5 Examples of psychological projection

One does not light up by imagining figures of light, but by making darkness aware,” wrote Carl Jung. But discovering and accepting our shadows requires arduous mental work that many people are unwilling – or unable – to do because they lack the necessary psychological tools.

Those people often end up casting their shadows on others. The inability to deal with some aspects of one’s personality or one’s life generates anguish and helplessness. Consequently, when they feel overwhelmed by circumstances or their “ego” feels threatened by inadmissible internal shadows, they put in place defense mechanisms such as projection to protect themselves from distress and avoid suffering.

Projection as a defense mechanism

Projection is a defensive behavior that protects our “ego” by channeling towards others those feelings, motivations or impulses that are unacceptable to us. When we believe that certain thoughts, feelings, impulses or behaviors are negative and do not fit the image we have of ourselves – because they make us an unkind, unworthy, inferior or bad person – denying their existence is one way to avoid dissonance cognitive impairment and the discomfort they can generate.

The concept of projection in psychology comes from Freud, who first referred to this mechanism in a letter from 1895. In it he described a patient who avoided facing her feelings of shame by imagining her neighbors gossiping about her. In this way she safeguarded the image of her that she had of herself and did not have to look for the real reason of her shame of her.

Later, Carl Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz overturned the theory of psychological projection as a mere mechanism to protect our ego. They argued that projection is also used to protect us from fear of the unknown. According to these psychoanalysts, when we don’t understand some things – our own or the world – we tend to project archetypal ideas as part of our natural response to the desire for the world to be a more predictable, controllable and orderly place.

Either way, when we project our feelings onto another person, what we do is sidestep our more fearful emotions. The act of projecting thus becomes a distraction that allows us to ignore the real culprit, the internal problem that arises from the inability to maturely manage these inconsistencies and shadows.

Examples of psychological projection in everyday life

Projection is a fairly common mechanism in everyday life because when a person doesn’t have the confidence and maturity to accept those parts of themselves that they don’t like, it’s much easier for them to point fingers at someone and move those unpleasant feelings.

Thus, psychological projection can occur in a wide variety of contexts, either as an isolated incident or as a regularly recurring pattern in a relationship. Usually this mechanism is triggered to avoid exploring the underlying feelings. For example, a person may accuse us of being selfish or angry when in fact they are selfish or angry.

She may also accuse us of being disloyal to mask her disloyalty or fear of abandonment based on the belief that she’s not good or lovable enough. In fact, in relationships, psychological projection is a mechanism that is often activated. Jealousy with unfounded accusations of infidelity, for example, can hide that the person is attracted to someone else and, instead of admitting it, accuses their partner by projecting their impulses and desires onto him or her.

People with narcissistic or manipulative tendencies also often resort to projection. These people may complain that we always ask for attention or claim that we continually put our needs first when in fact they are the ones who do it. It also happens that they blame us for what went wrong for not taking their responsibility, so as to project shame or incompetence onto us.

The projection is “today’s bread and tomorrow’s hunger”

Projection favors no one, neither those who cast their shadows nor those who become their receptacle.

The person upon whom the shadows are cast runs the risk of becoming a sort of “emotional caretaker” or, at worst, a scapegoat . If they are emotionally hypersensitive people, they are likely to act as “ emotional sponges ” absorbing all the anger, shame, sadness or anxiety that others cannot handle. As a result, they will carry the guilt of others on their shoulders, a burden that will be too heavy in the long run and will end up weakening their psychological balance.

Indeed, it is not uncommon that, as a result of a continuous projection, we end up taking on the guilt, insecurities and negative traits of others, incorporating them into our identity. For example, a parent who hasn’t been able to pursue a successful career might tell their child, “You’re not going anywhere” or “Don’t even try.” By projecting his or her insecurities onto the child, the child may internalize the message, believe he or she will never succeed, and therefore not even try.

Even the person who projects does not come out unscathed. It’s true that defense mechanisms are a strategy to change how we interpret a situation or how we feel about it, but they don’t change reality. In fact, keeping unacceptable feelings and impulses out of our consciousness results in an extremely vulnerable “false self”.

As Jung said, “What you deny submits you. What you accept transforms you”. We have to accept the shadows to grow. If we don’t, if we continually project our insecurities onto others, the price of that protection will be an inability to build resilience and mature.

While psychological projection preserves our self-esteem by making difficult emotions more tolerable, that protective shield is actually very weak and can end up breaking when we least expect it.

How to identify the psychological projection?

Spotting the projection isn’t always easy, but an important clue is usually an unusually strong and disproportionate emotional reaction. When we perceive that we are overreacting – or that someone is overreacting – it is possible that we are projecting our own insecurities.

In a relationship, projection is seen because conflicts are not resolved. The same discussion is repeated several times, falling into an infinite vicious circle, because one of the parties does not recognize its own responsibility, but continuously projects it onto the other. By projecting guilt onto someone who can’t handle it, the cycle feeds on itself.

Another sign that unmasks projection is when we feel upset, irritated, or angry with someone, but are unable to figure out where that feeling came from or what behavior caused it. Usually, we have identified in that person – unconsciously – a characteristic of ours that we refuse to acknowledge.

Stop the projection mechanism

When we spot the projection, it’s best to step back. If we are the ones to project, we must move away from the conflict to assume a psychological distance from the situation that oppresses and distresses us. Then we will be able to think more rationally.

In that case, we have to analyze the conflict by trying to focus only on the facts. So we will have to explore the feelings it has generated and the reactions it has triggered in us, from the emotions experienced to the thoughts that have come to mind. Is there something bothering us? Any feeling or idea that we quickly dismissed? This is where we need to focus our attention. We have to ask ourselves what it really means to us and why we can’t accept it.

In case someone tries to cast their shadows on us, the best thing to do is establish a barrier that prevents us from introjecting those fears, insecurities and guilt. We can clearly answer: “I don’t agree with you” or “I don’t see it that way”. Thus we can deflect the projection and hopefully even motivate that person to reflect on his perspective in order to take the responsibility that corresponds to him.


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