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Are Those Your Feelings Or Theirs? Here’s How To Tell If Someone Is Projecting Onto You

“You’re projecting.” It’s a common phrase I’m sure you’ve heard before; whether you’re in a silly argument with your friend or someone has actually accused you of doing this, projection has been brought up often. But, what exactly counts as projecting? And how can you tell if someone is projecting onto you?

It can be difficult to tell if someone is projecting on you given that it can be covert, and it’s this reason why projection can be so dangerous. Luckily, I spoke with clinical psychologist Dr. David Tzall to help identify some warning signs that someone may be projecting on you. 

Before we can go into how we can recognize the warning signs, first we need to define what mental projection is. According to Dr. Tzall, projection is “a defense mechanism in which an individual attributes their own unwanted thoughts, feelings, or motives onto another person.” 

Dr. Tzall notes that this can look like a student blaming their failing grade on their teacher’s “terrible” explanations, or when an unfaithful partner accuses their spouse of cheating without having any evidence. These examples would be considered defensive projection. “This allows the person to avoid confronting uncomfortable or unacceptable aspects of themselves by perceiving these qualities in others instead,” Dr. Tzall adds. 

There are different types of projection.

Additionally, there are different types of projection: neurotic, complementary, and complemental. Neurotic projection is when an individual applies their own negative feelings onto another person because they’re unable to deal with them on their own. This kind of projection is pretty common, as we’re all partly guilty for initiating these kinds of situations. 

For instance, if you’re having a bad day, you might lash out at those around you over minuscule things; having to cope with stress, anxiety, or negative emotions can be a lot to handle, so pushing those unwanted feelings onto others is one way we might try to deal with it even though it’s not fair to the people affected. 

In a similar vein, complementary projection is when a person assumes that those around them have the same beliefs as them. For instance, a person might think their co-worker has the same political standing as them, or when a student assumes their classmate agrees with their answer. Contrastingly, complimental is the assumption that others have the same level of abilities as them. This can look like an athlete thinking their teammate can run as fast as them, or when a person assumes their partner is good with finances like they are. 

There are varying reasons for why someone might project on others, but lying at the root of t he problem is the need to protect oneself from recognizing something they don’t wish to face. “It’s a matter of self-preservation to cope with feelings, thoughts, or motives that they find unacceptable or threatening,” Dr. Tzall adds. “Projection helps individuals manage internal conflicts and maintain a positive self-image by attributing undesirable qualities or emotions onto others instead of themselves.” 

The majority of the time, people who project onto others do so unconsciously. This dynamic creates a complex dilemma, as not only are projectors hindering themselves from self-improvement, but they’re also hurting the people around them. 

The Signs Of Projection Aren’t hard to identify.

To identify whether someone is projecting on you, Dr. Tzall provides a quick list of behaviors that scream “red flags”: overreaction, shifting blame, inconsistency in accusations, unsubstantial criticism, persistent negativity, and lack of insight. 

In terms of overreactions, the projector might have extreme emotions over something small or insignificant, causing you to doubt yourself and the validity of your opinions. Likewise, they might also shift blame and make accusations, finding justification for their behaviors and accusing you of varying things that are illogical, unjustifiable, or seemingly out of nowhere. This can look a lot like “gaslighting,” which is another method of psychological manipulation that makes victims question their feelings and even their sanity. 

Additionally, not only might the projector try to present themselves in a better light, but they’ll also toy with belittlement; they might overly criticize you over minuscule or insignificant things, and their constant pessimism is a tool meant to put you down. While their fault-finding behaviors might be obvious to others, the projector might be unaware of how they’re being hurtful—considering it’s an unconscious behavior, the projector might be blind to how their manipulative actions point to a larger problem that they keep avoiding in themselves. 

While some of these behaviors might appear small at first, the gradual build-up of these manipulation tactics will eventually catch up to you. Victims of these toxic behaviors will feel confused, hurt, and frustrated, and the emotional turmoil alone can heighten these emotions and stir on anxiety and depression. The damage psychological projection inflicts can be severe, as it can destroy trust and communication within a relationship, no matter if it’s romantic, platonic, or familial.  

“Projection can be quite disruptive,” Dr. Tzall says. “It can cause an individual to question their own thoughts, feelings, and actions. They might start to believe the false attributes assigned to them, leading to decreased self-esteem and self-worth. Dealing with someone’s projections requires significant emotional and mental energy, leading to exhaustion and burnout over time.” 

If you’re experiencing projection, don’t be afraid to call it out.

Always having to deal with someone’s persistent negative comments and outlooks, their unfounded defensiveness and blaming, or their extreme attitudes are incredibly taxing. Having to confront a projector, however, may sound more intimidating.

“When confronted with projections,” Dr. Tzall states, “stay calm and respond in a composed manner. Defend yourself with facts and clarity without becoming defensive or aggressive.” 

While it may be daunting, it’s best that you face your projector before their behaviors worsen.  It’s important that you assert yourself and establish boundaries with them through open communication, but if the projections are increasingly harmful, then it’s best to re-evaluate your relationship by stepping away from them. 

Remember: don’t take their projections personally. They have unresolved issues they have to contend with, and it’s unfair that you’re the one who has to be their punching bag for the feelings they’re afraid to face. Keep this in mind if you ever find yourself caught with a projector, as you don’t deserve to take on any of their emotional distress. 

Sofia is a third-year Writing & Literature major at UCSB. In her free time, she enjoys watching anime, playing video games, and drinking chai tea.