How to manage projection?
Projecting can take the form of avoiding a feeling, belief, or judgment we have about ourselves by relocating it in someone else. It allows other people to be the “owners” of our personal flaws, therefore distancing ourselves from having to acknowledge the things we do not like or things that don't feel good within us. But, projecting can also be harmful to developing rich and loving relationships with ourselves and with others.
Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, MD, coined the psychological term projection as a defense mechanism. It's a subconscious, unintentional habit that lets us know that there’s something that feels too difficult to confront within ourselves. Projections can make it easier for us to live with ourselves because if other people are the cause of any given distress, then we don’t have to deal with the underlying problem. But projecting isn't actually an effective method for self-protection or preservation—and it's a good habit to curb, for two main self-destructive reasons.
Attempting to read another person's mind can yield anxiety, as you ruminate on their experience instead of focusing on yours. Projections also evoke other unpleasant emotions like anger, frustration, and irritability, because they put the focus on what others are doing, which we cannot control, rather than our own emotions, over which we do hold sway.
Anger indicates the presence of unmet needs. And projecting our own insecurities and unmet needs onto others can lead us to feel like victims, subject to the whims of another, rather than as an empowered agent of personal change in our lives.
This is because criticism leads to contempt. If you’re constantly pointing out the flaws in others, you are distracting yourself from your own personal wounds. But if you own your wounds and let people in on your self-criticism and judgments, you invite them to be closer to you (rather than push them away as you judge them for your projections).
When we are forming opinions and beliefs, we see others and the world based on who we are (our social identities, histories, values, and experiences) not as they exist. In essence, when you’re judging another person, you are not understanding them, but rather revealing something about yourself. Additionally, when you are being judged by someone else, know that it isn’t about you, but rather reveals something about the other person's insecurities and emotional needs.
Only when we're able to build mindful awareness of what's happening for us when we make assumptions or judgments about others are we able to shift our relationships with ourselves and them. So, below, learn keep tips for how to stop projecting.
The brain's primary goal is to survive, and in order to do so, it predicts risk and acts accordingly via the fight-or-flight stress response. For many, when we don’t have information, the inclination is to respond with cognitive distortion, filling the the gaps with worst-case scenarios in order to prevent future harm.
When you become aware of the speedy thoughts and your judgment wheel begins to churn, work to look inward rather than outward. Ask yourself: What about this person or scenario is triggering to me right now? What am I feeling in my body, and is there an emotion attached to these sensations? Does the way this person is showing up remind me of other experiences I’ve had or people with whom I’ve interacted? Taking care of yourself at this moment will support you in healing the insecurity that is projected outward.
Let's say you’re at work, and your colleague doesn’t make eye contact with you at the coffee machine. You then develop a story in your mind that they hate you.
Consider where this perception might be originating. Ask yourself questions about the facts that would confirm or deny your judgment, such as, Was there anything I did to harm this person? The brain cannot differentiate between triggers and threats, so while someone not making eye contact may trigger a past hurt or experience, it doesn’t necessarily indicate a present threat.
Notice when you’re developing narratives about what someone else thinks: “You are bored of me.” “You don’t like me.” “You are ugly.” These types of sentiments are reminders that you may be projecting your experience. Remember in these moments that the path to self-discovery is often paved with fear.
For instance, if you're thinking "you are cheating on me," maybe you yourself are having sexual feelings for someone else, and because you’re scared to face these emotions and sensations, you believe your partner is having them.
In these cases, shift to "I" statements: “Am I feeling bored? “Do I like me? “Am I feeling comfortable in my own skin?” “How do I feel about monogamy or my sex life right now?”
If we approach ourselves with judgment, our tender parts will go into a mode of protection and defense. So, rather than make a statement about someone else, ask yourself a question about a personal experience.
Typically, we dislike things in other people that we do not like about ourselves or that remind us of previous versions of ourselves. For example, whenever I experience someone as “phony,” I come into contact with the many years that I pretended I was perfect to avoid social rejection and exclusion. This older version of myself used outward judgment to avoid feeling hurt; because of this, it's better for me to respond with curiosity.
Welcome to the world of psychological projection.
So you have admitted to yourself you are the projecting type. So what now? How can you start to become more responsible for how you think and feel?
Projection happens because we are in complete denial of how we really feel to the extent we dump it on others instead of acknowledge it. “I’m fine” is a response many of us are quick to not only say but buy into, ignoring the anger that has our stomach in knots or the sadness that has us secretly overeating or bingeing on alcohol every night.
Begin by just noticing how many times you say “I’m fine” each day, either to others, or in your head to yourself.
This sort of ‘present moment awareness‘ will have you well on your way to the next point…
Mindfulness has proven so effective for helping people to be more in touch with how they think and feel it has taken the psychological community by storm over the last few years.
A modern take on ancient Eastern practises, it’s about learning to tap into the power of the present moment, where your real feelings and thoughts reside.
The more you are present to yourself, the less you’ll project.
More often than not we are projecting feelings because we suffer from shame and low self-esteem and are afraid to see our imperfections. This is where the art of self-compassion steps in.
This creates a safe inner space to being to accept your less than perfect feelings, meaning there is less of a need to dump them on others.
Realise you say you are fine more than you should, but can’t quite get a handle on what you are thinking and feeling instead? It could be you need to spend more time alone getting to know yourself.
This is not about sitting at home watching television. It’s about quality time where you invest in learning to listen to yourself. This can look like time spent journalling, trying new things nobody else you know likes, reading self help-books, visualising, or doing self-development study courses.
Projection is the mind’s way of tricking us out of feeling what we need to feel. So what if you stopped believing all your thoughts were the gospel truth? And started recognising that most of your thoughts are a mix of assumptions, old core beliefs, and doubt?
