What does “projecting” really mean from a psychological point of view? I recently did a 5-part video series on Instagram about psychological defense mechanisms, and I got a lot of questions about projection. (and if you haven’t seen that yet, you can catch it right here.)

Projection is one of those mechanisms…and when it happens, it’s usually unconscious. BUT, in this neck of the woods, self-awareness and self-knowledge are essential to living a self-directed, fulfilled, happy and healthy life! 

In this week’s episode, I’m pulling back the curtain on projection. 

We’re going to cover what it is, how it can show up, plus tips to help you uncover when your ego might be operating behind the scenes and blocking you from true self-awareness.

We all use defense mechanisms to some degree, but part of becoming more psychologically and emotionally healthy is realizing when, where and why we’re doing it so we can learn how to shift into more mindful choices and behaviors. 

The ego is part of the human personality as defined by Freud. His daughter, Anna Freud, later expanded upon his work, defining the various psychological defense mechanisms our ego uses to protect us. You can think of the ego or “self” as the narrative you tell yourself about who you are. 

Projection is a defense mechanism employed by our egos. When uncomfortable or painful thoughts, feelings, or situations challenge the picture of who we think we are, our ego can jump in to defend itself. 

When the ego is running the show, there’s a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding that can go down. From a psychological perspective, there are 2 different kinds of projection: neurotic projection and complementary projection. 

Neurotic projection is an unconscious process the ego uses to attribute unwanted emotions you don’t like onto someone else rather than admitting they exist within yourself.¹ It can include blame-shifting and falsely accusing others. 

Let me give you a couple of simple examples of neurotic projection:

  • One person in a relationship is cheating. They come home and accuse their partner of flirting with someone at a party. Instead of owning their own uncomfortable truth and feelings of guilt, they project their misdeeds onto the other person. 
  • There’s someone new at the office. Let’s call her Betty. From the moment you see Betty, you get this weird feeling– you don’t like her. But, you’re a nice person! There’s no reason for you not to like her. So, you start thinking to yourself, “I don’t think Betty likes me. I feel like she’s kind of judgemental.”

Can you see how the ego can disavow our true feelings because they are a challenge to the person we are telling ourselves we are? 

Projection distorts reality and can make it difficult to have healthy relationships, set appropriate boundaries, or recognize other dysfunctional behavioral patterns.  

We all have feelings we want to hide or keep in the shadows, and our ego can subvert those disavowed feelings and project them in a way they feel like they are coming at us from another person, rather than coming from us. 

Our defense mechanisms are there for a reason and can be a natural and normal response to stress. They can spare us from something we don’t want to feel or accept about ourselves. We can project onto other things too, not just individuals– like blaming society or the government, or like a teenager who points to his crappy car as the reason his love life is less than stellar.  

Complementary projection is when we make an assumption that other people share our feelings, opinions, or experiences. I’ve seen this in my therapy and coaching practice for decades. I can’t tell you how many times clients have said some version of, “Well, I’m sure everyone experiences this,” or “I’m sure everyone has this skill. It’s no big deal.”

Not everyone has your problems and not everyone has your skills either! While it’s not inherently a bad thing, some people can use complementary projection as a way to minimize their accomplishments or experiences. 

Complementary projection can almost be like giving other people more credit than they deserve without any evidence. Like neurotic projection, it is another example of making assumptions about other people from an unconscious place and that can be misleading and confusing. It is definitely healthier and more effective to ask questions than to make assumptions. 

If this is resonating with you, have compassion for yourself. We all can project to some degree. Our brains are complex and as human beings, we are wired to search for meaning and to categorize information. We are processing so much on a daily basis, we might have schemas or narratives to help us make sense of our world, almost like a blueprint.

Sometimes we can have a particular reaction to someone that is really based on an experience in our past that can drive defense mechanisms like projection. 

Why should we care about uncovering projection in ourselves? If you want to live your life wide awake and cultivate meaningful relationships and real intimacy, you need to know what’s going on under the surface of your consciousness! 

To help you begin the process of decoding, I’ve created a step-by-step guide for you to create more awareness around where you might be projecting in your life and get a more balanced and objective perspective. 

You can get your guide here now. 

It is important to get clarity around this so you can raise your emotional IQ. The more well-versed you become in understanding the most common psychological defense mechanisms you might be using in your life, the healthier your interactions will be and the more empowered you will become in your relationships. 

Keep in mind, this is mostly unconscious. It’s not about being wrong or being a bad person. And only you have the power to bring this information from the basement of your mind into your conscious mind so you can start living a fully expressed and self-determined life! 

Does this resonate? Where are you projecting in your life? I read all of your comments, so please drop me one here or connect with me over on Instagram @terricole and let’s keep this conversation going! 

You have the ability to become a boundary boss, but you can’t be projecting all over town! I hope this empowered you to keep moving forward with your mental health and wellness. The unconscious stuff really does get in the way of creating the life and the relationships you want and love, but you CAN re-train your brain and call your ego on its BS. 

You are my people, I so appreciate you and as always take care of you.

¹https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/projection

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  1. Thanks, Terri! This is a good article and really food for thought in becoming more mindful about our relationships. I am trying to catch myself when I begin to do this.

  2. Having nurtured from a narcisstic relationship. I know very well the habit of displacement, being the one on whom everything was displaced. I think narcissistic relationships are the primary ill we suffer as a society, and coorelating diplacement in a narcissistic setting is useful. Thanks for your in put. I always enjoy seeing what you have to say and how you say it.

  3. I have a new neighbor who purchased the house next door (a very close “next door”) that has been in my family for a couple of generations. There have been one or two times when she has actually said that she doesn’t want to see evidence of anyone else (me included) when she looks out her windows, but our properties are literally intertwined so she is kind of stuck with us. She’s doing a big, expensive renovation which will be nice for us as well, but I recently got honest with myself because it turns out I don’t like like having someone new and pushy and territorial in my back yard, so I was building this story about how she wants us to disappear (neurotic projection). Hopefully it will all work out once the house renovation is done and she is actually spending time here (complementary projection?), but I’m paying attention to my feelings as well as physical and emotional boundaries that will be required to avoid poisoning my quality of life in my own home. P.S. I loved the “Boundary Boss” book.

    1. Hi Terri! Love love your videos! Looking forward to reading your new Boundary book.. I am very familiar with Projection directed at me by experiencing narcissistic abuse. Also I am mostly aware when I am projecting onto someone else. That is trickier to notice, although the narcissistic abuse makes it more difficult in either direction.

      I would like if you could expand in a follow-up video more on the connection between boundaries and projection, especially in regards to narcissistic abuse.

      Thank you! ??

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