Last Updated on April 14, 2021 by Alexander Burgemeester
“Narcissism is an exaggeration, a malignancy of a healthy phenomenon.”
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.
I want to talk about two behaviors in particular – things that we all do, sometimes, but which narcissists take to the extreme. This post will discuss Narcissistic Projection while there is a related post about Narcissistic Mirroring.
Let’s look at what these behaviors are, the effects they have, and the best ways you can deal with them.
What Is Narcissistic projection?
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 externalize 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 narcissistic projection so common?
Well, it’s simply that narcissists often have lower self-esteem and higher 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.
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.