Emotional projection is something many of us use as a defense mechanism for self-preservation, especially in stressful and anxiety-ridden moments. In practice, it often looks like jumping to conclusions or making assumptions about what someone else may be thinking or feeling, as we levy our own thoughts and feelings onto them.
In this way, projecting allows us to avoid or ignore certain feelings, beliefs, or judgments that we may perceive as personal flaws by making other people the “owners” of them. But, projecting can also be harmful to self-improvement and personal growth, preventing us from developing rich and loving relationships with ourselves and others.
Why do we project our feelings in the first place?
Typically, people project their feelings subconsciously in situations where something may feel too difficult to bear, whether because of deep-seated anxiety, shame, or insecurity. “People are not doing it intentionally or often even aware that they are doing it,” says clinical psychologist Blair Steel, PsyD.
“People are not projecting intentionally or often even aware that they are doing it.” —Blair Steel, PsyD, clinical psychologist
Rather than admitting or dealing with certain unwanted feelings, you may deflect these feelings onto someone else as a style of coping with them. The idea: If you can effectively make someone else the cause or source of your distress, you can psychologically remove yourself from having to deal with the underlying emotion. Consider, for example, someone who is projecting by telling a friend that they're so conceited; in reality, this person might be insecure that their friend isn't giving them attention, but rather than address their insecurity, they project it by blaming their friend for their perceived egotism.
Thus, projecting can be a way to avoid acknowledging a personal shortcoming by subconsciously attributing the perceived flaw to someone else. But while this might help to protect your ego or self-esteem in the short-term, it can seriously hinder personal growth in the long-term by keeping you from working through personal challenges and overcoming insecurities.
What are a few examples of projecting feelings onto others?
Projections sound like accusations, criticisms, and assumptions—but in actuality, if you're projecting, these statements reflect the emotions you're struggling to accept or process. Here are a few examples of projections you might make:
1. What you say: “They don't like me,” or “I know they hate me.”
What it actually means: Chances are, you dislike whomever you're discussing here, but rather than acknowledge that you might be the one with negative feelings toward someone else, you make the suggestion that it's the other person who dislikes you (or who disliked you first), thus absolving you of any potential blame.
2. What you say: “They must be cheating on me.”
What it actually means: You may feel ashamed for cheating or thinking about cheating on your partner, but to get ahead of any fault, you make the assumption that your partner is also doing or has already done the same to you.
3. What you say: “They don’t take good care of themselves.”
What it actually means: You may be commenting on how you perceive someone else's personal hygiene because you feel insecure about how others are viewing your cleanliness and appearance.
4. What you say: “Why are you so angry/upset/frustrated?”
What it actually means: Accusing someone else of being the angry or upset one in a conversation may simply be a way for you to project your own anger. It can often feel easier to accuse someone else of being the aggressor or the person with the problem than to address your own irritability, reactivity, or frustration as the source of discord.
Why should you stop projecting?
Attempting to read another person's mind or make a claim about someone else's mental state can yield anxiety, as you ruminate on their experience instead of focusing on yours. Projections can also evoke other unpleasant emotions like anger, frustration, and irritability, because they put the focus on what others are doing, which we cannot control, rather than on our own emotions, over which we do hold sway.
For those who project often, and may become aware of it, it can be a pretty exhausting mental battle. Projecting our own insecurities and unmet needs onto others can lead us to feel like victims, subject to the whims of another, instead of empowered agents of personal change in our own lives.
Criticism also leads to contempt. If you’re constantly pointing out flaws in others (because of insecurities you harbor about yourself), you are going to keep yourself from forming deep, loving connections within your closest relationships. After all, judging others doesn't move you any closer to understanding them; it just reveals something you feel about yourself. Whereas, if you own your wounds and let people in on your self-criticism and flaws, you invite them to be closer to you. This kind of vulnerability is also a massive win for your relationship with yourself, allowing you to face your personal wounds head-on and move toward emotional maturity.
Naturally, that's all easier said than done. Noticing and acknowledging your behavior patterns around projecting is one thing—and a huge first step toward dismantling this subconscious tendency. But figuring out how to actually stop projecting your emotions and insecurities is entirely another thing. Below, find a five-step process I use with clients in my own practice to help them stop projecting in the face of big feelings.
5 simple steps to stop projecting your feelings onto someone else
1. Notice when you're presuming someone's experience, without them telling you
The brain's primary goal is to survive, and in order to do so, it predicts risk and acts accordingly via the fight-or-flight stress response. For many, when we don’t have information, the inclination is to respond with cognitive distortion1, filling the gaps with worst-case scenarios in order to prevent future harm.
