How to Tell if You’re Projecting

While many of us can identify the process of projection in somebody else, few of us are able to see it in ourselves.  Think about it — how many times have you stopped yourself and said, “I’m just projecting; this has nothing to do with John”?

Our own projections are difficult to spot, first of all, because we don’t want to identify them as such:  the whole point of projecting is to rid ourselves of something unwanted.  While there are instances where people project their good qualities into others, ridding oneself of painful or unpleasant experiences is much more common.  I’ve discussed these issues in earlier posts about projection and the toilet function of friendship.  Today I’d like to talk about how we can become more attuned to and aware of our own projections, even when we’d rather not.

Projection is an unconscious fantasy that we are able to rid ourselves of some part of our psyche by splitting it off and putting it outside ourselves, usually into somebody else.  While the initial process occurs outside of awareness, maintaining or insisting upon the reality of that projection often occupies our conscious thoughts.  The process is usually distinguished by its focus and intensity.  I can explain this more clearly with an example, one I alluded to in my first post on projection.  Grouchiness is something most of us have experienced; I suspect my description will resonate for many of you and at the same time, give you the chance to study the process the next time you feel grouchy and see if my explanation makes sense.

So at the end of my work day, I may be feeling irritable because (I believe) members of my family are doing things I find annoying.  In my thoughts, I may begin to zero in on those irritating behaviors — say, that person’s irksome habit of constantly complaining about his or her daily stresses.  These irritations may become preoccupations; I may find myself intensely focused on those behaviors, waiting for them to recur; I may be talking to myself in repetitive ways that have the effect of intensifying my irritation, while at the same time justifying it.  My focus may be exclusively upon the other person with a corresponding lack of attention upon myself and my own body.  The underlying assumption is that the other person is causing me to feel grouchy and if only he or she would stop complaining (as usual!), I’d feel better.

I’m familiar enough with the process by now to recognize it, though without exception, I fight off that recognition every time.  I’ll hear myself thinking something like, “Yeah, but this time is different.  That really is irritating.”  With effort, I can silence such thoughts.  Silence is key, at least for me; as a fairly verbal person, I find the thought processes that support and justify the projections come in words.  Putting a stop to those words and focusing on my breathing is a crucial first step.  Then I have to shift the focus of my attention away from the other person and into my own body.

I “look” in various places:  my back and shoulders where I carry tension, around my eyes where I register fatigue and sadness, in my belly where I feel hunger and other kinds of longing.  I may notice that my back hurts; I may have the beginnings of a headache.  Often I discover that my body feels tired and a little achy.  I try to hold onto these sensations without “explaining” them in reference to someone else, a difficult and uncomfortable experience.  In the end, I may realize that my own day was stressful, that rather than feeling the depth of my own pain and stress, I’m projecting it outside into someone who complains and whom I mentally criticize.

This is a simple example of owning a projection, and one that many of you will likely be able to replicate.  It’s more difficult when we’re projecting experiences such as shame or neediness.  In those cases, our entire character structure may be organized around validating the reality of the projection.  The characteristic defenses against shame, for example, have as a common goal projecting damage or unworthiness into other people and then treating them in such a way as to insist upon the validity of the projection — by blaming or regarding them with contempt.

Finding Your Own Way:

Experiment with grouchiness and let me know what you find.  Does my description of the process hold true for you as well?

Next, think about other areas where an intense focus on or preoccupation with someone else may indicate that a projection is at work.  Do you find yourself dwelling on somebody’s else behavior or personality in an intensely critical or angry way?  You may have legitimate reasons, but you may also be projecting something into them.

Some other feelings that may indicate an underlying projection:  contempt (projection of shame), feelings of superiority (projection of neediness ), recrimination (projection of guilt) or envy (projection of an idealized fantasy).  I don’t mean to suggest that these are always signs of projections, but when joined to an especially intense preoccupation with the other person, they’re a strong indication.

Notice the polarity involved in these projections:  I don’t complain about stress and it annoys me that you do.  I feel no shame about my own damage but you’re a contemptible loser.  I’m not needy and pathetic like you because I’ve got it all!  I did nothing wrong and you’re entirely to blame.

