Are You Projecting? Defense Mechanisms in Therapy and Beyond
How do you know if you’re projecting? Here’s what you need to know about projection in therapy and the real world.
Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC
Updated: October 4, 2023
Table of Contents
What is projection?
“Projection is the process whereby what is inside is misunderstood as coming from outside,” explains psychologist Dr. Nancy McWilliams in her book Psychoanalytic Diagnosis. In this way, we can understand projection to mean that we mirror our internal experiences onto the people and things around us like a movie is projected on a screen.
Projection is a natural and common, though complex, psychological defense mechanism for many people. Often, projection shows up as the externalization of traits or feelings we’re afraid we have or feel insecure about. Basically, people who use projection as a defense mechanism tend to see in others that they don’t like about themselves. For example, if you often doubt your intelligence, you may assume that anyone who corrects you thinks you’re not smart. If this sounds familiar, you might be projecting.
At best, projection may help us empathize with the people around us. When we project our own feelings, thoughts, or experiences onto someone else, it can help us better understand and relate to their emotions and perspectives. Defensive projection, though, may cause distress if it has a long-term, negative impact on how you relate with others or the world around you. Using projection as a psychological defense mechanism can affect all parts of life, including interpersonal relationships, how we engage with strangers, and how we interpret the world.
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How does projection show up in therapy?
Therapy is a safe, nonjudgmental space to navigate interpersonal dynamics and patterns. However, since it usually centers on the relationship between two people—the therapist and the client—projection may still show up in the therapy room. Projection in therapy could be directed toward the therapist or other people in the client’s life.
If a therapist believes their client could be projecting, they can help them explore what’s underlying the projected fears or insecurities. Through exploring projection, the client will be better able to process sometimes unpleasant feelings with the support of a compassionate professional.
Here’s an example: If a client is having trouble processing anxiety about their self-worth or taking up other people’s time, they could interpret their therapist’s announcement that time is up as evidence that they’re a burden or are taking up too much time. “Our time is up” could elicit a strong reaction that, to the therapist, seems bigger than the facts of the situation—simply that time is up, and another client has a session soon. In the next session, they could help the client dig deeper into that reaction and confront the potential fears or insecurities underneath it.
Other ways projection can come up in therapy
Sometimes, coming face to face with our fears and insecurities can be really challenging. Therapists can also take the process of projection and use it as a tool for self-reflection by projecting onto a secondary object. With these methods, projection is something a therapist and client can purposefully use to uncover feelings or thoughts that might otherwise be projected onto others in the outside world. In the following methods, the therapist provides an outlet or prompts to help a client understand what’s coming up for them when they use projection as a psychological defense mechanism:
A therapist can provide a client with a pencil and paper to write or draw. The act of writing or drawing may allow for the projection of insecurities or fears through creative expression.
Wordlists or inkblots are sometimes used to provide clients with different frameworks to address what they’re feeling.
Fill-in-the-blank worksheets, comics with empty speech bubbles, or stories with missing sections can be other helpful ways to externalize the internal.
What are some examples of projection?
Projection isn’t just a psychological concept—it’s a living, breathing, and dynamic process between an individual and their environment and relationships. As a result, it can feel and present in a variety of ways. Here are a few hypothetical examples of how projection can play out as a defense mechanism:
You project your anxiety about a weekend event by discussing your worries about an upcoming homework assignment with friends.
You have the urge to shoplift but project the idea onto your sibling and start thinking they’re stealing whenever they get something new.
You want to attend a top college but worry about financial limitations, leading you to project your stress onto friends by pushing them to excel academically.
You project your insecurities about your body by interpreting everything your friends say about your appearance as negative.
You’re anxious about being attracted to someone else while in a relationship and project that feeling onto your partner, accusing them of being attracted to others and cheating.
You project your insecurities about your sexuality by shaming friends with active sex lives.
- You’re feeling very fearful and shameful about something you did over the weekend. Subconsciously, you might not feel ready to confront the behavior. When you go back to school the following Monday, you begin projecting those anxieties onto your classmates so you can protect yourself from examining your own actions. You might ask them if they’ve finished an assignment that’s not due for another several weeks or repeatedly talk about how nervous you are about an upcoming exam that you know you’re prepared for. This is you mirroring those same anxieties from the weekend onto other areas of your life.
- You feel the desire to shoplift but brush it off because it couldn’t possibly be something you would ever actually do—that would be bad. But instead of owning the desire, you project that onto your sibling and start believing they’ve been stealing every time they come home with something new. Even if you never intended to steal in the first place, if you struggle to accept your unpleasant thoughts and feelings and instead brush them aside, you could end up projecting them onto others.
