“Narcissism is an exaggeration, a malignancy of a healthy phenomenon.”Sam Vaknin
That’s what Sam Vaknin told WebMD, way back in ‘99. Vaknin is a self-confessed narcissist, one of a few narcs who have gone on to write books on the condition. And there’s a lot of truth in what he says here. I suppose he would know.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is an exaggeration of a range of traits that we all possess. We can all be self-absorbed. We can all be insecure. We all lie sometimes. But in narcissists, these traits are hugely enhanced.
In this post, I want to talk about two behaviors in particular – things that we all do, sometimes, but which narcissists take to the extreme. These behaviors are Narcissistic projection and mirroring.
Let’s look at what these behaviors are, the effects they have, and the best ways you can deal with them.
- Narcissistic projection
- What is projection in narcissism?
- Examples of narcissistic projection
- Dealing with narcissistic projection
- Narcissistic mirroring
- The Narcissist Mirroring You
- Examples of Narcissistic Mirroring
- Dealing With Narcissistic Mirroring
You might have heard the term “projection” before. It was originally one of Freud’s ideas, but the concept has not trickled down into general usage. It is when we project our own beliefs, feelings, or insecurities onto someone else.
So for example, someone who suffers from anxiety might become a kind of “anxiety detective” – they are so familiar with what anxiety is like for them, and they are so focused on it, that they end up seeing it in other people – even when it’s not there.
Freud believed that projection is a defence mechanism – when there’s something inside of us that we don’t like or can’t cope with, one way to deal with it is to project it onto someone else. We externalise it to a place where it’s easier to deal with.
So that’s projection in general. What about narcissist projection?
What is projection in narcissism?
This particular defence mechanism is very common in narcissists. It’s so common in fact, that in an article published by Cambridge University Press in 2018 noted projection as one of the reasons that therapy for narcissists can be so difficult – the narcissists project their insecurities onto the therapist, making it the process much more difficult.
So why is narcissist projection so common?
Well, it’s simply that narcissists often have more insecurities and self-doubt than the average person. At the same time, however, they cannot face these insecurities, because that would mean challenging their grandiose self-image. So when they feel something that they cannot accept, they reject it in themselves and project it onto someone else – like you.
Narcissist projection can be extremely confusing to experience. It can often seem to come out of nowhere. If a narcissist accuses you of being, doing, or feeling a particular thing, and it makes you think, “Huh? Where on Earth did you get that idea?”, then it was quite possibly projection.
Let’s go through an example to see how it might look.
Examples of narcissistic projection
Remember the general idea of projection – it’s when they accuse you of something that they are in fact doing. So perhaps they accuse you of lying or being manipulative when they are the one lying. If they are jealous of the time you spend with your friends, they might accuse you of being jealous. Or perhaps they accuse you of not really loving them, and, well, we know what that could mean.
So say you’re having a conversation about a film you just watched. You thought it was pretty bad, but the narcissist thought it was absolutely superb. Because you’re challenging their judgment (which is never wrong, of course), this triggers a narcissistic injury – they must not be wrong.
So they start to get a little heated, and raise their voice while arguing with you. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, they blurt out: “Why are you getting angry? It’s just a film, what are you getting so upset about it?”
You sit there, completely confused. You don’t really care if the two of you have different opinions on the film. That doesn’t bother you. You’re not upset in the slightest, much less angry.
That’s projection. The narcissist has pushed their anger on to you, because to get angry over a film is not what a perfect person would do. Therefore, you must be the one who is angry.
The narcissist accusing others of narcissism
Do narcissists project their narcissism onto others? It really depends on two things:
- Whether they’ve heard the term “narcissistic personality disorder” or know what a narcissist is
- Whether they see this as a bad thing
If they are aware of NPD, and see it as a weakness, they absolutely can and do accuse others of being a narcissist. If they don’t know about NPD, they may simply accuse people of the traits of narcissism – perhaps they’ll say you’re self-absorbed, vain, or that you talk about yourself too much.
If they don’t see narcissism as a bad thing (which many of them don’t – they may even see it as a positive), then it’s not likely that they would project this onto others. Projection is a defence mechanism to a threat, so if they don’t feel threatened, they have no reason to use it.
Dealing with narcissistic projection
Narcissists make sure that they are the dominant person in their relationships – whether that’s in the family, the workplace, or in romantic relationships. So for this reason, projection can be a powerful weapon in their arsenal, because you might simply accept the projection.
And that’s the narcissist’s ideal scenario – simply accept the projection, it’s you who’s angry, and you both move forward accepting this. If the go beyond simple accusations to actually making a conscious effort to make sure you believe it, then they’ve moved from projection to gaslighting.
This can make projection tough to deal with. Even if it’s dead wrong, the force of their personality puts pressure on you to accept it. So, what’s the best way of dealing with projection and blame?
Projection as a Tool
First, keep in mind that projection, as confusing as it might be, can actually be useful. The narcissist is giving you a window into their soul, in a sense. You get a glimpse at their true self underneath. Since the narcissist’s life is often built around lies and falsehoods, this can be a useful insight into what’s truly going on between their ears.
Just knowing this can really take the sting out of projection. You know it is not really about you. They are not really accusing you of whatever it is they’re projecting. They’re accusing themselves. It’s their own internal war playing out – unfortunately, with you caught in the crossfire.
As Darlene Lancer explains over at Psychology Today, the next thing to keep in mind is detachment. Don’t engage with the projection. Certainly, if they say you are angry while you’re sitting there relatively content, you can tell them “I’m not angry at all.” – but that’s all you need to do.