When you become aware of the speedy thoughts and your judgment wheel begins to churn, work to look inward rather than outward; this can help you learn to evaluate and control your emotions. Ask yourself: What about this person or scenario is triggering me right now? What am I feeling in my body, and is there an emotion attached to these sensations? Does the way this person is showing up remind me of other experiences I’ve had or people with whom I’ve interacted?
Taking a moment to pause and question why you might be jumping to conclusions about a person's experience or feelings can help you see where you might be projecting your insecurities onto them.
2. Become aware of your strong reactions and behavior patterns
Let's say you’re at work, and your colleague doesn’t make eye contact with you at the coffee machine. So, you develop a story in your mind that they hate you—without any basis for such a conclusion beyond your own thoughts.
Consider where this perception might be originating. Ask yourself questions about the facts that would confirm or deny your judgment, such as, Did I do anything to harm this person? The brain cannot differentiate between triggers and threats, so while someone not making eye contact may trigger a past hurt or experience, it doesn’t necessarily indicate a present threat. And thus, the meaning you're assigning to this behavior may have more to do with your insecurities tied to a past experience than it does with any sort of present reality for this person.
3. Build awareness of “you” statements
Notice when you’re developing narratives about what someone else thinks: “You are bored of me.” “You don’t like me.” “You are ugly.” These types of sentiments are reminders that you may be projecting your experience—because at the end of the day, we don't ever know what other people are thinking unless they tell us explicitly.
It may be helpful to remember in these moments that the path to self-discovery and personal growth is often paved with fear. For instance, if you're assuming that a partner is cheating on you ("I know you are cheating on me"), maybe you, yourself, are having sexual feelings for someone else, and because you’re scared to face these emotions, you believe your partner is having them instead. And in the "you" statement you levy at them, they become your emotional scapegoat.
In these cases, focus on shifting to "I" statements: “Am I feeling bored?” “Do I like me?” “Am I feeling comfortable in my own skin?” “How do I feel about monogamy or my sex life right now?” These are questions you can truly answer for yourself, and which can present opportunities for personal growth and change.
4. Adopt an approach of curiosity, not judgment
If we approach ourselves with judgment, we may find it difficult to accept the flaws that surface—leading us to project them unfairly onto others, and to judge them, too, as a result.
Instead of judging, ask yourself a question about a personal experience to better understand where your insecurities lie. Typically, we dislike things in other people that we do not like about ourselves or that remind us of previous versions of ourselves. So, if you find that you're regularly judging others for a particular behavior, take a moment to turn the focus on yourself, and ask whether a particular experience in your own life is leading you to identify this trait so readily in others.
5. Get to know your insecurities
You know yourself the best, so take an inventory of the areas where you are struggling. Maybe you don’t feel confident, well-dressed, financially successful, smart, or like a good partner or friend. Chances are, you will be acutely aware of others who lack in these areas, too. If we do not heal from who and what hurt us, we will spew that pain on the people who didn’t.
It can be hard to confront the parts of ourselves that tap us into pain and grief because it's “easier” in the moment to think of ourselves as good and righteous. But, it is also less real and authentic. Remember that it is your birthright to heal—and in turn, it is your responsibility to take ownership over that healing.
Frequently Asked Questions About Projecting Feelings
What is the difference between projecting and expressing feelings?
When you express your feelings, you're using "I" statements to consciously describe how you feel; but when you project, you're using "you" statements or questions to assign feelings to someone else, typically in an unconscious way. While there are a variety of ways to self-express, and some may be more fruitful than others, projection typically takes the form of an accusation, assumption, or criticism levied at someone else, versus a statement about one's self.
How can you tell if someone is projecting onto you?
"When someone seems to be uncomfortable and what they're saying [about you] simply does not add up, you can raise a red flag of possible projection," says Dr. Steel, adding that if a person has a tendency to deflect or redirect the conversation away from themselves at all costs, that's another sign that they may be projecting.
Any indications of controlling behavior, jealousy, and anger can also be evidence of projection; it's possible that the person is grappling with personal insecurities by finding ways to blame or control you, instead.
How should you respond when you suspect someone is projecting onto you?
Emotional projection can be a tough thing to bear, especially if it's coming from an important figure in your life. If the person is someone very close to you, like a partner, family member, or good friend, Dr. Steel suggests offering an empathic statement matched with a boundary, such as, "I can see you are in pain right now, but I am not going to take ownership for this."
If the person is an acquaintance, lean into your truth and ignore the projection. They are likely going through their own internal battles, and it is not your responsibility to respond to or carry the emotional weight they are throwing your way.
- Rnic, Katerina et al. “Cognitive Distortions, Humor Styles, and Depression.” Europe’s journal of psychology vol. 12,3 348-62. 19 Aug. 2016, doi:10.5964/ejop.v12i3.1118
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