Psychological projection is a mental process where we place our own internal feelings onto other people as a way to cope with these distressing feelings or insecurities.
The concept was first developed by Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. It is tied to his theory of the ego; which, in simple terms has to do with how we see ourselves and our understanding of our own identity.
Psychological Projection Explanation
When people ‘project’ their feelings onto others, generally speaking, they do this so that they can avoid facing the difficult emotions and feelings themselves.
This ends up distorting their perceptions of what they are experiencing, and causes them to attach the negative beliefs/emotions/attitudes to other people, instead of belonging to them (which is the source of the projected trait).
Sometimes it’s easier (psychologically and emotionally) to perceive our negative feelings as reflecting other people instead of belonging to ourselves. This often happens at a subconscious level, so when people project their emotions, they are typically unaware that they’re doing so.
Psychological Projection Examples
- Baseless accusations – accusing someone of something despite having no reason, often due to your own insecurities.
- Bullying – children are often mean to other children because they have deep-down feelings of insecurity themselves.
- Helicopter parenting – Parents are overly demanding of their children because they hope their children can fulfil the dreams that the parents didn’t get to have.
- Criticizing appearances – People who criticize other people’s appearance often feel insecure about their own appearance.
- Blame shifting – a student who did poorly on a test doesn’t want to face up to their own failures, so they blame their teacher.
15 Examples in Depth
1. Baseless Accusations
Scenario: Ashley and Zach recently met and are still getting to know each other. Ashley is insecure about how she looks, and though she won’t admit it to Zach, sometimes she goes on social media and compares herself to his previous partners.
Ashley then thinks that when Zach is on his phone, “he must also be looking at his previous partners and comparing them with her” since she does this herself. She ends up accusing him of doing this when, as it turns out, he was just using his phone.
Here, we would say that Ashley is projecting her insecurities onto Zach. She is the one that is comparing herself to his previous partners—not Zach. She’s worried he might draw those same comparisons, and so she projects by making baseless accusations—though they might feel real to Ashley.
Scenario: Tommy is mean to Jessica because he’s worries he’ll be excluded from the friendship group. By trying to exclude her, he is inadvertently expressing his own insecurity about exclusion.
Bullying is a case in point of psychological projection. Broadly speaking, kids and even some adults, bully others as a way to avoid dealing with their own feelings of inadequacy and insecurities.
Bullies struggle with their own sense of themselves; and this causes a fear that their perceived inadequacies will be exposed to others. To divert the attention, and also to avoid facing their own troubling feelings, bullies project negative emotions and attributes onto other people.
Name-calling, making fun of others for being different from them, or jokes made at the expense of others are all forms of bullying that exhibit psychological projections.
3. Melanie Klien’s Object-Relations Theory
Melanie Klien was an Austrian psychoanalyst and was heavily influenced by Sigmund Freud’s work. Klien developed Object-Relations Theory largely based on Freud’s work, though it diverged from his in several ways.
In Klien’s view, projection is understood as the following:
“A defence mechanism in which a person fantasizes that part of his or her ego is split off and projected into the object in order to harm or to protect the disavowed part, thus allowing the individual to maintain a belief in his or her omnipotent control.”
Object-Relations Theory holds that people develop their personalities in relation to the objects around them during their infancy. Objects, in psychoanalysis, is used as an umbrella term to refer to people, things or activities.
During our infancy, babies perceive things as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, i.e., either a threat to their survival, or a source of love and protection. Later in life, the things that we perceive as ‘bad’ (even about ourselves) and pose threats to our self, are projected onto objects (i.e., other people around us in our environments.) We do this so that we can deceive ourselves by disassociating these ‘harmful’ parts and attributing them to others.
4. Helicopter Parents
Scenario: Some parents project their hopes and dreams that they never fulfilled themselves onto their kids, and then they place immense pressure on their kids to fulfill those goals (on their behalf.)
The term ‘helicopter parent’ describes a parenting style that is also known as over-parenting, where parents are excessively invested in, and/or preoccupied with the wellbeing and success of their kids.
At first glance, it could seem that the helicopter parent is an admirable parenting style since it encourages the best for their child. People who over-parent their kids, or are helicopter parents, sometimes have underlying psychological reasons for being that way, which may not be in the best interest of their child.
Parents that do this are usually unaware that they’re doing so, and they could truly believe that they have their child’s best interests at heart. Nevertheless, there are many negative effects of helicopter parenting.
5. Thinking Your Co-Worker Doesn’t Like You
Scenario: Have you ever felt like your colleague dislikes you, or is hostile towards you? It’s possible that in those situations the co-worker didn’t harbor any negative feelings towards you, but rather that the opposite is true, and you simply perceived it that way.
Rather than facing difficult emotions ourselves, when we psychologically project, we assign them to others as an escape. It can be difficult to confront the fact that we have troubling emotions and feelings; say, for example, disliking a colleague at work.
Instead of facing the fact that we dislike the person, or think they are annoying, we assume that they feel this way towards us. This diverts the attention from us and onto that other person so that we are safe from having to confront our true feelings in the situation.
6. Being Overly Suspicious
Scenario: Someone might suspect that their partner is cheating on them when they are the one that’s being unfaithful.
Projecting negative emotions onto others can happen in romantic relationships, and when people do this it’s oftentimes because they are the ones at fault.
The person projecting their emotions, while they likely don’t realize it, they are shifting the blame onto their partner because it conflicts with their sense of who they are, and they don’t want to face what their behavior implicates about themselves.
