Projecting – a destructive defence mechanism

This weekend I managed to ruin breakfast. I won’t go into all the details, but let’s just say this – tears were shed, voices were raised, and a lot of things said in the heat of the moment. It’s been a long time coming, things have been unresolved, between us and with me and I took that opportunity over my absolute favourite breakfast (French toast and bacon, with a little marmite, I know, don’t judge me) to project all of the shit that I’ve been dealing with over the last few weeks onto my boyfriend.

Projecting isn’t a new phenomenon, it was actually first developed by Freud in 1895, who wrote in a letter about how a patient of his had tried to avoid her feelings of shame by imagining that her neighbours were gossiping about her. The theory was later refined by his daughter Anna who spoke about them in relation to defence mechanisms, it protects our self-concept (who we think we are) and often we use it to put on (project) the things we don’t like about ourselves or find hard to cope with onto other people. As Exploring Your Mind writes ‘the anxiety that would be produced by seeing this trait in ourselves is veiled and reduced by instead seeing it in the other person’. It’s much easier to live with ourself if we think it’s everyone else’s problem!

What are some examples of projecting?

There are thousands of examples of projecting, from seemingly inconsequential projections to much larger, debilitating, and destructive ones, I’ll give you some examples of different ones.  

  • You accuse one of your classmates of cheating on a test, to distract yourself and them from you doing the very same thing
  • You are mean about someone’s weight because you have insecurities about your own
  • You feel insecure and unsure of your partner’s intentions towards you when you are emotionally or physically cheating on your partner
  • You are growing to really dislike someone and you’ve convinced yourself that they also dislike you, so it’s easier to be cross and frustrated with them without dealing with what you need to do to fix/end that relationship
  • You create a story in your mind about someone’s impression of you and it makes you feel lousy and shit, but you’re missing that perhaps you feel like that about yourself?
  • You feel like everyone is staring at you when you try a new look and so go back to what feels comfortable even though you really want to try that new look  
  • You stop doing what you want to do, to do what you think someone else wants you to do even if they have never said that to you and then get cross at them because of it
  • You feel like you need more and more and more because you are feeling lacking inside and the quiet time of reflection will be too debilitating
  • You have a lot of events/situations coming up that are causing you stress, and instead of thinking about it and working out what to do, or how you need to heal you keep the anxiety inside and project that onto your family in aggression, upset and worry
  • You push your children, partner, whoever into achieving more and more because you feel lacking in your own successes/ability
  • You believe that being vegan is the absolute best diet in the world and the most health and you feel disgusted by people who think something different and feel frustrated and cross when others don’t share the same view as you
  • You love yoga and meditation and mindfulness and talk people’s ears off about it and how wonderful it is without realising that they may have no idea what you’re talking about

What kinds of projection are there?

  1. Neurotic projection: this is where your negative emotions, feelings, actions, beliefs about yourself, and impulses are projected onto others
  2. Complementary projection: where you believe that everyone shares the same thoughts and feelings as you
  3. Complimentary projection: when you project all the skills, knowledge and beliefs (that you love about yourself) onto others, without realising or being aware of the fact that others may not know something or have those same skills as you

How can you overcome projecting onto others?

Take the time to build self-awareness

This is a tough one! And certainly, developing self-awareness is no easy or short route to overcoming projecting onto others. But this is the absolute best way to not only building up your resilience, to developing a self-awareness practice and to ensuring the best out of your relationships.

There are some easy, quick and simple tasks that you could use though to starting to develop this skill


At the end of an interaction that hasn’t gone as well as you’d hoped, or you feel unsure or insecure about the conversation/situation – write it all out.

  • What was the situation that occurred?
  • What was your role in that situation?
  • What was the role the other person/people played?
  • What was said/done that upset you?
  • If you were to step aside from that situation and looked at it as if you weren’t involved – what would you say are the things that triggered you?
  • Where do those triggers come from? (this is the hardest bit as you may need to spend some time really going into back to assess this)
  • What can you do differently next time to make yourself and others feel more comfortable?
Statement creation

Let’s play devils advocate here for a sec and think about what it would mean to you if you really held the views you did

‘People think I look ridiculous in these new jeans and I probably do as everything I put on makes me look lousy’

‘I’m so useless, everything I do is rubbish and I am a failure’

‘My parents are so disappointed in me, I’m an underachiever and they must think I’m terrible’

‘My partner is so annoying, he doesn’t do this, he doesn’t do that – I want him to change’

Now, when you think about these statements ask yourself if you really believe them? Explore them – do people think you’re really ridiculous? Are you really a disappointment? If you didn’t do X then would people really be as disappointed in me or cross with me as I think they would? Chances are, when you really dig into these things, you’re telling yourself, they won’t hold any weight

Explore the where and why?

