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Guarding Your Mental Health against Psychological Projection

Guarding Your Mental Health against Psychological Projection


By Dr. Marie Gould Harper
Dean, School of Business, American Public University

I have my own goals and attempt to set my own course in life. However, I am often amazed when individuals make comments about another person’s journey in life. I have been in this type of situation and am not at a loss for words when I challenge the “judge” to explore what he or she is doing with their own life versus being fixated with my choices.

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Why do I do that? Because I don’t feel I have to explain to someone else why I have elected to make confident life choices. Also, I have realized over the years that the question is not about me. Instead, there have been times when I realized the conversation was really about the other individual’s choices.

In essence, the other person wants to feel good about himself. Seeing the results of my life decisions causes him to reflect on whether or not he has made the right choices. He might perceive me as getting ahead of him, which is still a source of contention in a society that always focuses on competition versus collaboration and inclusion.

Comments that I have heard over the years include:

  • How does she find the time to do all of that? I translate this question to mean, “I can’t do it, so how can she do it?”
  • Is your decision a viable choice? Translation: What value does that choice add because I do not see the advantage?
  • Are you ready for that type of move/decision? Translation: Is it worth the perceived risk?
  • What happens if you are not successful? Translation: Aren’t you afraid of failure?
  • I wouldn’t do it if I were you! Translation: The real purpose of the conversation.

The last comment is the root cause of what I consider an unhealthy and toxic conversation. The individual asking the questions is projecting fears, opinions and values onto someone else, which is known as psychological projection.

What Is Psychological Projection?

According to Everyday Health, in psychology, projection can be defined as “a defense mechanism people subconsciously employ to cope with painful feelings or emotions.” Psychological projection involves “projecting undesirable feelings or emotions onto someone else rather than admitting to or dealing with your own unwanted feelings.”

Everyday Health cites the keywords or phrases that make this type of situation toxic.

  • Defense mechanism — There are many types of defense mechanisms, and not all are negative. However, the specific model that I believe relates to these types of encounters is distortion. Distortion occurs when an individual changes the reality of the situation to suit that person’s needs.
  • Subconsciously — The term can be defined being influenced by the part of the mind of which one is not fully aware. There will be times when individuals are not aware of why they question someone’s actions/motives. It is also possible that they do not realize they are transposing their feelings onto another person.
  • Cope with painful feelings or emotions — The struggle is real, and how one deals with the situation can determine if there is a healthy outcome.

However, be advised that (1) individuals may not be aware of their feelings or (2) they are aware of their beliefs but do not want to let go of the negative mindset. One cannot assume that a person wants to change for the better.

  • In essence, one may be having a conversation with someone who is struggling or unhappy with the decisions that she has made in her own life. When she sees your drive and ambition, she is forced to deal with what she perceives as her shortcomings. Therefore, your life successes and direction can be a threat to her self-worth.

Protecting Yourself from Psychological Projection

What can you do when you find yourself in this type of conversation and need to protect yourself against psychological projection?

  • End the conversation. You could be wasting your time by having a conversation with a person who doesn’t like you but is attempting to be polite.
  • Answer a question with a question. When someone asks you if you are ready for a particular move, you can respond by saying, “Do you believe in ‘there is no time like the present?’”
  • Turn the conversation to the individual. Provide the individual with examples of how he/she is successful with life choices.
  • Subscribe to the concept “You’re okay, and I am okay.” When I left one of my former places of employment, I was having a conversation with a coworker and could visibly see the anxiety on the person’s face. I was asked, “Are you sure this move is the right move?”

Instead of answering the question, I made the following statement: “You know I am excited about the opportunities that I see you will have soon. I believe you are going to be an asset to the organization. You belong here, and the company is doing well. However, I think I have contributed everything that I was to accomplish and feel that it is time for me to move to the next assignment. In summary, you are okay, the company is okay, and I am okay. There doesn’t have to be a villain in the story.”

Society can benefit from seeing humanity as one body with many parts. Each part has a function and has to be in the right place at the right time for the body to move forward to its destiny.

Every part is composed of individuals with a purpose. Our goal is to explore and define our roles at any given time. We have to be ready so that we do not deviate from the mission and get off course. There is a destination, and all of us can get to it if we work together.

About the Author

Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Dean of the School of Business at American Public University. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in instructional systems from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in business from Capella University. She is a progressive coach, facilitator, writer, strategist, and human resources/organizational development professional with over 30 years of leadership, project management, and administrative experience. Dr. Gould Harper has worked in both corporate and academic environments.

Dr. Gould Harper is an innovative thinker and influential leader, manifesting people skills, a systematic approach to problems, organizational vision, and the ability to inspire followers. She is committed to continuous improvement in organizational effectiveness and human capital development, customer service, and the development of future leaders.



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