Many of us experience this in toxic communications we have with others in our life, but we don’t quite have the right word or definition to describe it. Someone is accusing us of doing something that they are actually doing themselves, and it can be immensely irritating, especially if we can’t define the behavior or put a term to it. What is this kind of behavior called?
As a general rule, when someone is accusing you of doing something that they’re doing, they are engaging in the psychological defense mechanism of projection. This is the attribution of things to others that are actually attributable to oneself, and is a way of avoiding taking ownership for one’s actions.
In psychological terms, projection often refers to mental phenomena like thoughts and feelings, but can also apply to physical attributes and actions. The person projecting is pushing what they don’t like about themselves (or what they did) onto someone else, as a way of denying this about themselves.
Projection also crosses over closely with other terms like hypocrisy, gas-lighting, blame shifting and denial. When it happens occasionally, it isn’t always a cause for concern, because we are all prone to doing it every now and then, but when it is common within a relationship, it is time to look more closely into the personalities involved.
Let’s look at the concept in more detail, including some examples and tips for handling it in communication, plus making the important distinction between one-off examples of projection which we can all be culpable of, and more toxic dynamics where projection is pervasively used as a defense mechanism and tool for abuse.
A Definition of Projection
Psychological projection can broadly be defined as an ego defense mechanism whereby unwanted thoughts, desires, motivations, attributes and feelings are attributed to others when they are actually attributable to oneself.
It actually originates from Freudian psychology, but is a well accepted defense mechanism in even mainstream psychological literature today. It involves the denying of things about ourselves we don’t like, and putting them onto others instead, and is very real, as we can all relate to doing this ourselves if we are honest, and also having it done to us.
It is a psychological defense mechanism that can be used to avoid accepting things about ourselves, but also to avoid taking ownership for our actions. Hence, when someone is accusing you of things they are actually doing, in psychological terms they are projecting onto you. You now have the correct word for it!
See the video below for an excellent overview of projection as a defense mechanism to deny responsibility.
Some Examples of Projection
Like so many psychological phenomena, projection runs on a scale, with some examples of it more serious and potentially annoying and upsetting than others.
Here are some milder examples:
- Attributing physical characteristics they don’t like about themselves to others (eg. saying someone is fat/ugly/hair looks bad etc, when this in fact applies to them).
- Attributing tendencies to others which actually also apply to the person themselves (eg. saying a person is lazy/unmotivated/selfish etc, when this actually applies to themselves)
- Attributing your own sexual impulses and desire to others. Accusing others of being hyper-sexual or obsessed about sex or flirting, when it is in fact that person themself who is obsessed with sex or overly flirting.
- In general, we see that things someone doesn’t like about themselves are projected (put onto) others.
Here are some more extreme and abusive examples, where really serious accusations are being made:
- Accusations of infidelity/cheating
- Accusations of stealing.
- Accusations of abuse.
- A boss accusing someone of breaking rules.
In these cases, when the person making the accusation is actually engaging in this behavior, then projection is taking place. They are attributing to others what they don’t like about themselves.
Projection is Common With Sociopaths & Narcissists
Projection is used by all of us at some point, but is especially common among those with Cluster B personality disorders – sociopaths, psychopaths, narcissists, borderlines.
This is because these disorders are characterized by:
- Often a sense of perfection and flawlessness; a sense that there is nothing wrong with them, and that they can “do no wrong”. Little or no willingness to accept blame or take ownership for wrongdoing.
- A flagrant tendency and ability to deny reality, even when confronted with hard evidence.
- A desire to flip reality on it’s head and erode other people’s sense of reality and perception.
- A lack of morality and conscience. No problems in shifting blame onto others and using them to protect themselves.
Whenever you have these traits in a person, projection is going to present, both to deny anything bad about themselves, and also to deliberately chip away at the self esteem of those they are targeting.
To emphasize this point, let’s give a brief comparison of how projection can manifest in normal people versus people with personality disorders.
Normal person – Projection to some degree is very common. We’ve all at some point put onto others what’s actually attributable to us to either avoid getting into trouble, deny something unpleasant about ourselves, or just when we were in an argument. It’s understandable and doesn’t mean we’re bad people. Most of us only project occasionally and perhaps less so as we get older and more mature, and less defensive.
Personality disordered person – Will be more toxic and exasperating to deal with, because sociopaths and narcissists relentlessly use projection to put things onto others. It’s not just an occasional thing; it is a constant pattern in their communications with others, since they have been using this defense mechanism usually for many years.
It is firmly ingrained into their psyche, and is in fact essential for them to deny ownership for their toxic behavior towards others and prevent their tightly clung onto (but false) image of themselves from being broken. Projection has become automatic and natural for them, to the point where it is easy for them to deny reality with a completely straight face.
With psychopaths and narcissists, projection is also often done deliberately because they know it winds up and annoys people to have things put onto them that belong to the other person. It is not just a one-off thing to escape uncomfortable feelings, but a deliberate tactic in the abuse they inflict on others.
Most people use projection to some degree at some point in our lives but psychopaths and narcissists use it incessantly to an extreme extent. It will become insidious as your relationship with them deepens. They do not want to face the toxicity that lies within them so they constantly project it onto others.
