain and I think my mental health is breaking down slowly. Am I really to blame for his mental and physical health. He’s suffering from headaches and body pain too? Why was it easy for him to blame me for everything that has happened to him, making me feel like him meeting me was one of the biggest decision he had made.
For more info, you can ask me questions.
But I think one of the biggest mistake I made was plead for him not to leave when he already wanted to. I should’ve given him that earlier. I just can’t accept it ’cause I was thinking he’s depressed so they push people away. Now, although the separation is really painful, I’ll try to hold on to whatever I can hold on to – a conspicuous speck of hope in a sea of hopelessness.
WallisFebruary 10th, 2018 at 5:24 PM
About 14 years ago, my youngest son started to verbally abuse me. It started when my only daughter died and I moved into his house for a while, at his request. I had to be in therapy for over a year because of the double trauma. Recently he started complaining to family members that I verbally abused him for years and he had to have counseling to recover somewhat. Now he is telling them that I used to curse his sister so terrible that she had to take her own life. They of course don’t believe because the entire extended family are close, and everyone would have known . My brother is scared for him because he said he is believing what he is accusing me off. Now I have no idea how to deal with that. When I was in therapy years ago, my therapist wanted him to have some visits with me, but he was always busy with his job. Now I want to help him because it seems as though it has made a dangerous turn, something he actually did to me, he’s accusing me of doing to him for years.
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