Skip to content

How Paranoid People Use Projection As A Defense Mechanism

how paranoid people use projection as defense mechanism

Being paranoid and projecting your feelings onto others sometimes go hand in hand, and if this is not handled in the right way and at the right time, it will just get worse over time.

We cannot know what others feel, so we often assume they are feeling what we would feel under similar circumstances. That is empathy. But when you empathize with someone else, you realize that you are assuming the other person is responding as you would respond. Projection, on the other hand, is a process by which feelings are experienced as external rather than coming from inside.

The person who is projecting thinks the feeling belongs to the other person. When the projection is a dominant defense and the person is incapable of distinguishing between self and other, we say that person is “paranoid.” That is a psychotic state, but many non-psychotic people have paranoid character styles. Projection is their main defense against experiencing unpleasant feelings.

Projections can cause serious misunderstandings and interpersonal problems. Jonathan projects that other people think he is not smart because he did not go to an elite college. When he starts a conversation based on that idea, he feels angry and tries to show he is smarter than the other person. This often leads to unpleasant responses.

Related: The Paranoid Partner: 20 Behavioral Traits of A Paranoid Personality in Relationships

Another patient, Jack, is quite judgmental and projects his critical judgments onto other people and then avoids seeing or talking to them because he does not want to bear their anger or criticism. Projection is malignant for Jack because it keeps him isolated from all the people he imagines are angry at him. Ironically, the defense causes the dreaded response because when he doesn’t respond to emails or phone calls, people do get angry at him.

Another patient, Patricia, projects all her doubts about her girlfriend Janet onto her friends. She imagines they think Janet is dumb or that she is not attractive. Patricia doesn’t want to socialize with her friends because of her distorted expectations of their feelings about Janet. After long periods of avoiding socializing with friends, Patricia feels angry at Janet for keeping her isolated.

In therapy sessions, it is often difficult to convince patients that they are projecting their feelings onto me. For example, my patient Diana says, “You think I’m a terrible person because I am cheating on my husband and lying all the time.” I think she is doing something that makes her feel bad about herself and could potentially break up her family, but she thinks she is a terrible person. She is projecting her judgment of herself onto me.

paranoid projection

Similarly, Paula often comes late and blames the traffic or the subway. She usually arrives angry at me because she imagines I think she did it on purpose. When we discuss it, it often emerges that she left her house too late to get to my office on time because she wanted to make a phone call or finish a crossword puzzle. I do think she did it “on purpose.”

But the fact that the projection is sometimes correct, does not take away from the fact that she was projecting. Paula finds it difficult to own her own critical feelings about being late.

In conclusion, while we all project sometimes, people with paranoid character styles use projection as their dominant defense. Projections distort the person on whom the negative feelings are lodged which often leads to problems in marriages, friendships, and work situations.

Related: Projection: The Lethal Weapon Narcissists and Abusers Use To Manipulate Others

Most of the time, the people who are being projected upon don’t even realize it. They only see the consequences—accusations and anger. But when the negative projections are persistent and the person cannot be dissuaded from them, it can destroy relationships. No one wants to be the container of someone else’s unmanageable feelings.

Written By Roberta Satow Ph.D.  
Originally Appeared On Psychology Today  
how paranoid people use projection as defense mechanism pin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Roberta Satow Ph.D.

Roberta Satow is a New York-based psychoanalyst, speaker, and author of Doing the Right Thing: Taking Care of Your Elderly Parents Even if They Didn’t Take Care of You, Gender and Social Life, and the novel: Two Sisters of Coyoacán. She is a professor emerita of the department of sociology at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York. Dr. Satow speaks and writes about issues of aging, gender, and mental health. She has been quoted in The New York Times, O, The Oprah Magazine, on ABC News and other national media platforms. She gave the keynote addresses at the EAP Symposium on Diversity and Well-being for the National Defence Department of Canada, Ottawa, and the New York City Dept. of Aging White House Conference on Aging. She has also appeared on The Diane Rehm Show, AARP, Prime Time Radio, and several other NPR programs.View Author posts

Up Next

5 Ways That Family Estrangement Can Inflict Lifelong Harm

Ways Family Estrangement Can Inflict Lifelong Harm

Family estrangement, be it parental or sibling, or worse, both, is one of the most painful and heartbreaking things a human being can go through.

Key Points

Cutoffs can ripple through one's life and identity, producing a unique form of grief as the estranged mourn the living.

The estranged often have a lingering difficulty adjusting to, accepting, and making sense of their losses.

The estranged often suffer a loss of self-esteem and trust, which may play out in other relationships and ultimately compromise well-being.


Up Next

Overthinking Before Sleep? 8 Ways To Avoid Racing Thoughts At Night And Sleep Better

How to stop overthinking before sleep

Can’t sleep at night? Overthinking keeping you up? Racing thoughts at night can totally screw up your sleep schedule and lead to insomnia. If you are struggling with sleepless nights and wondering how to stop overthinking at night, then we are here to help.

When your mind is on a race track

It’s been a long, hard day. You are tired, exhausted and ready to hit the sack. As you lie in your bed and slide under your warm, cushy blanket, you can’t wait to fall asleep. The room is dark and the temperature is just right. You exhale deeply as you relax and that’s when it happens. 


The starting pistol fires and your mind races through the track of rumination and painful mem

Up Next

10 Ways To Stop Ruminating

Ways To Stop Ruminating

Rumination if not reigned in at the right time can wreak havoc on your mental and emotional health. That's why it's important to know when and how to stop ruminating, whenever things start to feel too overwhelming.

Key Points

The mind seeks an answer or meaning in any experience. Consequently, people try to think through an experience to better understand a problem.

The average brain generates 15,000 to 50,000 thoughts in a day, and most are negative.

Studies show that a 90-minute walk in nature or a single session of exercise can reduce symptoms of rumination.

One of the most plaguin

Up Next

5 Moments When You Are Most At Risk of Sibling Estrangement

Moments Risk of Sibling Estrangement

Sibling estrangement, just like parental estrangement can be very painful to deal with. Even if you are not particularly close with each other, emotional distance from them is bound to hurt, because you will always have that sibling connection. Let's find out what causes sibling estrangement, and the main reasons for sibling estrangement.

Key Points:

Estrangement often occurs when a sibling’s life changes and he or she must redefine his or her role in the family.

To steer clear of a sibling cutoff, being mindful of the risk factors for estrangement can help.

Siblings renegotiate their relationship over time.

Certain moments are espec

Up Next

How To Cope With the Loss of a Pet: 8 Things

Things To Do If Grieving Loss Of A Pet

Losing a pet is always devastating, and I have been there so many times. You would like to think it gets easier after a point, but grieving the loss of a pet is one of the hardest things I have ever had to do in my life. Losing them feels like losing a limb.

I have been through five losses like this so far, and let me tell you, dealing with pet loss is not easy. At all. Losing my furry best friends has taken a lot out of me, and to date, I am still reeling from the pain. Our pets are our companions, support, and even a shoulder to cry on, they are never "just pets". They are family.

Related: 10 Important Life Lessons I Learned From My Dog