In psychology, there are several common defense mechanisms, one of which is the projection defense mechanism, an unconscious response that helps people deal with challenging thoughts or feelings. Projection is a type of defense mechanism that causes people to associate their negative thoughts, emotions, or behaviors with another person.
While it’s possible for projection to be a one-time occurrence, it frequently surfaces as a pattern of behavior. Though it’s an attempt to protect oneself from unpleasant feelings such as stress, anxiety, and internal conflict, projection is not healthy.
Learning to recognize how a projection defense mechanism works can help you change the ways you interact with others and prevent acting out, so you can develop positive, supportive, mutually rewarding relationships.
How Does Projection Work as a Defense Mechanism?
What is the projection defense mechanism, and how does it work? Most adults understand the difference between right and wrong, but it can still be difficult for some people to accept that they’ve done something unhealthy or detrimental to themselves or their relationships. Projecting onto others is a way for some people to subconsciously deny characteristics in themselves that they might be ashamed of or find hard to admit.
Projection ultimately stems from internal conflict. Attributing unacceptable feelings or traits to others can be a way for some people to try to avoid uncomfortable realizations. It’s a subliminal strategy that can protect people from anxiety, distress, and other negative emotions.
“Projection is something we all need to be aware of. We subconsciously react to people based on our own wounds of insecurity, guilt, or shame that we have not addressed. We punish or harshly judge others, which allows us to continue to avoid our own healing.”– Talkspace therapist Dr. Karmen Smith LCSW, DD
Is projection a healthy defense mechanism?
Defense mechanisms can be beneficial on some level, but ultimately, projection negatively affects relationships and personal growth. Using projection as a defense mechanism against negative emotions can cause confusion and conflict. For those who are being projected on, it can be frustrating and upsetting to be accused of a behavior they’re not guilty of.
Projecting traits onto others also prevents people from confronting their own negative traits. Since people who engage in this impulsive defense mechanism aren’t aware that they’re projecting, it can be difficult for them to address contributing factors.
How to Spot Projection (Examples)
Projection isn’t something people do deliberately, so it can be hard to spot. Projection defense mechanism examples can help you recognize the behavior. This defense mechanism can appear in any type of relationship or setting.
Some examples of what defensive projection can look like include:
- A person who’s having an affair may accuse their partner of infidelity
- Someone with racist beliefs might insist that others share their beliefs and are just afraid to speak up
- A parent may project unfulfilled ambitions onto their child
- Someone who struggles with alcohol abuse may believe that other people also have unhealthy relationships with alcohol
- A person with an irrational dislike for a co-worker may convince themselves that others in the office feel the same way
- Someone who’s insecure about the way they look may criticize other people’s appearances
- A person who’s attracted to someone who’s unavailable might insist that the person has feelings for them
“Racism is a form of projection where another person feels superior only if they can cause someone else to feel inferior. The guilt or shame of the current system of oppression is justified as long as I can see the other as inferior, therefore I never have to improve or heal.”– Talkspace therapist Dr. Karmen Smith LCSW DD
How to Manage Projection Defense Mechanism
It can be challenging to overcome a reliance on defense mechanisms like projection. Projection is rooted in unconscious painful feelings and beliefs, which can make it hard to recognize that you need to change. If you suspect that you’ve been projecting though, there are some effective ways you begin changing your patterns of behavior.
Practice personal reflection
It isn’t always easy to look inward but reflecting on your unpleasant thoughts and insecurities can help you grow. Instead of hiding from negative feelings, practice conscious awareness by asking yourself tough questions about who you are and what you want out of life. Don’t be afraid to spend time alone and see where your mind wanders.
If you’re not sure how to introduce self-reflection to your life, try analyzing a recent conflict. Put yourself in the shoes of the other person and think about things from their perspective. Looking at issues from a different angle might help you notice things you previously missed.
Pay more attention to your own behavior
Try to be more aware of how you act when you’re around others. Take a close look at your own behavior and the ways that people react to you. If you notice that people are responding to you with surprise or confusion, see if they’re willing to discuss their feelings with you.
“Self-awareness is the key to personal growth. Becoming aware of your thoughts, intentions, implicit bias, and feelings when we are engaging with people can be a revealing process.”– Talkspace therapist Dr. Karmen Smith LCSW DD
You can cultivate self-awareness by letting go of judgment and taking a thoughtful look at who and what you really are. Throughout the day, check-in with yourself and ask yourself what you’re feeling and why.
Be quick to listen and slow to speak
Try to slow down in conversations and pay more attention to what other people are telling you. Instead of making assumptions, take the time to understand the person who you’re interacting with. By being more intentional in your behavior, you can avoid projection and other unhealthy defense mechanisms such as denial or rationalization.
Mindfulness practices are an effective tool for focusing on the present. Over time, mindfulness can also reduce thought suppression and fear of emotion. Life isn’t a race and slowing down can help you catch things you might have missed.
Try to track patterns
Recording your behavior in a journal for mental health might help you identify a projection defense mechanism example you may not have otherwise noticed. Keeping a journal can also help you spot patterns associated with defensive behaviors. For example, you may notice that you’re more likely to project onto others when you’re anxious in social settings.
Talk to a therapist
Talking about your relationships could give you valuable insights, but it isn’t always easy to have these kinds of conversations with friends and family members. Working with a mental health professional through in-person or online therapy might allow you to recognize thoughts and behaviors that are negatively impacting your life.
“Therapy is one of the best ways to acquire a greater understanding of how our inner life shows up in our interactions.”– Talkspace therapist Dr. Karmen Smith LCSW DD
It can be hard to confront the things you dislike about yourself, but a therapist can help you acknowledge and work through these feelings in a safe environment. Adopting healthier defense mechanisms could lead to more satisfying relationships, better career outcomes, and an overall higher quality of life.
Find Healthier Ways to Cope
What is a projection defense mechanism? Have you been projecting negative thoughts and traits onto others? It can be tough to ask yourself these kinds of questions, but thankfully, you don’t have to find the answer on your own.
Talkspace offers online therapy and can connect you with a therapist who understands defense styles like projection. Not only can therapy help you recognize the defense mechanisms that you’ve been using, but it can also help you confront emotions that are triggering those defenses. Over time, you can learn to accept yourself and avoid using damaging defense mechanisms, like projection, that have become a part of your life.
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2. Newman LS, Duff KJ, Baumeister RF. A new look at defensive projection: thought suppression, accessibility, and biased person perception. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1997;72(5):980-1001. doi:10.1037//0022-35188.8.131.520. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9150580/. Accessed September 23, 2022.
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