Living with or being in a relationship with a narcissist is sometimes described as experiencing another universe. It is a universe where right becomes wrong and you begin to question your own thoughts, motives, and even your recollection of events and issues.
One way that this distortion of reality occurs for most individuals in a relationship with a narcissist is through projection. Projection is:
- A basic and primitive defense mechanism that demonstrates a lack of emotional maturity
- A way to turn a situation from it’s my problem to it’s your problem
- A way to avoid having to acknowledge the negative impulses and traits
- A way to avoid responsibility for negative, harmful, or uncomfortable thoughts
People who are narcissists are often deeply uncomfortable with who they are. However, facing this discomfort or acknowledging they are not perfect or superior is simply too threatening. To avoid this, they create a mental framework to blame others for their actions and the outcome of those actions. For example, a narcissist may do something that is harmful to another. Rather than accepting responsibility, he blames the person harmed for forcing his hand or leaving him no other option.
Signs of Projection
There are many different ways that projection can play out in the life of a narcissist. For the other person in the relationship, projection often looks like this:
- Blame – everything that goes wrong in the narcissist’s life, or any difficulties you experience as a couple, immediately becomes all your fault. The narcissist does not accept any responsibility for the fallout of his or her behavior and may even distort recollection of the event in the form of chronic gaslighting.
- Hypocrisy – the narcissist may find fault with even minor issues in your interactions but refuses to acknowledge he or she is doing the same, often at a much more significant level.
- Constant negative comments – with low-esteem and self-doubt in their lives, the narcissist projects this negativity and lack of self-worth into the life of their partner.
- Introjection – as partners of narcissists, it is possible to begin to internalize the projection. This increases the sense of low self-worth and self-esteem, escalating the cycle.
- Acceptance – accepting what you know to be wrong, false, or untrue is a sign the projection is being internalized. Accepting rather than repelling the projection gives the narcissist more power.
Every time the narcissist uses projection and it relieves their internal discomfort by shifting the blame to someone else, they are rewarded. At the same time, the partner’s emotional wellbeing is attacked, weakening their ability to ignore the comments or to push back and refuse to accept the distortion and the blame.
Unfortunately, a common response by the partner is to passively ignore the issue. In reality, staying passive and not rejecting these messages has a negative impact on the way the partner views themselves. They may have guilt, humiliation, embarrassment, and anger at their lack of ability to stand up for themselves, which only creates further stress and emotional distress.
Tips for Fighting Back
There are ways to defend against the narcissist’s weapon of projection. This is not easy, particularly if you find yourself accepting the blame and the narcissist’s distortions of the event or situation.
Some of the most effective strategies for responding to projection include:
- Therapy – working with a therapist to identify projection in your interactions with the narcissist is critical to detecting the issue and responding in a way that limits the damage. A therapist can also help evaluate if the relationship is one you wish to continue.
- Respond to blame, guilt, and shame – awareness of projection allows the individual to filter the message through this understanding. It is possible to see blame that goes outward as the inability to recognize that blame on the inside for the narcissist. This knowledge and understanding does not make the behavior right, but it helps us to avoid internalizing the projection of their feelings.
- Speak up – stating in a non-confrontational message that you do not agree with the projection is key in setting boundaries and maintaining your personal wellbeing. A simple statement such as “That is your opinion” clearly indicates you do not accept their projection.
- Work on your self-esteem – learning to love yourself is essential. Find ways to look for the good in all you do and build up your sense of self-worth in a way that offsets any negative messages.
- Avoid arguments – avoiding arguments is important, as the narcissist sees any attempt to defend yourself as deflection and acknowledgment the problem is yours.
It is possible to rebuild a relationship with narcissistic traits if he or she is also willing to change. Working with a therapist allows you to navigate this change or make the decision to leave the relationship.
Sherry Gaba, LCSW and Transformation Coach
Author of Love Smacked: How to Stop the Cycle of Relationship Addiction and Codependency to find Everlasting Love
And Wake Up Recovery for Toxic Relationships, Codependency and Love Addiction