This goes back to the journaling and the statement creation, but the best thing to do when we feel triggered by something or someone is to investigate where the root of that issue has come from.

For example; if you have an issue with how someone’s body looks, take a second to think about how that is showing you how you feel about your body. Now, have a think back to the first time or the first clear memory you have where someone made you think badly or indifferently about your body.

Another example; when you’re being moody, difficult or annoyed constantly with your partner think – ok, what is going on here, why are they annoying me, where does it come from and why am I so annoyed. Is this a relationship pattern I’ve seen growing up? Perhaps it’s the opposite and it makes you uncomfortable, perhaps you’re pushing the boundaries of what you’re comfortable with, perhaps you’re feeling happy and you don’t feel you deserve it….

Patterns of behaviour are formed from when are young, especially from those who were around us when we were between the ages of 0-7 especially (although, this does really expand till we’re in our early teens). Those relationships form the foundation of our beliefs, values and identity. It could be why now you are feeling the need to push against what you learnt at that age – does it still serve you? Does it still suit you? Is it for your highest self’s good? It’s so important to look back, because it is only by pushing back that we can be launched forward.

Wanting change but needing acceptance

So often, we want to change someone. Whether it’s our family, our partner, our friends, a point of view… whatever it is. And it seems simple right? You just tell someone all the reasons why what they are doing isn’t the best thing for them, you can see that life would be so much easier if someone did X, or thought Y or actioned Z, but the reality is, we can’t change people. We can only shine a light on another way, or show them through our own actions and then let them be. This is something that has taken me years and years to learn – but ultimately, if we can find the love we need in ourselves, the positive behaviours and actions in ourself and the acceptance from nobody but ourselves then we will be more accepting of others. Acceptance of ourselves or others in the myriad of all the ways that they differ from us is the biggest blessing we can give/receive.

How can you overcome others projecting onto you?

The chances are you probably have people doing this to you alllll the time too. Perhaps someone is non-stop giving you advice about how to live your life, about what diet to have, how terrible it is to have a glass of wine or two, or perhaps when you are taking a break from all the pressures of life, you have someone badgering you about stepping up and making you feel guilty for wanting to pursue and honour your self-care. But let’s take a minute to think about it from a few different points of view.

Empathy is the key

When you parents are badgering you about losing weight or pursing a ‘solid career’ but you’re happy munching on what you fancy and want to set the world on fire in your creativity – it can be bloody annoying. But take a minute and think about it from their point of view. Why do they hold those views? Have they had to struggle through stepping outside of their own comfort zone? Do they have issues with their weight that was passed on to them from their parents? Do they require stability from a fractious and traumatic relationship they had within their family? It’s the same with a lot of thing – if someone is projecting onto you, they are going through the same things as you, but perhaps aren’t ready to deal with it yet. So be empathetic, be clear on your boundaries, and understand that they can think what they like, say what they like, but if you stand firm in your own worth – it can’t knock you.

Listen, process, release

Again, not everything that someone imparts on you is for you. Sometimes they need to release, to feel like they’ve done what they can to feel in control of the emotions that are being triggered. Perhaps it’s a chance to ask them some questions to help them think about why they think the way they do… if that’s going to open a can of worms, just say ‘ok, I understand, thank you for your point of view, I don’t feel like that, but I can see where you’re coming from. Anyway…’ You don’t have to take it all on,  you can move past it whilst acknowledging where they’re coming from.

Hold close to your boundaries

This is important, and something that I work with clients a lot on in 1-2-1 sessions I do. What are my boundaries? What am I comfortable talking about? What advice am I comfortable receiving? If it’s too much, or if someone is encroaching on your life – it’s absolutely fine to say, ‘ok thank you for your point of view, but this is how I am choosing to do things’ and shut it straight down. You don’t need to be a doormat to unwanted and unsolicited advice or information.

Understand what information you share and with who

Again, this has taken me years to learn. But not everyone should have or can have access to you. If you find that someone is always talking down to you or bringing things up about you or your partner or your life – it is absolutely ok to step away for a minute, a moment or a lifetime. It’s a little to do with boundaries, a little to do with empathy, a little to do with listening and processing but a lot to do with how YOU feel when you are around someone. You get to choose, it’s your life.

So what’s next?

If you would like help to understand how to work through your projections or those that others are projecting onto you, I offer 1-2-1 coaching sessions on beliefs, values, boundaries, inner child, and shadow work in my authenticity coaching packages. Please get in touch if you would like to find out more.

*Blog image was found on pinterest

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