What Does Projecting in Psychology Mean?


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Medically reviewed by Dakari Quimby, PhD

Projection is a type of defense mechanism or means of coping. People may use defense mechanisms and unconscious mental strategies to cope with stressful or anxiety-provoking thoughts and experiences.

When someone unconsciously attributes their thoughts, feelings, or behaviors to another person, they are projecting. For example, your partner may feel jealous in your relationship but may accuse you of being jealous. In this example, your partner is projecting their jealousy onto you.

This article explores the meaning of projection, what causes it, how to spot if someone is projecting onto you, and strategies for stopping the behavior.

<p>10'000 Hours / Getty Images</p>

10'000 Hours / Getty Images

The Meaning of Projecting in Psychology

Projection is a defense mechanism by which an individual unconsciously attributes their behaviors, emotions, impulses, undesirable characteristics, and thoughts to others. It is a way of taking our internal dialogue and turning it into an external exchange, as if our own beliefs or behaviors belong to someone else.

Evidence from the other person's words or actions may or may not support these emotional responses. Some research theorizes that projection could develop from physical and verbal expressions of denial in early childhood.

Projection is often viewed as a coping strategy that people engage in when experiencing intense and complex emotions. When we project our feelings onto others, it can serve as a way to keep us from experiencing uncomfortable emotions like fear, guilt, or shame. It can also be an unconscious effort to preserve our self-esteem or sense of self.

Projecting is when someone unconsciously attributes their thoughts, feelings, or behaviors to another person.

Examples of Projecting

There are different types of projection. The most common are:

  • Neurotic projection: This is probably what most people imagine when they think about projecting. This occurs when we credit someone else with undesirable emotions, thoughts, or behaviors. For instance, someone who is being dishonest may believe that those close to them are deceitful.

  • Complementary projection: This happens when we believe others hold the same beliefs we do. For instance, a family member who practices a specific religion may assume that others in the family maintain the same beliefs that they do.

  • Complimentary projection: People use this projection type when they assume others have similar abilities. For example, your partner may be great at budgeting and think you have as much financial literacy as they do.

What’s important to remember and recognize is that what is being projected may not necessarily align with the thoughts, feelings, beliefs, or actions of the person onto whom it is being projected.

What Causes Projection?

Projection can result from experiencing thoughts, feelings, emotions, or impulses that are difficult to acknowledge and manage. We may uncover something about ourselves that makes us uncomfortable and struggle to accept or deal with it.

Instead of addressing it head-on, we misplace those thoughts or feelings by projecting them onto others. This keeps us from having to recognize them as our own and deal with them directly, which can serve to maintain our sense of self.

There is a link between narcissism and projection. Individuals with narcissistic traits display an exaggerated sense of self-importance, a need for admiration, and a lack of empathy toward others. People with narcissistic tendencies are likely to engage in projection by projecting their self-image onto others.

Trauma is another reason that people may project. A person who has experienced a stressful or traumatic event may struggle to cope with the aftermath of that situation. As a result, they are left feeling fearful or powerless.

Projection may allow a person to separate themselves from the trauma. However, this may lead them to project intense emotions onto others. Though projection may temporarily relieve strong emotions, it can fuel feelings of anxiety and mistrust and impact relationships and mental health.

Signs Someone Else Is Projecting Onto You

It can be challenging to identify when someone is projecting on you, partly because it may not be apparent to them. You might have trouble deciphering whether someone is sharing how they actually feel toward you or something else is happening.

Here are some signs to watch out for that might indicate that someone is projecting onto you:

  • Defensiveness: If someone is angry or defensive in a way that doesn’t match how you shared your concerns or feedback, they could be projecting their fears onto you.

  • Invalidation: A person projecting may have difficulty acknowledging their emotions or be dismissive or criticize you.

  • Accusations: People who are projecting may make accusations without being able to provide any clear evidence that supports their statements.

  • Lack of responsibility: It can be difficult for someone to recognize when they are projecting onto others. In turn, it’s even more challenging for them to accept responsibility for the behavior.

Responding to Projection

What someone is projecting onto you may reflect how they think and feel about themselves. If you feel someone is projecting onto you, you can try:

  • Asking questions to get to the heart of the issue: You might try something like, “I’m trying to understand your perspective. Can you tell me more about your thoughts on this?”

  • Acknowledging their feelings and sharing your own: Be clear about what you do understand and your thoughts on the matter.

  • Calmly expressing disagreement: Gently let them know you disagree and ask if they are open to honest conversation.

  • Pausing the conversation: If things get too heated, pause the conversation. You can come back to it later when you’re both feeling better and are better able to express your views.

Projecting is different than gaslighting. Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse in which one person manipulates another into doubting their reality, perception, and memories. People engage in gaslighting to assert power and control over others. Projection is a defense mechanism by which people unconsciously cope by avoiding difficult emotions.

How to Stop Projecting Onto Other People

If you recognize or receive feedback that you've been projecting, know that this is something you can address and improve. Here are some strategies you can use:

  • Be open to feedback: It can be hard to receive constructive feedback. Someone may have given you feedback about projecting because they're concerned about you and want to have better conversations.

  • Respond instead of reacting: Take a moment to acknowledge your emotions and consider how you can share your thoughts or feelings without accusing others. Giving yourself time to process your thoughts can allow you to craft a thoughtful response reflecting your feelings.

  • Be direct and honest: Be clear about the behavior that is causing you concern. Talk about the behavior and how it made you feel without criticizing someone else.

  • Seek support: If you're struggling to recognize and manage your emotions, communicate effectively, and take ownership over your actions, it may be time to seek help, especially if it's hurting your self-esteem and relationships. Talking to a trusted loved one or mental health professional can help you get perspective and learn adaptive coping strategies.

If you or a loved one is struggling with projecting and looking for professional support, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see the National Helpline Database.


Many of us unconsciously engage in projection to cope with difficult thoughts, emotions, impulses, or behaviors. However, if left unchecked, projection can damage our sense of self and relationships. Exploring beliefs, fears, and insecurities can be uncomfortable, which can lead to projection. Uncovering those issues is valuable and can improve your awareness, communication, and relationships with yourself and others.