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Are You Projecting? Defense Mechanisms in Therapy and Beyond

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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

Let’s say that one of your biggest insecurities is that you’re not smart enough. If a teacher or classmate corrects you or adds to what you’ve said in class, you assume they’re doing that because they don’t think you’re smart. It feels better than unpacking your own worries because it’s about them being mean—it doesn’t have to do with you or your intelligence. If this sounds familiar, you might be projecting.

Projection is a natural and commonly-used defense mechanism for many people. Defensive projection may cause distress, though, if it has a long-term, negative impact on how you relate with others or the world around you.

What is an example of projecting in psychology? How and why does projection come up in real life and in therapy? Here’s your explainer on this very common defense mechanism.

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 onto a screen. 

Projection is a natural and common, though complex, phenomenon. 

Oftentimes, psychological projection shows up as the externalization of traits, emotions, or beliefs that we’re afraid we have or feel insecure about. It can affect our interpersonal relationships with loved ones, how we engage with strangers, how we think about our pets and other animals, or how we interpret the world. Projection can also help us empathize with the people around us. 

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 concept in social psychology that was 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. 

In later years, Freud expanded the term to also be inclusive of psychological projection that happens even without threat.

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Why do people project?

Projection is a common defense mechanism. Defense mechanisms allow someone to avoid seeing and admitting their own issues. 

The process of defensive projection may be unconscious. At the same time, the individual may be conscious of the unwanted feelings, fears, or insecurities they’re externalizing.

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.

Although projection is not a “sign” or indicator of any mental health condition, 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.

Is projection harmful?

In rare cases, some people with extreme patterns of externalized blame for their own problems may develop paranoia and start believing that others are actively plotting against them. 

Projection is not an issue in and of itself, though it may speak to a larger underlying concern.

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 inadequacy and projects those feelings 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, particularly related to anxiety or avoidance

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 the process can play out as a defense mechanism:

  • 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 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 scary, stressful prospect. But instead of processing those feelings, you project them 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 you know subconsciously that admitting it 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 feeling 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.

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How can you tell if you’re projecting?

Understanding whether you may be projecting your own fears or insecurities onto others requires a level of self-awareness and introspection that isn’t easy to come by. It can also be hard to sense if someone else is projecting onto you. 

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. Walking yourself through the facts can help you better understand another person’s actions and the issue you’re perceiving. 

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.

How does projection show up in therapy?

Because therapy usually centers on the relationship between two people–the therapist and the client–it creates a safe, nonjudgmental space to navigate interpersonal dynamics and patterns. Projection in therapy could be directed toward the therapist or toward 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 difficult emotions 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 through projecting onto a secondary object. 

In the following methods, the therapist provides an outlet or prompts to help a client project what’s coming up for them:

Construction techniques

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.  

Association techniques

Wordlists or inkblots are sometimes used to provide clients with different frameworks to address what they’re feeling.

Completion methods

Fill-in-the-blank worksheets, comics with empty speech bubbles, or stories with missing sections can be other helpful ways to externalize the internal.

With these methods, projection is a process a therapist and client can purposefully employ to unearth what may otherwise be expressed through projecting onto other people in the outside world.

Get support at Charlie Health

Charlie Health’s Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) creates a safe and supportive space for young people ages 12-28 to explore what they’re feeling and how they relate to others—whatever that looks like. 

Projection is just one example of the ways people try to process internal conflicts and challenges. 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. This happens through individual therapy, supported groups based on shared experiences, and family involvement in care.

Our IOP can help young people better manage depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, and other mental health conditions that make life more difficult. Reach out today to learn more about our Program and whether or not Charlie Health is right for you or your teen.

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