How to Deal With
Psychological Projection In Relationships

Psychological Projection in Relationships

Understanding psychological projection in relationships, either in the form of simple projection or projective identification, is only useful to the degree that it helps you get more of what you want.  If all you do is pin a label on your partner or yourself the result most likely is more harmful than helpful.  If it helps you be more understanding and making your relationship a safe place to be, then it's good.


Simple Psychological Projection

Projection points at other people

Simple psychological projection involves attempting to cope with anxiety caused by having unpleasant or frightening thoughts, feelings, and/or impulses.   This is done by keeping them out of one's own conscious awareness, but seeing them in others, in other words projecting them onto them. 

  • 'I don't think that'
  • 'I don't feel that'
  • 'I don't want to do that'
  • 'but . . . you are just awful, and/or scary'

Some people find it helpful to think of three subtypes of projection, which you can consider.

When you experience projection in a relationship it can be very confusing. 

If one of the partners is taking their own worst fears about themselves that they don't even know they have because they don't want to have them and seeing them in their partner, projecting them onto their partner without being aware they are doing it, . . . the result is likely to be even more confusing than this sentence.

Apparently this something that we all do to some degree, especially when we are under stress, so it is worth some effort to have a plan for dealing with it.

Projective Identification

Projective identification is very similar to simple projection, but it involves a bit more self-awareness and is reasonably grouped under the heading of projection in relationships.

When projective identification is functioning, the person is aware of the feelings, thoughts, and impulses, but they still project them onto the other people in such a way that we are justified in having them.

  • 'Of course I am angry, selfish, scared, thinking of violence . . . ."
  • 'Who wouldn't be if they had to deal with them?'

And, in fact, there often is a logic to the claims because when one person uses this defense style, it is very likely to evoke exactly what the one doing the projecting feared in the other person and now is are justified in fighting.

Most often the result is a situation in which no one can really figure out who is doing what to whom.

Coping with simple projection

  • Remind yourself that we not only don't really know what other people are thinking and feeling, but they very likely don't either. And, that goes for us too.

  • Remember that the more stress we are under, the more likely we are project our own deep feelings and impulses onto the other person and vice versa. Sometimes the only way you can tell how stressful a situation is for another person is in what they are saying about your motivation, thoughts, impulses.  Take it as information.

  • Relationships in which you feel safe exploring your reactions to a given situation (the good, the bad, and the ugly) with the other person are the ones that last and grow.  Build that environment when you're not under pressure.  It will serve you when you are.

Coping with projective identification

  • Like simple projection, just knowing that it is likely to happen can make a big difference.
  • Use the same techniques as with simple projection.
  • If this is something you realize you do:  (1)  agree on a signal from your partner that it feels to them like this is happening  (2)  you promise to stop on getting the signal and (3)  be quiet for 2, 5, or 10 minutes  (4)  don't be developing your argument further during this time.

Count on having at least some projection and projective identification going on in your relationships.

Keep your eye on the core reasons you are in relationships. Don't let these two distract you from your goal sharing feelings of appreciation, acceptance, and safety.  

When you start thinking in terms of being right, of fairness, of justification, etc.  it is a sign that your attention is on the wrong things and that projection may be involved.

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