Projected emotion, when the reactions have other causes

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Robert Maurer

Projected emotion, when the reactions have other causes

Many times, behind our anger towards others there is an unaccepted and negative emotion that we use against those who do not deserve it.

Written and verified by the psychologist GetPersonalGrowth.

Last update: January 28, 2022

Projected emotion defines a fairly common defense mechanism. It appears when we find it difficult to deal with complicated feelings or sensations.

Instead of facing them, of getting in touch with them to understand them, the mind chooses to redirect them to another sphere, to another dimension, behavior or person.

We can describe many situations that represent this psycho-emotional process and that will be familiar to all of us. It happens when, for example, work causes severe stress and discomfort.

It is not easy to manage the situation or to put our emotions in order because they are sharp, distressing and with a great negative value.

Therefore, we often pour contempt, pain and injustice on our partner or family members through a bad mood. Frustration and suffering are projected outward through inadequate reactions to those who do not deserve it.

We release anger in the least healthy way, as it generates regret in the short term, resulting in more discomfort. Suppressing or projecting emotions is counterproductive.

The adverse or problematic emotional state not only remains, moreover it intensifies. We invite you to deepen this topic.

What you deny submits to you, what you accept transforms you.

-Carl Jung-

What is projected emotion?

The concept of displacement, in German verschiebung, is due to Sigmund Freud. It is an unconscious defense mechanism that the mind activates when it cannot accept an overly hostile emotion.

He therefore chooses to project it, to lead it elsewhere to find a more acceptable outlet, thus releasing that tension. The father of psychoanalysis has established that we are used to making numerous shifts.

An example of this could be the classic psychological projection. When we do not accept a trait or a defect in us, we tend to project it onto others, seeing defects in those around us that are actually ours.

Freud also explained that not all shifts are negative. Sublimation, for example, consists of transferring unacceptable sexual feelings into creative contexts. Art is thus transformed into a means of expressing, in a harmless and cathartic way at the same time, some impulses that the mind has a hard time accepting.

Beyond the psychoanalytic framework there is an undoubted fact: emotional displacement is a mental behavior that we often carry out.

Defense mechanisms are a resource that the mind uses when it tries, unconsciously and almost automatically, to reduce anxiety and contradiction to restore emotional balance.

Dismissed denial, when we don't accept what we feel

The projected or displaced emotion manifests itself in many ways, the most common is to deny what you feel and want. Let's take an example.

We have been dreaming of a promotion for some time. Yet whenever the opportunity presents itself, it is denied us. It is always someone else who gets the recognition.

Eventually, our mind, unable to process so much frustration, anger, injustice and disappointment, ends up convincing us that we really didn't want that promotion. We deny those emotions and we also deny our ambitions.

This defense mechanism places us in a comfort zone where life apparently stops hurting, but where in turn our potential is cut and clouded.

Direct transfer, emotion as an aggressive weapon

Everything that is neither accepted nor elaborated is still present. Denying an emotion is like trying to submerge a ball under water.

Eventually it ends up emerging strongly; and sometimes she hits us too. This is what would happen to the projected emotion when the direct transfer mechanism takes place.

Are those situations in which, accumulating so much frustration and negativity, we end up dumping it on others. We are rude to our partner, we have less and less patience with our children and we argue more and more with friends.

Moving emotions has the consequence, in many cases, of imbuing that negativity in the collateral victims.

Projected emotion and behavioral transference

Playing sports intensely and even falling into self-harm. The projected emotion can seek valid channels, but also pathological ones.

One example is resorting to high intensity sports or seek in art a means to discharge the emotional energy that is not needed for the intelligent coping strategy. These behaviors would be appropriate and positive tools.

Now emotion that is not accepted can be channeled through self-harm or practices such as cutting. These are clearly problematic answers that require professional attention.

How to handle these situations?

Arthur J. Clark, a professor at St. Lawrence University, has done some very interesting work on defense mechanisms. In Defense Mechanisms in the Counseling Process (2012) he analyzes the fact that displacement is often appreciated in psychological therapy.

As he ironically points out in the prologue, “the person who knows how to smile when things go wrong has already thought of someone to blame”. What can we do in these cases?

The first step, as well as the most important, is certainly to realize this. It is not easy, because this mechanism is automatic and unconscious.

Techniques like reflection and changing focus can help us. The first allows us to become aware of hidden concerns and emotions that mediate our behavior and relationships with others.

The second consists in taking the right distance from our reality and then seeing things with a broader perspective and rethinking the narratives, discovering emotions that we have neglected.


Moving our feelings makes our life experience far worse. We therefore avoid falling into these practices and do not hesitate to ask for professional help if necessary.

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