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Psychological Projection: What it is and What it Teaches Us

Danielle Dahl, Lead Contributor

You are probably more familiar with psychological projection than you realize!

Have you ever had an argument with someone or listened to a friend complain about having an argument with their spouse or family member? I am sure that you have, and you have also likely heard them say things like, “You’re projecting your emotions on me,” or “My husband won’t stop projecting when we try to discuss things.”

What does the term projection mean, though? Why do we do it? Is it bad, or can we learn something from it?

The first thing that you might not know about projection is that it is an actual psychological term. Understanding what psychological projection is will help you communicate better and teach you a lot about yourself.

“Our minds influence the key activity of the brain, which then influences everything; perception, cognition, thoughts and feelings, personal relationships; they’re all a projection of you.” — Deepak Chopra

What is psychological projection?

Sigmund Freud, who is known as the father of psychoanalysis, actually developed the term. What you might not know about Freud is that before he studied psychology, he was a trained neurologist.

He came up with the name “projection” by borrowing a neurological term. See, neurons can transmit stimuli from one level of the nervous system to another.

Freud developed the idea of psychological projection while he was working on theories about defense mechanisms. Projection is thought to be an unconscious process we used to protect the ego from “unacceptable thoughts and impulses.”

The term as we use it today

Projection, as we use it today, is the process of displacing one’s feelings onto a different person, animal, or object. We often use the term when speaking about defensive projection.

A classic example of projection would be that person in a relationship who always accuses their partner of cheating (with the absence of any proof) only to be discovered as the cheater at some point.

Projection involves attributing our own undesirable urges to someone else. The short answer is projection occurs whenever we take our own insecurities, intolerable behavior, or negative thoughts and assign them to the surrounding people.

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This happens as a parent frequently—like when my child is short and snappy, and it annoys me, and I yell at her, but I know I am recognizing some of my own faults in her.

Freud was not the only person to discuss projection, though. Psychologists Carl Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz later argued that projection is also used to protect against the fear of the unknown.

They theorized that people project more typical and understandable ideas onto things they don’t comprehend as part of a natural desire to make the world follow a pattern and make more sense.

“One of the ways that people avoid taking responsibility for their role in their own pain is what I call the BPs – blame and projection.” — Iyanla Vanzant

Signs that psychological protection is your defense mechanism of choice

Like many things in life, it is always easier to spot when other people are doing something than it is to notice in ourselves. If you think you might use projection to defend yourself from acknowledging unwanted emotions, thoughts, or behaviors, there are a few signs you can watch out for.

First, take notice of how quickly you experience being overly hurt or sensitive to something that someone else has said or done. Are you quick to react and place blame in situations where you feel upset?

Second, check in on your empathy level. Do you find it difficult to place yourself in someone else’s shoes? People who are projecting often struggle to see things from another perspective and find it hard to be objective.

Last, ask yourself if these reactions are common or if they are part of a pattern. If you think it might be how you respond most of the time, try asking yourself a few more hard questions like:

  • Is this behavior that I get upset at other people for something I do? Do I view it harshly within myself or find it to be one of my flaws?
  • Look for situations or ways that you act like the person you are upset with. Ask yourself if you are happy with yourself when you exhibit these behaviors.
  • Do you make stories in your mind about why this person is saying or doing the things they do?
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Recognizing and naming your own inner truths and feelings can help you work on projecting less.

“If we see a sad rain, it doesn’t mean the rain is sad, but it means we see it. That’s an easily dismissible kind of projection. But what I’m struggling to say, is that we take that rain in through our own hearts and emotions and senses and skin, and all those filters have an impact.” — Karen Joy Fowler

How do I stop projecting?

Being aware of our own flaws and unwanted behaviors is a very difficult thing to do. However, it is the first step toward big growth and a key part of our development.

Psychotherapist Joseph Burgo, Ph.D., author of Why Do I Do Thatreminds us that “Parts of ourselves don’t simply disappear when we disown them.”

So, now that you think you might be projecting, what can you do about it? Is there a way to stop it?

There is! It is a bit of a process as you are going to overcome a few challenges along the way like: ego, habit, and physical exhaustion.

Here are steps to help you stop projecting

One of the first things you can do to stop projecting is to learn how to recognize when you have trouble letting go of your focus on something. If you are convinced that there is no way you could be like this other person, and you refuse to even think about it, then according to Burgo, “It’s a kind of mental blaming and self-justification that can go on and on and on.”

Second, work on noticing your mind and body. meditation will help, as will realizing if you are holding tension in your body.

Take some deep breaths and use that adage about counting to 10 before you respond. Try to identify your feelings without relating them to the other person’s behavior.

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One thing that is helpful to remember in so many situations is that other people’s responses have nothing to do with you and everything to do with them. If this is true of others, then it is true for you too.

Why are you thinking or feeling the way you are about certain situations? Was there a trigger?

You will stop projecting when you are truthful with yourself about your own shortcomings or undesirable behavior. No one is perfect—we all have something that we can improve in ourselves!

Don’t Take Anything Personally. Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.” — Don Miguel Ruiz

The biggest lesson we learn from psychological projection

The life-changing lesson we can learn once we discover we are projecting comes from awareness. When you can name and accept parts of yourself that you find annoying or unwanted, then you get real with so many things.

You can make changes and work toward genuine growth. Wouldn’t it be nice to answer, “Why do I do that?” If you are asking yourself why you do something, then it must be something you want to work on, right?

This level of awareness will help you create change in your own responses and behaviors. These changes might just improve your relationships with those around you or give you the strength to leave toxic relationships.

Projection can teach us things we have denied about ourselves. That journey is never an easy one. However, it is almost always worth the uncomfortable feelings we experience along the way.

Do you have any other helpful tips about how to stop projecting? You can let us know in the comment section below.

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