What is Psychological Projection?

Understanding Projection and How It Can Affect Your Relationships

Projection is a defense mechanism in which we reflect our unconscious thoughts and impulses onto someone else, denying their existence within ourselves. We generally start projecting as a way to protect ourselves from unconscious feelings that are difficult to cope with and understand. The majority of our emotions and thoughts come from our own unconscious. Our unconscious mind is responsible for attraction and motivation and can keep underlying fears and beliefs hidden. When we push down or deny these unconscious beliefs, they can manifest negatively in our daily lives and potentially harm those closest to us. 

Three Types of Projection

Man contemplating at the beach.
Projection is a reflection of our unconscious thoughts.

Neurotic Projection

Neurotic projection is the most common type of projection and it is, most simply, when you reflect your own emotions or motivations on to another person. Because we have pushed down these destructive thoughts in our unconscious, they manifest themselves into our conscious thoughts about another person which are simpler for us to grapple with. For example, if you subconsciously feel you are too controlling, instead of admitting this to yourself,  you might start thinking of a friend as controlling. 

Complementary Projection

Complementary projection is when you assume those around you share the same beliefs and value systems that you do. What you are projecting in this case are your own beliefs and values onto other individuals. When you reflect your own opinions and principles onto others, you can be left vulnerable- especially if you are assuming they have altruistic motives. You can live for long periods of time accepting inadequate or unacceptable treatment from those around you because you believe that they have the same good intentions that you do. We also see complementary projection occur with political views; we assume that everyone around us accepts the same “political truths” that we do, especially on hot-button issues. But this is often not the case and can end in heated and hurtful comments and arguments that didn’t need to occur.

Image of person in black looking depressed.
Sometimes, we project because we doubt our own abilities.

Complimentary Projection

The third type of projection is complimentary projection; complimentary projection is when you assume those around you can perform every task or skill just as well as you can. What can be so dangerous about complimentary projection is that it devalues your own work, worth and talents. For example, if you are in an art class and you’re a masterful painter, with complimentary projection, you assume everyone else in the art class can paint just as well as you. However, because you don’t believe you have an above average talent, you quit the art class and never allow your painting skills to fully develop. Complimentary projection can lead you into a cycle of self-doubt and undermine your self-confidence.

Image of upset man and woman.
Unchecked projection can hurt your relationships.

Projection and Your Relationships

Projection can be incredibly destructive in your relationships. Considering your partner is constantly with you, it can be easy for your unconscious thoughts to reflect onto them. This can lead to building tension, frustration and resentment in your relationship. However, there are tactics we can use to spot our own projection and cope when our partner projects onto us. When we see ourselves getting angry or having an abnormally strong emotional reaction, we should ask ourselves “who is this really about?” The goal in this is to not stop your anger, but to understand the root of your frustration so you don’t direct unnecessary rage towards your partner. There are also phrases commonly associated with projection such as “he/she hates me.” “He/she hates me” is one of the most popular phrases we use to project a hatred we actually feel for ourselves onto another person. Expressions of jealousy can also be a sign of projection and may indicate that your partner is feeling insecure about themselves or the relationship. 

When you see or feel as though your partner, or anyone, is projecting their emotions onto you, a useful way to diffuse the situation is by saying calmly “this feels like it isn’t about me.” This phrase is not argumentative or aggressive, but encourages self-reflection in a potentially heated situations. Try to be questioning and not accusatory, especially considering the other person is probably feeling vulnerable and aggravated. 

Projection is not something we can completely get rid of or avoid. Ultimately, understanding projection is about understanding and being sure of yourself. If you can clearly see and comprehend your own thoughts and actions, you will be more prepared to catch yourself or your partner projecting.

Caroline Hale

Caroline is a Pittsburgh-based writer and public speaking coach.
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