- You really want to be accepted into a good college, but you’re struggling with the fact that your family’s financial constraints might prevent you from going to your dream school. It’s a stressful prospect. But instead of processing that negative feeling, you project it onto your friends by encouraging them to do well in school so they can get into good colleges. Think of this type of projection as vicarious living.
- You’ve felt insecure about your body for a long time, but admitting this to yourself would be too painful. You project those insecurities by interpreting anything your friends say about your appearance as negative, even though they swear that’s never their intention.
- You’re anxious because you’re in a relationship but feel attracted to someone else. Instead of admitting that you feel something for someone who isn’t your partner, you project that emotion by pointing fingers at your partner for being attracted to other people. You may even start to accuse them of cheating on you or accuse them of lying when they haven’t.
- You’ve had issues with expressing your sexuality, and it’s been really hard to face how to talk about it with friends and family. You project that discomfort onto friends with active sex lives by shaming and showing contempt for them.
A quick history lesson on projection and Sigmund Freud
Projection isn’t a new buzzword or even a modern-day invention. Rather, it’s a social psychology concept first proposed by Dr. Sigmund Freud, known as the “father of psychoanalysis.” It was further refined by his daughter, Anna Freud.
Freud suggested projection as one of several defense mechanisms that can arise from psychological conflict, along with avoidance, rationalization, regression, and substitution. In classical Freudian terms, if the “ego” (the self that finds the common ground between desire and practicality) is threatened, someone may project a negative trait, emotion, or belief onto someone else as a defense mechanism. By this logic, the process of defensive projection may be unconscious. At the same time, the individual may be conscious of the bad feelings, fears, or insecurities they’re externalizing.
In later years, Freud expanded the term to include psychological projection that happens even without threat. Contemporary research, which has been skeptical of Freud’s ideas in general, supports his perspective. It indicates that projecting isn’t always a defense mechanism; instead, trying to suppress a thought can make it more noticeable in your mind and shape how you see the world over time.
Are some people more likely to project than others?
Projection can and does happen to anyone. It’s simply the process of externalizing what’s going on internally. However, studies indicate that some people may be more likely to project than others. For instance, researchers looking into the shared traits of children with narcissistic tendencies and young adults diagnosed with borderline personality disorder have identified projection as one of the more commonly used defense mechanisms. Although projection is not a “sign” or indicator of any mental health condition, this finding suggests that people with certain mental health conditions may be more likely to project than others.
Is projection harmful?
Projection is not an issue in and of itself, though it may speak to a larger underlying concern. In some cases, people with schizophrenic delusions who rely heavily on projection may develop paranoia and start believing that others are actively plotting against them, one study found.
In some situations, there may also be distress on the receiving end of projection. For example, if a parent is grappling with their own fear of failure and projects that negative feeling onto their child rather than addressing them in their own life, the child may internalize that insecurity. Later on, this can manifest in a variety of attachment issues in the child, particularly related to anxiety or avoidance.
How can you tell if you’re projecting?
Here are some steps to consider if you want to tell if you’re projecting.
1. Practice self-awareness
Understanding whether you may be projecting your fears or insecurities onto others requires self-awareness and introspection. This isn’t easy to come by but is necessary to determine if you are projecting or if someone else is projecting onto you.
2. Take a step back
If you think you might be projecting, creating some distance between yourself and the situation is a great first step. Reducing your level of distress can help you think more clearly and objectively about the facts.
3. Review the facts
Walk yourself through the facts to better understand another person’s actions and the issue you’re perceiving. Ask yourself: Am I making assumptions about what others think or feel without concrete evidence? Could my feelings or beliefs about this person or situation be influenced by my own experiences or biases?
If you’ve reflected on your reactions and emotions in response to someone else’s words or behaviors and determine that projection was a part of it, therapy can be a very safe space to explore things further—including whether or not what you’re experiencing fits into larger patterns of interpersonal situations that make you feel distressed or even underlying mental health issues.
Get mental health support at Charlie Health
If you or a loved one are struggling with projection and want to make mental health improvements, Charlie Health is here to help.
Our virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) combines group sessions, family therapy, and personal therapy to support young people with complex mental health conditions and their families. Projection is just one example of how people process internal conflicts and painful feelings. Charlie Health’s team of compassionate, expert clinicians will help clients make sense of what they’re experiencing, identify what feelings or issues may be underlying their experiences, and find healthier, more sustainable coping strategies.