7. Criticizing the Appearances of Others
Scenario: If a person is hyper-critical of someone else’s appearance, criticizing their physical traits or the way they dress, this could be because they are self-conscious about their own appearance. Instead of confronting their true feelings, they project them onto others.
When people are insecure and have low self-esteem, one way they might cope with this is by deflecting or projecting their negative feelings about their selves onto other people.
It’s not always true that when people criticize the appearances of other people that the person is projecting their own negative feelings. Sometimes people are just rude and critical for no reason. That said, when people project, it’s because they worry that they are defective in the specific sense that they are accusing the other person of being.
8. Intolerant Attitudes
Scenario: Though unintuitive, people can be intolerant toward others because they see themselves in that person, or group of people, and that is something they fear.
People can have intolerant attitudes because they are prejudicial toward people that are different from them.
That said, if a person is projecting intolerant attitudes (for example, by being demeaning towards others because of their orientation, race, or gender,) this is different from being a strictly prejudicial person.
If you perceive yourself in a certain way, and then you come to discover something about yourself that clashes with that perception—this can cause dissonance, and result in projecting onto others by being intolerant of them.
9. Workplace “Mobbing”
Scenario: A successful team member at work is frozen out of social circles because other people wish they were as successful as her.
Workplace mobbing is a term that’s been recently used to describe the problem of bullying or ganging up on people in the workplace. Just like in school, coworkers can also form cliques, or gang up on a certain coworker by ostracizing him or her from the group, and making them feel like an outsider.
People might behave this way because they feel threatened by someone, and they are worried that they’re not as competent or skilled at their own job. As a result, they project their insecurities and disparage others around them.
10. Anxious Attachment in Adults
Anxious attachment is a relationship style some adults have that is characterized by the deep-seated fear of abandonment. People with severe anxious attachment often become that way through parental neglect when they were young, the experience of abandonment and/or trauma.
As a relationship style, the anxiously attached person should be understood as being on a spectrum; however, people that are severely anxiously attached will often project their emotions onto others, they may lie compulsively or be passive-aggressive with their partners.
Broadly speaking, people that are anxiously attached are very insecure, and they project their insecurities onto their partners by falsely accusing them, guilt-tripping, clinginess, and so on and so forth.
Scenario: Daniel and Carolina are in a new relationship. They both really like each other, but Carolina notices that Daniel sometimes acts strange, and she doesn’t understand why.
Daniel is insecure because he’s been betrayed by his previous partners in the past, and he is on edge about starting a new relationship where he is emotionally vulnerable. Daniel worries that Carolina might easily take an interest in other men, and so he is excessively preoccupied with the people she talks to, and any interactions she has with men in general.
Not always, but oftentimes jealousy occurs as a result of psychological projection. Daniel is insecure about himself, and this insecurity manifests as jealousy and projecting his emotions onto other people around him in his environment.
12. Being Passive-Aggressive
Scenario: Alex needs help on her essay, so she asks her friend Laura if she can take a look at it. Alex is embarrassed about having to ask for her friend’s help, and she’s also insecure about her essay-writing abilities.
Laura is happy to read over the paper. At one point while she’s reading, she stops to ask Alex a clarification question on something she had written. Alex responds, in a passive-aggressive tone that she doesn’t need her help and she’ll just do it herself. Laura doesn’t understand why Alex reacted this way to a simple clarification question.
Since Alex is insecure about having to ask her friend to look over her essay, she is emotionally heightened and sensitive and perceives a simple clarification question as an attack on her academic proclivities. Alex is projecting her insecurities onto her friend, when her friend is only trying to help her with her paper.
Scenario: Andrew grew up in a household where he was not encouraged to speak openly about his emotions or express how he feels. Andrew’s father is the strong and silent type, and doesn’t feel it’s okay for men to cry or be sensitive. When Andrew sees other men around him being sensitive or expressing their feelings, he makes fun of them and tells them to “be a man.”
Andrew might not know it, but he is projecting his emotions onto other men for portraying what he considers to be feminine, or non-masculine traits.
Since Andrew was made to feel ashamed for his own sensitivities and feelings, he is quick to jump at others for exhibiting those behaviours. He is projecting because he is insecure about being perceived as non-masculine himself.
Scenario: Jack failed his algebra test, but he is convinced that his algebra teacher is out to get him and failed him on purpose. He goes home and complains to his parents that he feels the only reason he failed the test is because his teacher has a secret vendetta against him.
Jack might truly believe this, or he might be embarrassed that he failed the algebra test and is trying to shift the blame to his teacher rather than confront his own failings. Jack is projecting his feelings onto someone else to avoid facing them himself.
15. Spreading Rumours
Scenario: Diana has a big crush on one of her classmates at school, but she starts to notice that he might like her friend. Diana is insecure about this, and so she starts a rumour that her friend doesn’t shower or brush her teeth, in the hopes that her crush might find that disgusting and not like her friend anymore.
Diana is insecure because the person she likes doesn’t like her back, and instead likes her friend. In this case, psychological projection is manifested through Diana spreading a rumour about her friend, which is entirely baseless and false. Diana does this so she doesn’t have to confront the reality of the situation, being that the person she likes does not share those same feelings for her.
As we’ve now seen from the 15 examples of psychological projection, projecting is something people do often and it can manifest in a number of different ways. Scapegoating, blame-shifting, jealousy and passive aggressive behaviour can sometimes be an effect of psychological and emotional projection.
While psychological projection is tough to deal with, the bright side is that people can learn how to manage their tendencies and work on themselves through open and healthy communication, and educating themselves on what the underlying issues are.