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Projection is a type of defense mechanism or means of coping. People may use defence mechanisms and unconscious mental strategies to cope with stressful or anxiety-provoking thoughts and experiences.

When someone unconsciously attributes their thoughts, feelings, or behaviours to another person, they are projecting. For example, your partner may feel jealous in your relationship but may accuse you of being jealous. In this example, your partner is projecting their jealousy onto you.

This article explores the meaning of projection, what causes it, how to spot if someone is projecting onto you, and strategies for stopping the behaviour.

The Meaning of Projecting in Psychology

Projection is a defence mechanism by which an individual unconsciously attributes their behaviours, emotions, impulses, undesirable characteristics, and thoughts to others. It is a way of taking our internal dialogue and turning it into an external exchange as if our own beliefs or behaviours belong to someone else.

Evidence from the other person's words or actions may or may not support these emotional responses. Some research theorizes that projection could develop from physical and verbal expressions of denial in early childhood.

Projection is often viewed as a coping strategy that people engage in when experiencing intense and complex emotions. When we project our feelings onto others, it can serve as a way to keep us from experiencing uncomfortable emotions like fear, guilt, or shame. It can also be an unconscious effort to preserve our self-esteem or sense of self.

Examples of Projecting

There are different types of projection. The most common are:

  • Neurotic projection: This is probably what most people imagine when they think about projecting. This occurs when we credit someone else with undesirable emotions, thoughts, or behaviours. For instance, someone who is being dishonest may believe that those close to them are deceitful.

  • Complementary projection: This happens when we believe others hold the same beliefs we do. For instance, a family member who practices a specific religion may assume that others in the family maintain the same beliefs that they do.

  • Complimentary projection: People use this projection type when they assume others have similar abilities. For example, your partner may be great at budgeting and think you have as much financial literacy as they do.

What’s important to remember and recognize is that what is being projected may not necessarily align with the thoughts, feelings, beliefs, or actions of the person to whom it is being projected.

What Causes Projection?

Projection can result from experiencing thoughts, feelings, emotions, or impulses that are difficult to acknowledge and manage.6 We may uncover something about ourselves that makes us uncomfortable and struggle to accept or deal with it.

Instead of addressing it head-on, we misplace those thoughts or feelings by projecting them onto others. This keeps us from having to recognize them as our own and deal with them directly, which can serve to maintain our sense of self.

There is a link between narcissism and projection. Individuals with narcissistic traits display an exaggerated sense of self-importance, a need for admiration, and a lack of empathy toward others. People with narcissistic tendencies are likely to engage in projection by projecting their self-image onto others.

Trauma is another reason that people may project. A person who has experienced a stressful or traumatic event may struggle to cope with the aftermath of that situation. As a result, they are left feeling fearful or powerless.

Projection may allow a person to separate themselves from the trauma. However, this may lead them to project intense emotions onto others. Though projection may temporarily relieve strong emotions, it can fuel feelings of anxiety and mistrust and impact relationships and mental health.

Is Projecting Gaslighting?

Projecting is different from gaslighting. Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse in which one person manipulates another into doubting their reality, perception, and memories. People engage in gaslighting to assert power and control over others.10 Projection is a defence mechanism by which people unconsciously cope by avoiding difficult emotions.

Projection in Therapy

Projection can reveal hidden insecurities or beliefs that are valuable to explore in therapy. It also relates to the phenomenon of transference, in which a patient transfers feelings he or she has toward another important figure in their life

While projection can occur in different contexts, transference is primarily understood through a therapeutic lens.


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