What It Really Means When People Talk About 'Projection' In Psychological Terms

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What is projection in psychology? What does it really mean and what does it look like in your relationship?

When we go to the movies, the images we see are projected from the camera to screen — the images start somewhere, and then end somewhere else.

Psychological projection has the same concept. It's a defense mechanism where you have undesirable thoughts, feelings, or emotions, and put them somewhere else, usually on another person.

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Psychological projection displaces uncomfortable feelings.

Instead of having to feel what I call "yucky" feelings about yourself, you displace them or transfer them onto another person.

Just like the movie projector that moves an image from one place to another, psychological projection moves those yucky feelings from you to a separate being outside of yourself.

In the context of relationships, psychological projection can show up with colleagues, strangers, and those who are closest to you. Even God can — and does — get the brunt of your projections.

Most intimate relationships start out positively with those warm fuzzies — you feel seen, known, and loved. But over time, you may be noticing that your partner is triggering certain thoughts or feelings in you that are hurtful, angering, frustrating, or discouraging.

So, what's going on?

We often project childhood wounds onto others.

As children, we have attachments to our parents or caregivers. These are typically the first people in our lives to have the greatest impact on our sense of self-worth.

If those attachments are wounded or damaged in any way, it's normal to internalize negative beliefs that then later in life get projected outward.

For example, I was working with a couple who came to therapy for help with their communication. The husband described the wife as very angry and critical of him.

The wife shared that she really didn’t feel angry or critical, but there were issues that needed addressing. She found it very difficult to bring anything up, as he would quickly shut down the conversation, stating she was too angry to continue.

In this dynamic, the husband was actually very critical of himself. He had grown up with a critical mother and developed a negative belief that he was never good enough. This, understandably, caused him a lot of hurt and distress.

It’s very difficult to go through life not feeling good enough. It’s a huge grey cloud that follows everywhere. Being married had brought those old painful feelings up. He didn't feel good enough with his wife, just like he did with his mother.

Whenever his wife wanted to address anything, no matter how insignificant, he would immediately feel the yuck of the criticism, wouldn’t feel good enough, and get angry.

But, instead of realizing this was all going on inside of him, he had projected those negative feelings onto his wife so that he could keep a safe distance from feeling so bad about himself.

Projection can often occur with rejection or abandonment issues.

Projection psychology can also show up when one partner is constantly pushing the other partner away, typically stemming from insecure feelings of rejection or abandonment established early in life.

If you're afraid of being left or rejected in some way, it's likely you're projecting that fear onto your partner, assuming or accusing them of sabotaging the relationship, pushing you away, or wanting to end things when they have no desire to do so.

In addition, I've seen a lot of couples where one partner will assume or accuse the other of cheating when, in fact, they're the one cheating.

You treat other people how you feel about yourself.

This illustrates how projection works — you treat other people the way you feel about yourself.

What does psychological projection look in your relationship with God?

If you're a perfectionist, it's common to believe that God requires that of you, too. If God requires perfection, then He must get pretty disappointed in you when you fall short.

If you had a punitive parent, it's common to see God as punitive. If you felt alone and abandoned growing up, it's common to see God as not caring about you and not being there for you.

These are all projections of the deep pain and hurt you grew up with. The negative beliefs developed over time, and then in order to defend against those very painful beliefs and feelings, you subconsciously place them not only on those closest to you, but onto your relationship with God as well.

This tendency clearly makes feeling safe within your faith a great challenge.

If you've realized that you often project onto those closest to you and seeing how they're hurting you and others, it may be a good time to take some steps and have healthier mechanisms of managing your own pain.

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Here are the 5 important steps when psychological projection has taken over your relationships.

1. Take an honest assessment of your early attachment relationships.

How did they make you feel? Is there a fear of rejection? Abandonment? Do you feel good enough? Do you have to be perfect?

These questions are a good start in understanding yourself, your own pain, and your reactions in the context of your relationships.

2. Take an honest assessment of your current relationships.

How do they make you feel? This is your opportunity to be honest with yourself.

Ask yourself, "Is it them, or is it me?"

3. Make a list of characteristics of the people that you struggle with.

For example, with the couple mentioned above, the husband made a list of his wife’s characteristics. He knows she's kind, patient, and loving, even though at times she can be critical.

Even if she's being critical, he can rely on that list and remember she loves him very much.

Your lists help remind you that you're safe and don’t have to displace your negative feelings onto others. You can also do this with God or any person that you're struggling with.

4. Communicate and ask questions.

Don't just assume that the other person has ill intent. When we assume, we're wrong 99 percent of the time, so please ask questions.

For example, if the husband is feeling criticized, he can ask his wife, "Are you criticizing me, or can you please clarify what you are saying?"

5. Seek help.

If any of this information is resonating with you and you feel added support could be helpful, then please don’t hesitate to seek help from trusted people in your life — a therapist, pastor, best friend, coach, or mentor.

Psychological projection is when you have parts of yourself that are too painful to own or look at. So, you simply and subconsciously put them elsewhere where they are easier to tolerate and deal with.

These painful parts usually stem from broken attachments from your early childhood. It’s a defense mechanism that keeps those parts at a distance but not serving you well.

This is a great time and opportunity to start to look within and do the work that can create healing and healthier relationships in every area of your life.

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Lesley Goth, PsyD is a Progressive Christian therapist helping people in their struggles with relationships and with God. She is an expert in the field of trauma, attachment, and spiritual abuse. You can find out more about Lesley on her website.