Now if only I could stop thinking about you.

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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19 comments

    Hi Joe,

    Projecting saved my life. After multiple deaths in my family, I shut down. I would only express grief and sadness when portrayed in movies. Terms of Endearment, Steele magnolias, Boys on the Side really gave me an opportunity to start releasing my pain. I would sob and sob and sob. (Finally and thank God.)

    I remember that moment of realizing what I was “doing”…..I couldn’t figure out why my therapist was curious about the movies I was watching! Then it hit me – I could grieve for others but not myself – too overwhelming I guess. But finally I was able to connect to my own pain and I learned the value of projecting as a tool.

    It is a bit embarrassing to think I can’t always see myself or “own it” – yet I know we all do it and much good can from it.

    PS – I tried the tapping summit and I’m impressed so far. I can see where this technique can aid therapy. Perhaps my observations of the slick marketing were my own projections 😉 lol

    Great article – thanks so much.

    some folks think the tapping & where in what sequence are less important than
    the altered state thus induced which can become a “carrier” for whatever / however healing expectation & / or instructions available/offered.
    some folks’d understand the outcomes in terms of hypnotic (all hypnosis is self-hypnosis) communication. dr bob

    Whhhoooaaaaaa I didn’t even realize that’s what I was doing! I used to call certain movies “therapy” because I would watch them to cry. There are times when I can feel emotion stuck in my body but be unable to release it. I would tell someone “I need to cry!” So I would listen to certain music or watch certain movies. Holy cow. What a revelation. THANK YOU!

    thanx j, good post–comprehensive–u think good & articulate good –it’s sure important -& hard!– to recognise when our/ my projections are reflected to me thru either negative misperceptions about the Other person , or by accurate negative perceptions about the Other which i’ve elicited by my energy/communications.
    why can’t life/relationships w/ self & other(s) all be simpler?–or more to the point, i wish they were–& then i’d sure find something(s) else to wish suited me better.

    i also like yr post/reply/moniter structure–i wanna get my site & blog workin’ more like yrs-beautiful pix included–i’ll keep listenin’ & learnin’. my posts are mostly way shorter & less deeply comprehensive & thot provoking ‘n urs. & i love yrs , & mine.
    –i do hate hunt-&-peck, tho i just personally lean toward attentive, hopefully mindful listening , then terse & zing. warmly,dr bob

    I have completed some EMDR therapy with some success – dealing with times of abandonment. Over the past two years I have had night terrors that came forth with feelings of intense anxiety in a situation that would not be a normally anxious time. The EMDR therapist has helped me with these times from childhood that are showing up today. I would recommend seeking out help for traumas that surface in other ways that feel illogical.

    What I don’t understand lately is projection. My partner projects onto me whenever things get heated or when we struggle over something. I make every effort to speak from “i” and just say things true to me … i know that projection is avoiding something in one’s self, so I feel a lot of pity for my partner because that must be very painful to not be able to really articulate or address the pain that is coming up. I want to be able to recognize the projections more quickly and leave the situation so I am not getting “projected to death” if that makes any sense. How can I do this? How can I stop seeking to resolve the conflict and instead leave / cease when I see that it is going nowhere? Once I hear projections – the blame, You this, You that, … those should be key words that trigger my exit. I try to own my stuff. I’m willing to look at things. The projections, however, are totally not true of my own true inner feelings. The blaming projections really cause me to not have trust, either. What could I say to my partner to get out of the situation? Could I say, “I’m feeling blamed by the projections you are making, and I’d like to tell you my truth when you are in the space to hear it and things are not so heated.” But, then, does a master projector who blames and projects as a normal form of communication, have even the EMPATHY to hear from someone who is speaking from “i” – from the true emotion or feeling inside of self? A projector does not go inside to feel the self … or own the self. At least that is my understanding. Thanks.

    You can’t really do anything to help your partner stop projecting. You can only take responsibility for your own feelings and try to recognize when you are projecting. Everyone does. You can also protect yourself and say, “No, I disagree with what you’re saying.” But I think these elaborate efforts to explain the dynamics of projection and phrase things just so actually go nowhere.

