Understanding Neurotic Projection

How You Unconsciously Perceive Others to Have the Negative Emotions Within Yourself

a person punching a wall

It’s a Tuesday morning, you wake up and your spouse has already left for work. You wake up in an annoyed mood because you have to work another day at your 9-5 job, which frequently leaves you feeling unfulfilled like you’re just “going through the motions of life.” You can’t seem to find any enjoyment with your job because you find your coworkers to be as equally annoying as the job itself. You believe they are not hard workers and in turn you pick up the slack while they spend most of the day chit chatting and leisurely moving throughout the work day. 

No doubt this has caused you to build a significant amount of pent up anger towards your job, your coworkers, and most importantly -- yourself. You feel guilty for taking a job that has caused you so much grief, yet feel trapped and unable to leave your current job for a new one. At the same time you resent yourself for this exact scenario. 

You come home to your spouse who is awaiting your arrival. Upon returning home, you realized you were extremely hungry and hoped your spouse would have something waiting for you. Unfortunately, this is not the case when you come home and they ask what you want for dinner. Immediately you feel overcome with anger and the inconvenience this has caused you. So, you lash out at your spouse and accuse them of making your life more difficult than it has to be, they know you already deal with so much at work, so why do they need to add to it now? 

In reality they only asked you one simple question, “What do you want for dinner?” Perhaps you may realize this is a common occurrence that has caused a significant amount of strain on the relationship -- maybe even caused you to rethink the relationship entirely.  

If this situation sounds familiar or relatable to you -- then you or someone you know may be struggling with neurotic projection. Now, you’re probably asking yourself what is neurotic projection? But before we get to that, we will first discuss projection and then neurotic projection. 


So, What is it? 

Girl sitting on dock looking out to a lake with her back towards the camera
Projection occurs when we unconsciously project a negative emotion or thought that occurs within ourselves onto someone else and criticize them for feeling that way.

A definition of projection states -- it is a psychological defense mechanism in which individuals attribute characteristics they find unacceptable in themselves to another person. 

This can sometimes result in false accusations, for example -- a husband having an affair with another woman may accuse his wife of being unfaithful. 

Another example may be a person who has romantic feelings towards one of their coworkers and later accuse that coworker of sexual advances. 

Finally, a more relatable and common example -- you claim that someone hates you, when the reality of the situation is you hate them.  

Projection is often unconscious, but can easily distort, transform, or affect your reality. According to Freud, projection is a defense mechanism that is used to purposefully avoid uncomfortable repressed feelings. A variety of emotions can be projected onto others, but most commonly these include impulses or feelings within oneself that they cannot accept -- sexual tendencies, anger, jealousy, or a controlling nature. 

While it’s considered to be a defense mechanism, it is also a way of protecting oneself from feelings or emotions they don’t want to deal with. Projection can be broken into three categories: neurotic, complementary, and complimentary. For our purposes we will be focusing mostly on neurotic projection.

Projection is not limited to repressed feelings and does not always have to be negative in nature, as complementary and complimentary projection help people more easily feel like and relate to those around them. In short, complementary projection occurs when someone believes others feel the same way they do for example in political positions. Complimentary projection is the assumption that others can do something you’re good at just as well as your can, for example an artist who thinks others can paint as well as them and as a result they may decide to give up painting completely. 

Neurotic Projection 

The Most Common Type 

Diagram of how the superego, ego, and id function
Drawing of how the ego acts as the mediator between the id and the superego. Image courtesy of Meducation.

Neurotic projection is the closest type to the original definition of a defense mechanism. People who experience this type of projection attribute feelings, motives, or attitudes, which they find unacceptable in themselves to others around them. 

Projection may have its own connection to the id, ego and superego. As a refresher, you can think of the id as the devil on your shoulder, the superego as the angel, and the ego in the middle of the two. The id acts as the primitive and instinctual part of the mind, while the superego serves as moral consciousness. The ego mediates the two and identifies the realistic aspects of both. 

When we project our thoughts or emotions onto someone else, this allows us to take a step back and consider them as well as their dysfunction. We criticize the other person for having these feelings, which distances ourselves from the emotion because we don't have to deal with the malaise of knowing these feelings and emotions are our own. 

In relationship to the id, ego, and superego -- the ego understands that the dysfunctional emotions exist, but wants to understand where they are coming from. The superego sends off red warning signals that there could be potential harm if these emotions come from an internal place. In return, the ego projects them onto other things as an external source of the emotions. 

The projection does not always have to be on another person -- the environment, government, society, or an inanimate object could be the potential source to place blame. 

Why Do We Project? 

A Coping Mechanism 

Stoplight diagram of problem, analysis, and solution
We unconsciously use projection as a coping mechanism. By projecting feelings onto something else that we do not want to confront within ourselves, we are creating a solution to the internal issue which leaves us blameless and keeps our dignity intact. 

It’s easier to criticize others -- so pointing out the negative aspects or flaws in someone else is more convenient than identifying them within our own personalities. The ego is also extremely fragile, so it wants to protect our dignity and promote a positive self-image. So, whenever these aspects of our personalities are at risk of exposure, we unconsciously seek to defend ourselves and thus project these unwanted thoughts and emotions on others. As a result, we are saved from believing the emotions belong to ourselves, along the guilt and unpleasant feelings that come with this realization. 

The people who are at highest risk of projection have a weak sense of identity, low self esteem, inferiority complex, or do not have a strongly developed level of emotional intelligence. It can also be a learned behavior, stemming from an emotionally unavailable parent. As a result the child may project their negative emotions onto others to appear more loveable to their parent. Suppressing these feelings diverts the shame, guilt, remorse, feelings of worthlessness, etc. 

At the same time, those who are able to understand their emotional flaws and weaknesses are less likely to project. These people allow themselves to experience emotions, whether they are positive or negative without judgement. 

Projection may also stem from underlying mental health concerns such as paranoia, narcissistic and borderline personalities. Paranoia is associated with the projection where we believe that everyone around us actually hates us, when that is typically not the case.

Overcoming Projection

Is it Possible? 

Like anything, overcoming a deeply rooted problem can be extremely difficult. The difficult thing about projection is, most people don’t realize if they are projecting. So, if you think you are, this is the best place to start -- with awareness. Being aware of when you are engaging in projection is the fastest way to create change. 

If you can determine when you are criticizing and blaming another for an emotion inside yourself, the defense mechanism will gradually wear away. You can start your journey to end projection with self reflection, write down the times this occurs and the emotion surrounding the projection. But it is important to be nonjudgmental and view your weakness with an objective viewpoint. 

You may also ask someone whose opinion you value if they have ever noticed you projecting onto others. You can seek professional help by seeing a therapist and working through to a goal of accepting your thoughts and emotions and end projection altogether. 

No matter the route you want to take, understand that projecting does not make you a bad person. The ego naturally wants to protect itself from punishment, so projection is a way of doing so. But if you want to end this, you will have to work towards acknowledging when you are projecting and learning to accept the emotions within yourself.  

Maura McLay

Maura is a succulent and cacti enthusiast, pizza chef and cat mom.
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