Psychological projection is a defense mechanism people subconsciously employ in order to cope with difficult feelings or emotions. Psychological projection involves projecting undesirable feelings or emotions onto someone else, rather than admitting to or dealing with the unwanted feelings. Have you ever disliked someone only to become convinced that the person had a vendetta against you? This is a common example of psychological projection. Luckily, there are methods you can use to identify why you are projecting your emotions and put a stop to this coping mechanism.
The Basics of Psychological Projection
The theory of psychological projection was developed by Sigmund Freud, an Austrian psychologist commonly referred to as the “father of psychoanalysis.” For this reason, psychological projection is sometimes called “Freudian projection.” During his sessions with patients, Freud noticed that they would sometimes accuse others of having the same feelings they themselves were demonstrating. By engaging in this behavior, the patient was better able to deal with the emotions he or she was experiencing.
The classic example of Freudian projection is that of a woman who has been unfaithful to her husband but who accuses her husband of cheating on her. Another example of psychological projection is someone who feels a compulsion to steal things then projects those feelings onto others. She might begin to fear that her purse is going to be stolen or that she is going to be shortchanged when she buys something.
Projection is not always as dramatic or as easily identifiable, however. An instance of projection that most people can relate to is when they come across someone they do not like, but are forced to interact with on a somewhat-polite level. For example, Jessica begins to resent her sister-in-law, Carla, for being so close to her husband.
Jessica knows that she has to be nice to Carla for her husband’s sake. Over time, however, Jessica begins to notice that Carla does not like her either.
Whenever there is a family gathering, Jessica thinks that Carla is being snippy with her, especially when Jessica’s husband is in the room. Jessica explains to her husband that she has tried as hard as she can, but the reason why she does not like Carla is because Carla does not like her. As you can see, Jessica has projected her feelings of dislike and resentment onto Carla.
Why Do We Project?
As mentioned earlier, projection is used as a defense mechanism, and defense mechanisms are used to cope with feelings and emotions that we have trouble expressing or coming to terms with.
To return to the Jessica and Carla example: Jessica has a hard time coming to terms with the fact that she resents her sister-in-law. She may feel guilty about being jealous of the time Carla spends with her husband, or she may worry that her feelings will be noticed by other members of the family, who will then think badly of her. Jessica then subconsciously projects her feelings onto Carla which gives her an excuse for disliking her. Instead of having to face these feelings of dislike and resentment on her own, she is able to project her feelings on another person.
Psychological projection is one of many defense mechanisms people engage in on a regular basis.
Other common defense mechanisms include:
Denial – Refusing to admit to yourself that something is real (e.g., not believing the doctor when she tells you some particularly bad news about your health).
Distortion – Changing the reality of a situation to suit your needs (e.g., thinking that your boyfriend cheated on you because he was scared of commitment).
Passive Aggression – Indirectly acting out your aggression (e.g., purposely parking in your co-worker’s parking spot as retribution for a previous dispute).
Repression – Covering up feelings or emotions instead of coming to terms with them (e.g., being unable to recall the details of a car crash you were involved in – the brain sometimes purposely “loses” these memories to help you cope).
Sublimination – Converting negative feelings into positive actions (e.g., cleaning the house whenever you are angry about something).
Dissociation – Substantially but temporarily changing your personality to avoid feeling emotion (e.g., trying to “keep yourself together” at a funeral for the benefit of others).
Defense mechanisms are not always unhealthy. In fact, some defense mechanisms are essential to coping with stressful events. For example, humor is an example of a positive defense mechanism that people employ to deal with stress in life. Using humor in a difficult situation allows you to get your feelings out into the open and also brings pleasure to others by making them laugh.
How to Stop Projecting
Unfortunately, most people do not realize that they have succumbed to psychological projection until it is too late. However, there are steps you can take to identify whether you are engaging in psychological projection in order to avoid doing it in the future.
A good place to start is to examine the negative relationships in your life. Who don’t you get along with at work or in your family? Do you feel as though someone is out to get you? Try to determine where the animosity began. In some cases, you may find that speaking with a therapist will help you examine these relationships more honestly and openly than you are able to do by yourself.
Once you have identified that you are engaging in psychological projection, you will become more aware of this tendency during future interactions. Try to face problems and disputes head on rather than becoming defensive. The key is to be able to recognize when you are using a defense mechanism and learn how to respond in a more positive manner.
Different Types of Psychological Projection
Projection is not always a negative mechanism. Although the Freudian theory of projection assumes that the projected feelings tend to be undesirable, there are other types of projection that are more positive and productive.
Complementary projection, for example,is a type of projection where one assumes that other people share the same opinions that he or she does. This phenomenon is quite common. For instance, whenever you hear a story about an animal that has been mistreated, you are shocked to discover that not everyone shares the same views regarding animal cruelty as you. Likewise, although you cannot possibly see how other people perceive color, you assume that everyone sees the color blue the same way you do. In this sense, you are projecting your perception of color onto everyone else.
Complimentary projection is slightly different and not as common. People who employ complimentary projection assume that everyone has the same skills and ability as they do. For example, someone who is skilled in the kitchen might assume that everyone else is able to make a soufflé with as much ease as they do. Of course, we all know that this is not the case.
Psychological projection is not the healthiest way to deal with emotions, however, it is a difficult habit for some people to break. Next time you begin to project your feelings onto someone else, stop and ask yourself why you are engaging in this behavior. You will find that it is much easier to deal with the monsters in your head rather than project the negative emotions you are experiencing onto others.
How Do You Deal with Difficult Emotions?
It’s natural to experience anger, jealousy, hurt – even though your mother told you that “a frown doesn’t suit your pretty face, Dear!” But have you ever felt so overwhelmed by these emotions, or that you spend too much energy getting over them? Everyone could use some healthy options for dealing with difficult emotions.
By Everyday Health
Patrice Hooke, LMFT uses practical honest feedback and focus on the strengths of my clients to help them reach their goals. I believe that with honesty, compassion and understanding, we can all find healing and have a more fulfilling life. She is especially passionate about couples counseling Costa Mesa.