• Ann-Marie Covert, MSW, RSW

The Curious Case of Projection

Updated: Jun 6, 2020

What is Projection?

You may think of projection as light emitting a picture on a screen, however projection is also a psychological term. Projection is a defense mechanism, when we attribute characteristics that we don’t like within ourselves onto other people around us.

Have you ever felt that someone didn't like you for no reason? Do you have someone in your life who triggers you, and you don't know why? You might be experiencing a case of projection.

Freud, the Father of Psychoanalysis, would notice when he was meeting with his patients, there were times that they would accuse others of the very behaviors they were doing. For example, a husband who struggles with anger management issues may believe his wife has a problem with anger.

What Causes Projection?

Why does this happen? Why do we and those around us project our problems onto others?

Its simple really, because it is easier to point out the flaws in others rather than confronting our own. It is an unconscious attempt to protect ourselves, it is all about self preservation.

There are things we don’t like about ourselves that we unconsciously attach to others around us, because it is easier on our hearts and minds if other people are the ones with the problem. It is our minds way of externalizing our discomfort and making someone else carry the psychological burden we have been carrying.

More Examples of Projection:

A person who is having an affair may project this onto their spouse and become convinced that they are being unfaithful.

School bullies may project their vulnerability onto other classmates (a root cause of most bullying).

Critical employees may project their feelings on their employer and assume their boss doesn’t like them.

A person may project their insecurities in their friendships assuming everyone is rejecting them.

A parent may project their ideals for success onto their children, when they themselves do not feel successful.

Short-term Benefits, Long-term Costs

In the short-term, projection protects our minds from the discomfort of these feelings. It protects us from our own insecurities, fatal flaws, and vulnerabilities. In the long-term however, projection can be very damaging in relationships.

In marriage, projection can cause one spouse to feel constantly blamed and disrespected, when the person with the actual issue is permitted to play the role of victim.

Bullies can cause repeated damage to students who will develop their own insecurities after repeated insults and abuse.

Employees can create toxic work environments and undermine the ability to create trust with their employer.

Friendships can easily have the rug pulled out from under them if someone is fixated on abandonment and interprets everything as rejection.

Parents can create perfectionist mindsets in their children, causing them to become hypervigilant to achieve greatness.

How to Avoid the Trap of Projection?

Some people are more vulnerable to the trap of projection than others. Individuals who have insecurities and low self-insight are at higher risk.

Some mental health issues also make people at higher risk for projection. Individuals with Personality Disorders tend to project on a regular basis. A person with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) has a high likelihood of projecting their fears of rejection onto their friends and family, and will interpret everything as a sign that they are abandoning them.

But the truth is, we can all fall into the trap of projection.

Whether you believe you are projecting your insecurities onto others, or if you believe you are a recipient of someone else's projected insecurities, you can sidestep this by developing your self insight.

Developing Self Insight

You can avoid the trap of projection with self insight. Good self-insight and humility will allow people to self-reflect and own their flaws and mistakes, making them less likely to project. Also, self insight will help you side-step the attempts of others projecting onto you.

Make the Unconscious Conscious

Think of someone in your life who triggers you. Think of a recent conversation you had with them, and ponder, what about them bothered you? Ask yourself, "is there anything about their behavior, that I see in myself, that I am afraid to acknowledge?"

For example, maybe the person who triggers you is a coworker who talks incessantly (you know, the kind who doesn't even stop to breathe when talking). So ask yourself, "Am I afraid that I talk to much?" Or, "Do I have a fear that I will make someone mad if I cut them off?"

It is possible you have a hidden insecurity in this area and this is causing you to feel triggered when around someone displaying this specific behavior.

Taking time to self-reflect can uncover fears and will help you be more mindful of your response during your interactions with others.

In the case above, uncovering the hidden fear that you don't think you should cut people off may help you to be more confident to politely interject the next time you get caught up in an unwanted conversation.

Start Today

Take some time to self-reflect today, reviewing any negative interactions from your last week, and you may find some of your relationships having more positive interactions in the future.

For more information about projection and helpful tips, check out my YouTube video: Projection: Our Mind's Defense

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