    Thanks for this comment, I have tried to get my mother to stop projecting but I’ll just give up now and try to love her the way she is.

    Sometimes she really winds me up and I end up shouting at her, I don’t want to end up like my father and be repressed and let her dominate me but when I get mad it’s like she wins anyway, plus I end up feeling guilty for shouting. I wonder if my anger at her is justified or if I’m just rationalising it.

    I know a lot of my anger at her comes from the past and unhealed childhood wounds etc

    Hi,
    I have recently had my first few sessions with a psycotherapist whom I quite like but whilst I’m speaking or more of struggling to speak he has a very un nerving intense stare while looking at me, when I did bring this up with him , he said he was just projecting . I thought I understood this but now I’m not so sure ?

    That sounds like an odd reply. Maybe he meant that he’s trying to put himself in your emotional shoes and feel “with you” in your experience. I’ll bet that’s what it is, though I don’t think that actually is projecting per se. I have had clients say the same thing to me, about how intently I look at them: I wouldn’t say that I’m projecting; rather, I’m paying as much attention as I can in order to understand and empathize.

    So when my dad starts yelling at my husband for innocent monkeying around behavior, he is projecting jealousy as he was not that playful with me or my siblings. He yells at my husband saying that he is not a man and what he is doing is wrong. I dont see any harm in my husband trying to be a Dad to my daughter as her BIO dad has never been around. I think it is extremely unfair that my dad is in a round about way trying to say that my husband is a predator, which is completely untrue and no I am not in denile. My husband spends all of his time with me so there is no way that any thing that he does with my daughter is sexual. I have talked with family and one has their bachelors in psychology as well as myself going for my bachelors. Just looking for a way to handle this issue with my dad and how to diminish it. Thanks, Carla.

    I think I project a lot, and when I think about it, it disturbs me greatly and I feel like a failure. Then I question maybe I’m not projecting after all, and my spouse is just trying to morph me into someone else… How can I overcome this fear that others are out to get me? I feel like I can never trust anyone, and it’s really quite lonely! How can I establish when people are out for my best interest or not?
    Some deep issues I know, but any help is welcome. Thanks in advance.

    Is it difficult to know when were projecting? I find that if the question of whether or not I may be projecting arises, I almost always am. The longer the question stays active on my mind, the more I know its likely true.

    I know that this is an old post but it does resonate a bit with me. I was with a psychoanalyst for a short time for anger issues. In that short time, in one of our sessions I became angry with him over a piece of unsolicited advice had given in the previous session. His immediate response was, “Well that’s just you, projecting.” That pretty much ended the conversation immediately, since he did not offer to explain anything and I really didn’t understand that term and what he meant by it so for me it was a very dismissive reply meant to shut me up. Now that I have read this post about projecting feelings. I have a little understanding of what the term means, but I am still a bit confused on how to “work” on that bad habit of projecting. I mean I can see the steps to recognize the steps of projection versus irritability in the post But it seems that it would be hard (at least for me) to stop the habit of projecting until the deeper issues are worked out?

    Hi ,
    I’m pretty sure that I am projecting but I can’t seem to fugure out why? I work hard at my job and take pride in what I do but I have recently found it very difficult to stop fixating on how much more work I do compared to another person, who is paid the same and spends the day chatting and wandering around because the boss is a friend.
    I know it is a just complaint as it would more than annoy most people after a period of time.
    But, I know I am also projecting as I am fixating. To the extent that it is making me feel ill.
    Stress is dangerous and for mei seem to need to ferret out the reason before I successfully change the way I see things.
    Is this kind of fixation related to an opposite or similar emotion? I used to be able to ignore it on the whole and I will use some of your techniques, but I would like to understand why?
    Thanks for making this so accessible.

    I don’t think I have much to offer here, but it sounds like there’s a REAL problem that understandably bothers you. You might be bringing some of your own issues to the situation (don’t we all), but I don’t think that means you need to figure it out and just accept the status quo. Maybe you need to do something about it or find somewhere else to work.

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