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Explanations > Behaviors > Coping > Projection

Description | Example | Discussion | So what?



When a person has uncomfortable thoughts or feelings, they may project these onto other people, assigning the thoughts or feelings that they need to repress to a convenient alternative target.

Projection may also happen to obliterate attributes of other people with which we are uncomfortable. We assume that they are like us, and in doing so we allow ourselves to ignore those attributes they have with which we are uncomfortable.

  • Neurotic projection is perceiving others as operating in ways one unconsciously finds objectionable in yourself.
  • Complementary projection is assuming that others do, think and feel in the same way as you.
  • Complimentary projection is assuming that others can do things as well as you.

Projection also appears where we see our own traits in other people, as in the false consensus effect. Thus we see our friends as being more like us than they really are.


I do not like another person. But I have a value that says I should like everyone. So I project onto them that they do not like me. This allows me to avoid them and also to handle my own feelings of dislike.

An unfaithful husband suspects his wife of infidelity.

A woman who is attracted to a fellow worker accuses the person of sexual advances.


Projecting thoughts or emotions onto others allows the person to consider them and how dysfunctional they are, but without feeling the attendant discomfort of knowing that these thoughts and emotions are their own. We can thus criticize the other person, distancing ourselves from our own dysfunction.

One explanation is that the ego perceives dysfunction from 'somewhere' and then seeks to locate that somewhere. The super ego warns of punishment if that somewhere is internal, so the ego places it in a more acceptable external place - often in convenient other people.

Projection turns neurotic or moral anxiety into reality anxiety, which is easier to deal with.

Projection is a common attribute of paranoia, where people project dislike of themselves onto others such that they believe that most other people dislike them.

Projection helps justify unacceptable behavior, for example where a person claims that they are sticking up for themselves amongst a group of aggressive other people.

Empathy, where a person experiences the perceived emotions of others, may be considered as a 'reverse' form of projection, where a person projects other people onto themselves. Identification may also be a form of reverse projection.

Projection is one of Anna Freud's original defense mechanisms.

So what?

To work authentically with other people, avoid projecting your woes onto them. When you see others in a negative light, think: are you projecting? Also understand that when others criticizing you, they may well be criticizing a projection of themselves.

When others are using projection, you can hold up a mirror to show them what they are doing. As usual, this may well be met with other forms of resistance.

See also

Projection and Introjection, Projective identification

Displacement, Fantasy, False Consensus

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