Projecting emotions is when a person seeks to suppress certain feelings and emotions they have themselves but identifies them in others. Consequently, they can have heightened emotional reactions, such as annoyance, anger, or frustration, from identifying feelings in others that they are suppressing in themselves. This is perceived as emotional projection and is considered a form of psychological defense from feeling bad about particular aspects of themselves. The consequence, however, is that it also prevents them from really engaging with other people, being honest about the situation, and expressing themselves authentically.
In this article, I will go into these issues in detail, drawing on the research evidence, so that you can start to see how this process works and what you can do to prevent this destructive defense mechanism influencing your life and relationships.
What Is Emotional Projection?
Most of what you read about emotional projection is simply an adaptation of Freud's work.
What most people say projection is
The typical answer to what emotional projection is, is where a person denies a particular feeling in themselves and in an attempt to avoid feeling it themselves 'projects', or ascribes, that feeling to someone else.
"The view that people defensively project specific bad traits of their own onto others as a means of denying that they have them is not well supported" (p.1092)
An evidence backed version of projection
What the evidence does suggest is that people who feel something that they do not like, feel uncomfortable about, or feel ashamed of, can try to suppress those feelings. You can read a detailed article on emotional suppression here. We can be quite good at suppressing emotions but by suppressing them they become more accessible to the person. Consequently, when they are making impressions or evaluations of someone else, those suppressed feelings are more likely to be used and, therefore, ascribed to the other person.
In other words, it is not that you project unwanted feelings onto others as a way of ensuring that you don't feel them yourself, but rather it is that you see what you are suppressing more easily in others. This is a much simpler process! But also a more empowering one because you don't have to understand complex psychodynamic processes to be able to do something about it.
Why is Projecting Emotions a Problem?
Identifying feelings that you have in yourself in other people is not a bad thing. In fact, it can be a good thing to see other people as feeling what we feel, or indeed that we feel what others feel.
The problem comes when we are trying not to feel something but we identify it in others. This is immediately creating a 'me vs you' or an 'us vs them'. We are perceiving a situation in which we are different from others and because we are trying to suppress what we believe someone else feels, we find it difficult to connect with. Or sometimes even worse, we perceive that what someone else is feeling is disgusting and/or shameful.
Projecting Emotions Example
Let us take an example. A person cheats on their partner by sleeping with someone else. If they see themselves as a moral person who treats other people well, particularly their partner, then this action is a threat to their identity as a moral person and good partner.
They may try to suppress how they feel about it by trying not to think about it, keeping busy, perhaps drinking more. They may try to suppress it by telling themselves things that make it easier, such as justifying it ("my partner has ignored me for too long") or minimising it ("it was a mistake and I've never done it before and I'll never do it again"), etc.
Such acts of suppression push those feelings and ideas up into the unconscious mind when evaluating others. So they may 'see' or 'feel' these when they consider their partner's behaviours or when they are talking to them. They have suppressed their own feelings and are now projecting them onto someone else.
Needless to say the situation will deteriorate because it is based on misinterpretation and dishonesty.
You could take many more examples to demonstrate how this could play out not just in romantic relationships but also with any other relationship with friends, family, in work, or even with strangers.
Projection is grounded in dishonesty and misinterpretation
A big issue with emotional projection is that the person doing the projecting is trying to distance themselves from how they feel and so they cannot really do what they need to, to process and resolve their feelings. In other words, they are not being responsible; said another way, they are not able to respond to how they feel.
So emotional projection is a problem because the person is not being honest with themselves or others about how they feel, are not being responsible about how they feel, are misinterpreting events and situations, and attributing feelings to others they do not feel.
This is a recipe for the other person to feel misunderstood, disrespected, blamed and shamed.
Projecting Emotions as Protection
Emotional projection can be seen as a form of emotional protection.
Not all feelings are easy to experience. Feelings are also very complex. We have feelings and we have feelings about those feelings. So we can feel angry and ashamed about feeling angry, for example.
Where we are feeling something that is uncomfortable, painful, or challenging, suppressing emotions is one strategy many people use. It can be seen as a way to protect the self from feeling those difficult emotions.
The problem is that this is a form of resistance and 'what we resist, persists'. Those feelings do not go away but rather appear in other places. It may not be obvious where at first but projection is one way they can appear.
By focusing on what we think other people feel it helps distract us from our own feelings. This protects us from ourselves, from our difficult feelings, from our self-doubts, insecurities, and our deep sense that maybe others are right and that there is something wrong with me or that I am not good enough.
Can Emotional Projection be a Good Thing?
In the short term, projecting emotions onto others can protect you from feeling bad. But in the long term projection is never a good thing.
You cannot engage in any relationship, even with people you meet fleetingly, and have any form of satisfaction from that relationship unless you come from a place of honesty and authenticity.
Authenticity is about being able to act in accordance with your own personal values, goals, and ideals. Doing this allows you to feel as though you are being yourself. Being emotionally honest is part of being authentic. It means you have to be aware of what you are feeling and are able to communicate this to others.
If you are not honest with yourself, how can others engage with you in any meaningful way? It is not you they are then trying to talk to but rather a version of yourself that has large parts missing. The result is that you feel unheard and misunderstood, when in fact it is you that has created that situation by not giving anyone else a change to connect with the real you.
Typical Emotions that are Projected
- Failure - failure can be hard to take and many try to suppress how they feel about their own failure. This suppression, however, means that they are more likely to not accept failure in others. Consequently, they want their 'team', their child, their 'person', or whoever they are backing to win and are very upset when they don't.
