Mental Health: How To Tell When You Are Projecting

Today Stacey Lu talks on the topic of mental health: How To Tell When You Are Projecting

We talk a lot about how to deal with other people mistreating you or how to react to outside negativity affecting your own life, but what if you’re the one creating that negative energy? How do we know if we are the one making other people feel bad, and how do we stop it? 

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In the course of self-work and self-love, there comes a time when we have to be brutally honest with ourselves, and identify the ways in which WE can be toxic or unkind. Sometimes it’s a bitter pill to swallow, acknowledging and admitting that we might not be the best that we can be. One of the ways we can act or react in a detrimental way to others is when we are projecting our own underlying emotions onto another person or situation. Most often, we are unaware of these emotions and therefore do not realize that we are projecting. 

What does it mean to project? Psychological projection is a theory developed by the late Austrian psychologist, Sigmund Freud. In his studies, he found that subjects would often accuse someone else of having the same emotions that they themselves had, in order to better deal with said emotions they were experiencing. We use projecting to cope with our underlying issues and unresolved emotions. Emotions and feelings we have trouble coming to terms with, and flaws we simply have not been able to accept within ourselves, may surface and come out as jab towards someone else, simply as a defense mechanism. Many bullies are guilty of projecting. Also, we might have experienced psychological projection in a variety of ways, either by doing the projecting or being projected upon.

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Some common ways in which people may be projecting are: 

  1. Suspicion – This is a common example for people in relationships, where if you are unfaithful to your partner, or even just attracted to someone other than your partner, you may become suspicious of  and paranoid that your partner may also be cheating. It might even get to the point where you accuse them of being unfaithful to you.
  2. Calling someone fat or ugly or making fun of the way the look – Whether you say it out loud or think it, if you are criticizing someone for the way they look, perhaps you are unhappy and dissatisfied with your own appearance. When you place the attention and focus on other people, it makes it easier to hide and mask or distance yourself from your own insecurities regarding your body image. 
  3. Hating or disliking someone – When you feel an intense dislike towards someone, it’s usually because of a specific reason, whether it be their personality, or something they do, or what they have. When this is the case, oftentimes, you are probably seeing something in them that reflects the parts of yourself that you hate or are insecure about. And reversely, this could lead to you believing that someone hates you when they do not. 
  4. Anger – When there is a lot of turmoil and anger within yourself, it is easy to take that anger out on other people. By telling the other person to “calm down” during an argument masks the anger you are concealing. By projecting anger onto someone else you are also shifting the blame from being the attacker to playing the victim. 
  5. Portraying disgust or judgement – When you place judgement or show disgust towards someone or something, it could possibly be because that is an area you place the a lot of importance in. You judge someone for freely portraying an emotion that you feel extremely shameful or insecure about.
  6. “Anything I can do, you should also be able to do” – This might not be the most obvious form of projection, and often it disguises itself as flattery or motivation. “I did _____ easily, you can definitely do it too!” This kind of projection can be highly detrimental to people as it does not take into account a person’s capabilities 

There are many other ways people project too, but the above list includes some of the more common occurrences of psychological projection.

How do we stop projecting? First step is to be aware that that is what we are doing. By using this list, it can help us identify the instances when we might be lashing out and projecting because of an underlying emotion we have. Do I feel animosity toward specific people? Do particular situations trigger me inexplicably? Do I catch myself constantly judging other people for things outside their control? Do I feel paranoid or suspicious in my relationships? 

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Once we identify that we are projecting, take note of the patterns and our tendencies to do so. Before we lash out again, look within to see where we need work, what emotions have we left unresolved, what so we deeply feel ashamed of and why, or is there something we are feeling extremely guilty of. Then when we have pinpointed the root of our projections, we may be able to start to work on that part of ourselves. 

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Remember the next time you feel like saying something hurtful, or placing judgement, or expectations upon others, take a few moments to reflect on why you feel the urge to do so. Is it about that other person, or is it really about you?

Photos by Crystal Luna from Studio Salty

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