Question your thoughts about yourself too. Are you really as hated as you think? As powerless as you want to believe?
(Never know what questions to ask? Read our article on how to ask better questions. Want some help questioning your thoughts? Try cognitive behavioural therapy, which focuses on this very skill.)
Projecting can happen because it feels easier than communicating how we really feel, or being honest about what we want from a situation and others.
Consider taking time to learn how to communicate better, especially how to communicate under stress.
Part of communicating also involves learning to listen more. Remember that words aren’t the only way people communicate – it might also be in their body language and the actions they take.
Projection is often a way to make a victim of ourselves. Instead of admitting we don’t like a colleague, we decide they hate us. Instead of admitting we are furious at a family member for not pulling their weight, we say nothing and blame them for being too angry and mean.
Instead of throwing away your power, invest in learning new ‘power skills’ such as learning how to say no and learning how to set boundaries.
Start to notice what situations make you project can be helpful. And notice who you tend to project around. Is it only with romantic partners, or more often with strangers?
Then ask what your projection is about. Do you tend to project when people ask too much of you and you feel overwhelmed? Would you rather project than admit you were wrong? Do you project your sexual feelings onto others?
You might find the present patterns link to past patterns. For example, if you do project over admit you were wrong, did a parent punish you frequently for being ‘bad’? And if you do project your sexual feelings, do you have a religious background that shamed any sexual thoughts? The next suggestion can be helpful if these feels too overwhelming.
You know that old saying: what you dislike about others is what you dislike about yourself. In the heat of a challenging moment, this might be the most annoying thing anyone can say to you. Yet, it's often true.
Projection is an unconscious defense mechanism stemming from the ego. In projection, you take an unacceptable part of yourself, such as your feelings, thoughts, tendencies, and fears, disown it, and place it onto someone else. Projections contain our blind spots. Although almost everyone has engaged in projection at some point in their lives, it's often difficult to know when you're doing it.
Projection can cloud your vision and skew your perception of reality. This makes it hard to see a situation for what it is, and instead, morphs a person or situation into something it is not. When you engage in projection, you become susceptible to self-victimization and blaming other people for something you need to address within yourself.
Projecting is like dumping clutter into someone else’s living room and then hating them for being messy. It's a way to avoid the responsibility of dealing with your own emotional clutter and instead, making it someone else's fault. Projection is often a calling for self-reflection and setting healthy boundaries.
Sometimes we even project our positive qualities onto others, such as aspects of ourselves that we are unconsciously afraid to own. Just like the negative aspects, it can feel difficult to own your positive qualities, but much easier to acknowledge them in others.
While it's important to determine when you're projecting, it's also essential to not take on other people's projections, and not make yourself responsible for someone else's behavior. There will be times when you encounter manipulation, uncontrolled rage, disrespect, abuse, and other boundary violations that say more about the other person than they do about you. In these situations, your response is still your responsibility, whether that includes practicing nonviolent communication, setting a boundary, or removing yourself from the situation.
Read more: Learn about codependency + boundaries and explore strategies for dealing with negative thoughts and anger.
Below, you'll find a three-step process to help you identify and explore potential areas of projection. You can apply this inquiry process to any challenging situation that comes up for you.
STEP 1: Notice if you're exhibiting these symptoms of projection:
STEP 2: Self-honesty.
Ask yourself these questions and write down the answers:
STEP 3: Implement Boundaries and Reclaim Your Power.
This final step includes a somatic process to help you integrate the information you've gathered in the previous steps. This practice will help you to self-regulate, reclaim disowned aspects of yourself, let go of projections you may have taken on, and shift into a more objective, compassionate mindset.
Explore accessible breathing practices, free guided meditation recordings, and communication tools.
Everyone has their own issues, and we all handle them differently while traveling this journey we call life. Some people have trouble working through their issues and end up projecting them onto others, so on top of dealing with your own issues, you have to figure out how to respond to someone who is projecting.
Projection isn’t always overt, and you might not recognize it right away. It can come from anyone around you, even the person closest to you, whether a best friend or a lover.
By the end of this post, you should be able to identify someone who is projecting, and more importantly, learn how to respond and navigate it throughout your life. This will help to preserve your well-being and to prevent negativity from seeping its way from someone who is projecting into your life.
Let’s start with what projection is and the reason why people project onto others in the first place. This will help you to determine how to respond to someone who is projecting.
According to Psychology Today, projection can be described as “the process of displacing one’s feelings onto a different person, animal or object.” In some instances, this is a defense mechanism and can commonly be observed in bullies who make fun of others about their insecurities while struggling with similar self-esteem problems. In other instances, it can be unconscious, for instance, a husband who constantly flirts with other women while accusing his wife of cheating, or a family member who failed at university discouraging a younger family member from enrolling. You can usually tell that someone is projecting if he/she seems to be unreasonably mad about something and it is directed at you.
It’s pretty simple. People project onto others because they can’t be honest with themselves about the things they are doing or dealing with, due to shame or guilt. It’s easier to look down on others and scold others for a trait or action than it is to do so to yourself. In many instances, the projection is really how the person feels about him/herself and he/she just uses others as a punching bag.
Projection happens a lot in everyday life. It can cause problems and ruin relationships when it’s unintentional and it has a huge impact on another person’s life when it is done with negative intentions. Understanding how to respond to someone who is projecting is a necessary life skill when dealing with different relationships, whether with friends, lovers or relatives. In time, you will master this skill and hopefully avoid projecting your own views or feelings onto someone else .
- Stop saying I'm fine.
- Try mindfulness.
- Learn the art of self-compassion.
- Spend more time alone.
- Question your thoughts.
- Learn how to communicate better.
- Recognise your personal power.
- Track the projection patterns.