Projection is an unconscious psychological mechanism that allows us to block and disown certain aspects of ourselves – feelings, qualities – and to cast them outside onto others. We often project our own thoughts and feelings onto others, instead of experiencing and being conscious of them. We imagine our feelings and thoughts belonging to the other person.
Becoming aware of our projections is necessary in order to have better communication with others. When we project our thoughts and feelings onto other people, we cannot relate to what they are actually saying or doing. An easy way to check out whether you are projecting is to ask the other person what they actually are feeling or thinking.
In infancy we use projection as a psychological defense against overwhelming emotional experiences. As we develop a sense of ourselves, we learn to differentiate our own feelings from those of others. Those feelings that are unacceptable to us, we project onto others.
For instance, if we are feeling angry with another person and we are uncomfortable with that feeling, we disown it and experience the other person being angry with us. In that way, we don't have to experience our own difficult feelings.
In our early relationships, we experience ourselves in relation to the other important people in our worlds collecting many different thoughts and feelings. Over time, we construct patterns of relating, associating specific sets of emotions, behaviors and expectations to each relationship.
When we enter into our adult relationship we bring with us these pre-constructed patterns. If in our current intimate relationships, we find ourselves repeatedly falling into habitual reactive patterns, it is often the case that we are projecting these older patterns onto our present experience. Recognizing these repeated, familiar, reactions can help us to move beyond our reactivity, often the cause of conflict.