Here are some common examples of projection you will encounter constantly if you are dealing with a psychopath/sociopath or narcissist:
- Nothing is ever their fault, even when it clearly is.
- Constantly blaming you for things which are their fault.
- Constant gas-lighting, where they say things didn’t happen when they did or vice versa.
- Attributing to you things which are actually true to them (eg. lying, cheating, not taking criticism, lazy etc).
- Claiming that you’re the one who is mentally ill, and cajoling/forcing you to go to a therapist, when in fact they are the ones who are really mentally sick and need professional help..
- Regular situations where you find yourself apologizing or making up for something when it was their fault in the first place.
- A constant sense of an inverted reality, where you are seen as the bad person while they walk off scot free.
- Situations constantly flipped on their head so they are never the one at fault eg. a perfectly normal and justified reaction to something unacceptable they do or say is flipped around so that you are over-reacting, they didn’t say that, or some other distortion of reality.
- More generally, whenever there is any conflict, it is always you that is the problem, never them. There is always something wrong with you, never them. They never take any ownership for any problems in the relationship whatsoever. It is always the other person.
- Erosion of your identity and self belief as with all the gas-lighting, projection and distortion you start to question your own judgement and don’t know who you are anymore.
Therefore, if you are seeing projection in someone not once every now and then, but consistently, it’s time to a) start being on guard around this person, especially in work scenarios; and b) start looking into the topic of personality disorders to make sure this is not what you are dealing with.
“Those of you who are taking notes, write in capital letters Deny and Project (when talking about Cluster B personalities). It’s essential. When you’re talking about someone being narcissistic – “oh he’s a bit vain, he’s a bit rude, he doesn’t pay his tab” – that’s different to someone who is neurotically denying any wrongdoing whatsoever. They have no negative attributes. They admit to nothing. They is no humility.
Denial and projection (is at play). This is why therapy doesn’t work (for Cluster B disorders). “Why would it work for me; there’s nothing wrong with me. I know more than you, stupid therapist””
Richard Grannon, personality disorder expert.
Dealing With Projection
Here are some quick tips for dealing with projection when you encounter it in communication.
Dealing with projection in relationships:
- Call out projection for what it is straight away if it is a serious, non joking discussion.
- Detach from any relationships immediately where projection and gas-lighting are commonplace. Do not tolerate this behavior when it keeps happening all the time, as over time it will erode your self esteem and perception of reality. Just end the relationship.
- Save texts, emails and screenshots as evidence is necessary to counteract projection and gas-lighting.
- Stick to facts and reason. Do not be provoked or wound up in confrontation.
- See our article on the context vs content split in communication to check whether the general patterns of communication in the relationship are healthy or not. If you are dealing with someone for whom context is clearly more important than content, do not waste your time trying to reason or argue facts. Save your energy and end the relationship.
Dealing with projection in workplaces:
- When you have toxic, hypocritical managers, you must thoroughly document all instances of inappropriate and unprofessional behavior, including then they project onto others what is actually attributable to them.
- Save evidence as necessary, such as emails, texts, screenshots. Document conversations. Ask for minutes to be taken in meetings if necessary.
- Again, do not tolerate being around managers who relentlessly project onto others and never accept blame, even when it clearly is them at fault. It is a sign of personality issues and you are best avoiding these people and getting transfers to new departments, or finding a new job.
- See our articles on workplace psychopathy for more tips on navigating toxic workplace dynamics.
Other Closely Related Terms
Here are some other broadly similar terms to projection that could also be used to describe someone who is accusing you of doing things they are actually doing.
Hypocrisy – Pretty obvious – describes someone who says one thing and does another, breaks their own rules, or doesn’t follow the principles they espouse themselves, or the rules they enforce on others. Common terms we use to describe this are “one rule for them, another rule for everybody else”, or “do as I say, not as I do”.
Fits more nicely with projection when we flip it round, and the toxic partner or boss tells you off for things they blatantly do themselves. Very common with politicians in the modern world, and also in narcissistic, entitled bosses and partners.
In this context, hypocrisy could be seen to be a deliberate abuse tactic, and sometimes is, but perhaps is also often a sign of low self awareness – the person has no concept of how they are being hypocritical in not following what they recommend or impose themselves.
Blame shifting – Another very equivalent term, when someone shifts the blame for something onto you when it was clearly their fault, then projection is taking place. Could also often incorporate the term scapegoating, where one person or a group of people shift all blame for a situation onto one person or target. Common in toxic family dynamics where one person becomes the family scapegoat or “emotional dustbin” for all the unpleasant emotions other members of the family don’t like or don’t want to deal with inside themselves. It’s all projected onto the scapegoat.
Gas-lighting – A term for any psychological abuse tactic which is designed to erode a person’s sense of reality and their own perception, to “chip away” at the sense of self and reality. Common examples include saying things were said or done when they weren’t, or vice versa. Very commonly overlaps with projection, and the two terms can often be used equivalently, because in the course of gas-lighting, the abuser will often push or project things onto the victim as a deliberate way to mess with their perception and flip reality on it’s head. See our article on gas-lighting for more.