You don’t need to justify yourself, or “prove” that you’re not angry. If they continue projecting just say “That’s your opinion,” “I disagree,”, or “That’s not the way I see it.” Don’t get caught in the game – don’t start debating. Just remain calm, and disagree.
Next, we’ll move onto another common narcissistic behaviour – mirroring.
Have you ever been the “new person” in a group who know each other well?
You might have felt, at first, like you were a little out of the loop. They seem to be on the same wavelength. They have the same humour styles. They might even speak in similar tones of voice, or use the same mannerisms.
This is an example or normal, healthy mirroring. It’s not that a group of very similar people just happened to find each other. It’s that, after spending a lot of time with people, we adapt our behaviour in little ways, to match the other people in the group. When people like each other, they become like each other.
It’s a natural human behaviour that helps us say “I’m in your group, and you’re in mine.” In fact, some psychologists have argued that when children don’t get this healthy mirroring from their parents, it can be a trigger to developing narcissism in the first place.
The Narcissist Mirroring You
The normal mirroring we’ve just discussed happens slowly and gradually over time. In narcissistic mirroring, the narcissist takes this process and accelerates it. They use the words you use, claim to like the things you like, and copy your mannerisms – even if they just met you 5 seconds ago.
The idea is to make you feel as if you’re in the company of someone you’ve known for years. It makes you feel seen, like someone really gets you. When everything you like and value is being validated by what seems to be a very confident, successful person, it’s easy to see why people fall for narcissists.
At the same time, narcissist mirroring isn’t about true closeness (narcissists, in general, tend to avoid true intimacy). It’s a trick to make you feel comfortable with them, to gain your trust – to get you to lower your guard.
The Dark Mirror
Eventually, narcissistic mirroring becomes a weapon.
As I’ve just mentioned, people who mirror are generally people who’ve known each other for a long time – people who trust each other. By using mirroring early and aggressively, the narcissist engineers that trust more quickly.
When you feel seen and understood, then naturally you start to open up. You reveal deep and personal things about yourself. Narcissists sometimes know just how to push people’s buttons – and this is one way they learn which buttons to push.
When they get to the phase of the relationship where the put-downs, abuse, and devaluation starts, the dark version of mirroring begins. Now they mirroring switches from a positive reflection of the things you desire and value, to a negative one.
Examples of Narcissistic Mirroring
So what does narcissistic mirroring look like in practice?
Often it starts with simple things, building a sense of shared commonalities and interests. You say you like jazz. “I love jazz! Jazz is amazing. That’s real music”. You say your favourite colour is purple “My favourite colour is purple too!” If you say you love to go out and party to let your hair down, so do they, but if you’d said you like nothing more than snuggling up with a good book, well, surprise surprise, so do they.
You’re sat there thinking “Oh my god, I have so much in common with this person!”, but in reality, it’s a facade.
Narcissistic mirroring often involves non-verbal communication too. Whether you lean forward, back, or to the side, they mirror that. If you talk fast and loud, they talk fast and loud. If you talk with your hands, you they will too – and it might be an exact, carbon-copy of the hand movement you just made.
Mirroring can sometimes involve bigger, more outright lies. You went to Disneyland last year? They went to Disneyland last year! You used to work in finance? Guess what, they used to work in finance! Your family is from Ireland? No way, their family is Irish too!
You get the idea.
And what about dark mirroring, what might that look like?
Well, say you revealed that you’re worried you’ll turn out like your mother, someone you didn’t get along with. They’ll store this information away for use another day. Then at the right moment, they’ll mirror that back “That thing you just said there, that sounds like something your mother would say.” In this example, they might use this put-down whenever they need to feel better at your expense, or to help win an argument.
Or say you’ve revealed your insecurities about work, and don’t feel you do your job well. Later, you hear about a higher level job opening, and you’re thinking of going for it. “You’re thinking of applying for a promotion? That sounds crazy, that sounds like too much for you. Are you sure you’re ready for that?” In this case, the idea of you getting a promotion makes them insecure (they are the successful one, remember?), so they use your weak points to talk you out of it.
So that’s what mirroring is, now let’s talk about what to do about it.
Dealing With Narcissistic Mirroring
Sam Vankin, who we met at the start of this article, recommends a strategy for dealing with narcissists – you mirroring narcissistic behaviour. In other words, you turn mirroring against them. If they shout, you shout. If they leave, you leave. If they act suspicious that you’re cheating, you do the same to them. This advice crops up from place to place around the internet, so I thought I would address it here.
This this approach may work in some situations and with some narcissists, in general, I would advise caution. Narcissists have been playing this game their whole lives, and you are new to it. It’s a bit like challenging a chess grandmaster to a game – they simply have more experience than you, and have a better idea of what to do in certain situations.
Also, when narcissists feel threatened, they often respond with rage, abuse, or other nasty tactics. So you’re potentially leading the way to more of the things you’re trying to avoid.
Instead, first take the steps that you should take when dealing with narcissists:
- Look after yourself: through self help, healthy habits, or seeing a therapist
- Set boundaries: Establish clear rules for what you will and will not accept
- Leave the narcissist: If their behaviour goes beyond your boundaries, leave
However with mirroring, there is a further step you can take – be a better mirror to yourself. Don’t accept comments that mirror you, if they are not accurate. This applies to positive comments as well as negative. This means making a plan to build self-esteem and inner security – know who you are, and become comfortable with that.
That way, if someone mirrors you, you can make a realistic assessment of these statements. Not only in terms of whether it’s true or not, but also, whether it really matters.
So, now that you’ve learned a little about projection and mirroring, I hope you’re better equipped to recognise and deal with them. And if you know anyone who lives or deals with a narcissist, feel free to share this article with them too!