In psychology, projection refers to assigning your negative traits or unwanted emotions to others without being aware you’re doing it.

Has someone ever told you to stop projecting your feelings onto them? While projecting is often reserved for the world of psychology, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the term used in arguments and heated discussions when people feel attacked.

But what does projection actually mean in this sense? According to Karen R. Koenig, M.Ed, LCSW, projection refers to unconsciously taking unwanted emotions or traits you don’t like about yourself and attributing them to someone else.

A common example is a cheating spouse who suspects their partner is being unfaithful. Instead of acknowledging their own infidelity, they transfer, or project, this behavior onto their partner.

Why do some people project? And is there anything that can help someone to stop projecting? Read on to find out.

Like a lot of aspects of human behavior, projection comes down to self-defense. Koenig notes that projecting something you don’t like about yourself onto someone else protects you from having to acknowledge parts of yourself you don’t like.

She adds that humans tend to feel more comfortable seeing negative qualities in others rather than in themselves.

Who does it?

“Projection does what all defense mechanisms are meant to do: keep discomfort about ourselves at bay and outside our awareness,” explains Koenig. She says the people who are most prone to projecting are those who don’t know themselves very well, even if they think they do.

People who “feel inferior and have low self-esteem” can also fall into the habit of projecting their own feelings of not being good enough onto others, adds psychologist Michael Brustein, PsyD. He points to racism and homophobia as examples of this type of projection on a broader scale.

On the other hand, people who can accept their failures and weaknesses — and who are comfortable reflecting on the good, bad, and ugly within — tend not to project. “They have no need, as they can tolerate recognizing or experiencing the negatives about themselves,” Koenig adds.

Projection often looks different for each person. With that said, here are some examples from Koenig to help you get a better understanding of how projection might play out in different scenarios:

  • If you’re out to dinner and someone keeps talking and talking and you interrupt, they may accuse you of not being a good listener and wanting attention.
  • If you strongly advocate for an idea of yours at work, a co-worker might accuse you of always wanting your way, even though you tend to just go along with their ideas most of the time.
  • Your boss insists you’re lying about the large number of hours you put into a project when they’re the one who’s cutting out of the office early and not meeting deadlines.

If you recognize yourself in any of these scenarios, there’s no need to beat yourself up about it. This can just lead to more projecting. Instead, try to focus on why you’re projecting. There are a few ways to go about this.

Do some soul searching

A good starting point, says Brustein, is to check in with how you truly feel about yourself, especially your weaknesses. What are they? Are there things you actively do to contribute to them? He recommends hashing out these questions in a journal.

Koenig agrees on the importance of self-reflection when it comes to projection. To her, self-reflection means “viewing yourself with detachment and curiosity, never judgment.”

Look at your behavior and see if you tend to blame others for things you do or incorrectly assign negative qualities to others. If you do, take note of it and move on. Try not to dwell on it and judge yourself too harshly.

Ask someone who understands

It sounds intimidating, but Koenig recommends asking someone close to you if they notice you projecting. Make sure it’s someone you trust and feel comfortable talking to. It might be hard to bring up at first, but consider being honest with them. Explain you’re trying to better understand how you see yourself and others.

Just make sure you’re prepared to hear things you might not necessarily want to hear if you decide to do this. Remember, though, that this info can help you learn to stop projecting.

See a therapist

A good therapist can be one of the best tools for overcoming projection. They can help you identify and address reasons why you’re projecting and give you tools to help you stop.

If projecting has damaged a close relationship, a therapist can also help you rebuild that relationship or prevent it from happening in a future one.

Not sure where to start? Here are five therapy options for every budget.

It’s human nature to want to protect yourself from painful or negative feelings and experiences. But when this protection turns to projection, it may be time to take a look at why you’re doing it. Doing so can improve not only your self-esteem, but also your relationships with others, whether they be co-workers, a spouse, or close friends.