- Anger - many people struggle with anger and for those who try to suppress their own anger are quick to see anger in others. Because they deny their own anger they deny the right for others to feel angry and consequently ask them to calm down or tell them they are being overly angry, scary or frightening.
- Insecurity - insecurity is hard to deal with and suppressing it means you are more likely to see insecurities in others and to not accept those insecurities. The very fact that someone else has them may be very annoying, frustrating, or irritating. In more extreme cases, it may be something you say something about or even be mean about.
- Vulnerability - while we are all vulnerable in different ways, many find it hard to accept. Suppressing our feelings of vulnerability will mean we will see vulnerability more in others - if it is there or not. Denying vulnerability in ourselves means we are more likely to deny vulnerability in others and so we can have a strong reaction to our perception of someone else being vulnerable.
- Irresponsibility - irresponsible behaviour can be very challenging to a person who sees themselves as responsible. Suppressing how they feel about it can result in not accepting irresponsible behaviour in others. So when they do see it, they focus on it and get very upset about it.
How can you tell if you're projecting?
There are two components to knowing if you are projecting: in the moment identification and after the event identification.
In the moment identification
This is hard. It is hard because you have very little time and space to reflect on what is going on. And because this is a process involving unconscious thoughts it is hard to know in the moment what is unconscious and what is not!
The trick is what Schon calls reflection-in-action. Reflection-in-action is the process by which you observe your thoughts and behaviours in the moment, relate these to what you know about yourself and the other person/s involved, consider the possibilities for why this situation is happening, and come to view on whether you are suppressing how you feel but seeing it in someone else.
So a situation could be that you are overworked and stressed but try to suppress this because you don't like to think of yourself as someone who gets stressed. You enter into a conversation with your partner and because you are stressed but trying not to be - and not being honest with yourself or your partner about how you feel - the conversation is fraught and results in conflict. You immediately say this is because they are stressed and to stop taking it out on you (the projection).
Reflecting-in-action is thinking about how you feel as the conversation starts to become difficult. It is noticing you are tense and frustrated about your work. It is thinking about how your partner is doing and what you know about their work situation. It is considering if your feelings are influencing the situation and being able to say this and checking out with the other person what is going on for them, without assuming or ascribing feelings to them.
As I say, this is hard!
After the event identification
This is not easy but it is easier than reflecting-in-action. It is a process known Schon calls reflection-on-action.
Reflection-on-action is the process of doing what you do in-action but later on, when you aren't pressured in the moment, with much more time to think about it.
Still, it isn't easy to know if you are suppressing your emotions and your mind can play tricks on you to give you the impression that you are not. You really have to listen to your body and observe what you are feeling - even if your head is telling you otherwise.
Reflecting on action gives you room to use tools and techniques such as writing, drawing, or talking to others to think things through and notice what you are feeling. These can help identify if you are suppressing emotions and if you have inadvertently perceived those feelings in others.
Take the test to see how you manage your feelings
This is a short quiz that will give you an idea about the typical ways you manage your feelings.
You may be someone who habitually suppresses their feelings. Or you may be someone who is more likely to act them out. Or you may be someone who expresses them in very healthy ways. But knowing your typical pattern of behaviour can help in the reflection process.
How to Stop Projecting Emotions
Here is a what looks like a simple 3 step process to help stop projecting emotions. In fact, each of these are highly skilled steps but knowing them is the start to mastering them.
Becoming aware of how we feel is the foundation of knowing what we feel, how we feel, and what we are doing with our feelings. It is the cornerstone of meaningful connection with others and the key to being able to stay true to who we are.
If we are suppressing our feelings, there will be signs. We need to start to become aware of these signs. So the more we practise this the better we will become and noticing the signs.
Everyone feels things differently. It may be you hold tension in your neck, or shoulders, or jaw, or arms, legs, etc. It may be that you feel a faster heart rate or breathe more deeply or shallowly. It may be that you feel nothing and almost numb. You need to start to notice what you feel in what circumstance so you can start to notice what is different, what you can trust and what you should be suspicious of.
Emotional awareness also requires you to be able to put words to how you are feeling. So noticing if you feel annoyed, frustrated, angry, ashamed, guilty, etc. is necessary to be aware of your emotions.
You can't, however, be aware unless you can be honest.
Being honest with yourself about your situation and how you feel allows you to have an open mind about the situation. Emotional projection is a smoke screen and so it isn't going to be easy to identify when it is happening.
By being open to questioning yourself, you will start to see what the reality is. If you notice you are defensive about something or angry about something, these are important things to take into consideration.
Finally, being aware of how you feel and honest with yourself that you feel these things brings you to the need to communicate how you feel. You can't know the reality unless you check it out with others. Tell them how you feel. Ask them what they are feeling. Ask them what they are noticing about the interaction. See if what you are seeing in them is really a reflection of how you feel.
Through that communication you will be able to use your awareness and honesty to come to a much better view about whether you are projecting or not.
To Sum Up
If we want to develop meaningful connections with others, build emotional intimacy with our romantic partners, get on in work, and be able to fulfil our potential, we need to be able to know where and when we are putting blocks in our way of these goals. Projecting emotions is one form of block.
You do not need to know a lot about Freudian psychoanalysis - in fact the research evidence does not support his view of what projection is - to know what this is. We have outlined a fairly simple process that is what the research supports. Emotional suppression leads to identification of what we suppress in others. We all do it. But not everyone who accepts that we all do this does something about it.
But by listening to your heart, body, and soul you will be able to be aware of how you feel and identify what you are hiding. Consequently, you will be able to communicate in a more honest and authentic manner. This will give you the best chance of avoiding or stopping projecting emotions.
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