How to spot the signs of projection; is it you or me?

The concept of projection first got proposed by Sigmund Freud during his work on defence mechanisms, which later got cultivated by Freud’s daughter, Anna Freud.

What is projection?

Projection is the unconscious process where an individual shifts their desires and urges onto another person, animal or object.

These projections usually get deemed unacceptable by society’s standards; hence the person unconsciously adopts a defence mechanism, often referred to as defensive projection, by displacing their own feelings, impulses, or desires onto someone or something else.

Psychological projection

An excellent example of psychological projection is when a bully scorns his victim for being insecure. In reality, the bully is displacing his own feelings of inadequacy and insecurity onto the victim.

Uncomfortable feelings

Another example might be when a married woman cheats on her husband and then accuses him of being the one to cheat. 

The wife may start projecting jealousy onto her partner by throwing accusations at him or any other negative feelings.

By projecting her own feelings of guilt onto her husband, the wife can deflect attention away from her by displacing these negative feelings onto someone else.

According to Freud, defensive projection takes place on an unconscious level to protect the ego.

Why do people project?

When unconscious discomfort occurs, it can result in people assigning their unacceptable impulses and feelings to someone else to avoid addressing them.

However unconscious the process may be, projection makes room for any unacceptable urges and impulses to get addressed without the person having to recognize these traits as their own.

Projecting onto others

Projecting into others

By displacing unacceptable urges and behaviour, any negative traits can get viewed through an observer’s lens rather than an individual having to take responsibility and face the social recrimination that may go with it.

Who created the idea of projection?

Initially, Austrian-born psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud first developed the concept of projection in an 1895 letter. He described a patient projecting her feelings of shame by believing her neighbours were gossiping about her.

Projecting feelings

Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung believed projection to be a way for humans to protect themselves against the unknown, often to their detriment.

Carl Jung believed that individuals project archetypal notions onto people and things that they don’t understand, all of which is an innate response to a desire to live in a more predictable and circular world.

Jung also believed projection to be a tangible thing and explained that people should not get blamed directly for making other people suffer under such projections because they are not conscious of them (Carl Jung, Zarathustra Seminar).

Spotting the signs of projection in everyday life

Projection can occur in various scenarios in everyday life, from isolated incidences to consistent patterns that show up in romantic relationships.

However, when people learn to recognize and thus change their responses to projection, it may help them navigate social issues.

Thoughts and feelings

Broadly, projection can often feel more like manipulation. 

Psychological projection often gets observed in those with mental health disorders such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder, a personality disorder where the sufferer thinks of himself first in any given interaction.

Projection is not a mental illness; however, projection may be a sign of a personality disorder. Symptoms of Narcissism include:

  • A person struggling with intimacy or empathy
  • Constantly seeking attention
  • Prioritizing power, idealism, and success
  • An over-inflated sense of self-importance
  • Displaying signs of instability in unexpected situations

Almost everyone uses the projection defence mechanism at some point – and since it’s not a conscious act, most people do not even know they are doing it!

The first step to understanding the self

It might be helpful for you to consider all the variables the next time you feel angry (or any other negative emotions, for that matter). For example, you may want to ask yourself, ”am I angry at the other person, or am I displaying a trait that I hold within myself?”

Being aware of our insecurities gives us the room to forgive ourselves for any wrongdoing. It also builds our capacity to forgive others.

Where did the idea of a projection defense mechanism manifest?

Freud’s work on defence mechanisms has been the subject of fascination within the field of psychology for centuries.

Defense mechanisms

Ego, one of the defense mechanisms

Freudian defence mechanisms involve a series of defences where humans unconsciously get driven to protect critical parts of their personality, such as the ID, EGO, and SUPEREGO.

Since the ID is instinctual, a part of us motivated by primitive instinctual drives such as food, water, and sex, it constantly seeks pleasure. Therefore, it will do anything it can to ensure its needs get satiated.

Reaction cycle

Fortunately for humankind, the other two personality parts, namely the EGO and the SUPEREGO, help mediate the ID’s impulses that get channelled through the ”reality” principle which operates through the EGO and the ”morality” principle, which is where the conscience gets developed.

Through the successful mediation of all three personality types operating together, individuals can function in a socially acceptable manner. 

For instance, a married man may feel attracted to his co-worker but knows that acting on his attraction impulses is immoral. In the above scenario, the ID’s impulses have successfully quashed as the EGO and the SUPEREGO have resolved any conflict through the narrative of right and wrong.


Freud identified several defence mechanisms, which include:

  • Repression
  • Denial
  • Sublimation
  • Regression
  • Reaction – formation
  • Projection

All six defence mechanisms constantly seek to resolve any rising conflict or anything that isn’t socially accepted.


For example, a person may use repression to push down any fears, worries, and anxieties to the extent that these emotions become unconscious.

When all this happens, the person may not be aware of what is troubling them; however, any lingering trauma may resurface throughout the person’s life if it remains unaddressed.



Denial is a much easier defence mechanism to spot since it involves a person outright denying their reality.

All this often happens when someone suffers a bereavement, they may deny that a death has occurred and often continue to live in denial for quite some time.  

Denial usually occurs when the situation or information of an event is too overwhelming for the brain to process.


Regression often occurs in those with difficult childhoods or other adverse life experiences. A person may revert to a former time in their lives when they were at their most content, such as revisiting the family home or a destination where they once felt safe. 

Essentially, people may regress to a time when they were at their happiest.

People with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) may unconsciously regress to childhood behavioural patterns in adulthood. For instance, when conflict arises, they may start to yell, cry or shout, which often gets observed in inappropriate contexts.

Reaction formation

Also known as compensation, reaction-formation involves a person overcompensating.  For example, if an individual suffers from anger problems, they may compensate by being overly friendly or nice. 

However, they may also refuse to engage in heated discussions or address relationship problems for fear of becoming angry.


Sublimation is considered the healthier defence mechanism since it involves sublimating one thing for the greater good.  For instance, when a person experiences anger, instead of taking it out on themselves or others, they engage in an intense workout to discharge some negative tension.

Freud classified sublimation as a sign of maturity since it takes a complex emotion such as aggression and redirects the energy towards something productive, like exercise for example. 

It may be helpful for people wanting to improve their relationships, particularly when conflict arises, to ask themselves the question; is it you or me?

David Scourfield

David Scourfield is a Camino Recovery team member since 2017, focused on facilitating communication with Clinical and other professionals to ensure a comprehensive understanding of Camino's program.

Combining his marketing skills and lived experiences, he joined Camino in 2017, contributing to external publications and the Camino website. With a strong belief in solidarity during the recovery process, David helps clients build support networks by connecting them with others in recovery.

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