Narcissists and Psychological Projection In Toxic Relationships

Written by Angela Atkinson

One of my clients told me a story that is all too familiar for anyone who has been in a toxic relationship with a narcissist. During her relationship, her ex would consistently accuse her of cheating and wanting to cheat on him. He had become so obsessed that he was secretly tracking her car with a hidden low-jack device he bought on the recommendation of a private eye friend of his, and he’d even put apps on her phone and computer that allowed him to watch her every move.

Later, she would learn that he was a self-proclaimed “love addict” who had been actively cheating on her for years, sneaking around and hiding everything. Turns out, while she’d been doing everything in her power to be transparent and to soothe his insecurities in the relationship, he’d been the one cheating and hiding the whole time. He was clearly projecting his own bad behavior on to her – a common way narcissists manipulate us in relationships. But was he doing it to distract her from his bad behavior, which it thoroughly did, or was something more at play here?

Here’s the thing. There’s a difference between the kind of psychological projection that happens for the average person and the kind that happens when someone is a toxic narcissist. And that’s exactly what we’re talking about today – psychological projection, what it is, how it works and how narcissists tend to use it to manipulate us. (See video on YouTube)

What is Psychological Projection?

Psychological projection is a defense mechanism in which the human ego defends itself against unconscious impulses or qualities (both positive and negative) by denying their existence in themselves while attributing them to others. It is part blame-shifting and part misdirection of a person’s inner insecurities, behaviors and issues.

Do Only Narcissists Use Projection?

Anyone can find themselves projecting – it isn’t just a narcissistic quality. The fact is that we all have insecurities. And even the most emotionally balanced among us can find ourselves subconsciously projecting our worries and insecurities on to the people in our lives. In most cases, we aren’t really even aware of it. But when we’re dealing with toxic narcissists in our relationships, whether they’re our partner, family member or friend, we are often actively being psychologically abused, and our self-esteem – if we ever had any – takes a nosedive.

So, when we project, it’s our subconscious sort of seeing qualities or issues within ourselves that we consciously deny. And then, without realizing it, we sort of attribute the feelings (or the issues) on to someone else. A lot of times, this is because the way we feel makes us uncomfortable and we don’t really know how to deal with it or can’t bring ourselves to do so.

For example, if we are stressing out and worried that our boss dislikes us, we might think, “Wow, she really hates me!”

But if we don’t have any actual evidence other than a general sense of negativity around her, we might ask ourselves how we really feel about the boss. The fact is that it’s possible that we’re just projecting our own stuff on to the boss. It’s possible that we don’t like her or feel somehow threatened by her.

In general, if you find yourself projecting, you can trace the trigger back to something that happened to you that made you feel insecure – and the situation you were in reminded you of that time. For example, during my pregnancy with my oldest child, my ex-husband made me feel like my changing body was grotesque. He was literally disgusted by me.

Eventually, I’d leave him and six years later, I’d find myself in a new relationship, pregnant with kid number two. And even though I would go on to have that baby and another four years later with my second husband, I struggled a lot during my second pregnancy with projection issues. I was triggered by my condition, and even though I logically knew that my husband loved my body during pregnancy, my thoughts raced and I struggled with doubting this and thinking he must be secretly disgusted as my ex had been.

I managed it, knowing logically what I was doing. But, boy, was it difficult!

Projection is a Primal, Reactive Behavior

Here’s where it gets interesting. Projection and our ability to resolve it within ourselves is all about emotional maturity. In fact, projection is considered a primitive defense because it preserves the ego by ignoring and/or distorting reality on some level.

In other words, projection is a primal, reactive behavior that is used by children and that eventually, most of us grow out of on our own,  or at least we become aware of it and actively work to overcome it as I did with my pregnancies.

(For the record, my third pregnancy, though it was physically harder than the others since I was 32 years old by then, was far more emotionally satisfying as I had recognized that I was projecting old feelings onto my second husband, who didn’t, in fact, have the same issues as my ex, in the moment with my second and worked to get through it. That was because I had by that point developed enough emotional maturity to recognize the issue and deal with it.)

But narcissists tend to be emotional toddlers (or at best, emotional pre-teens) no matter how old they happen to be at any given moment. What I mean is that while they may appear to be a regular adult when you first meet them, narcissists are notoriously emotionally immature. In fact, on so many levels, their emotional maturity (or lack thereof) and manipulative behaviors can be compared to those of a toddler. But at least a toddler is cute. Narcissists can be downright ugly (on the inside at least) and while most of us begin to develop empathy as early as two years old, narcissists aren’t so lucky. They either never develop empathy or lose it during their own traumatic experiences in childhood. (In fact, if you have a minute later, take a look at the video I’ll leave right there and in the pinned comment for you – this is a literal comparison, not a figurative one. )

Narcissistic Projection vs. ‘Regular’ Projection

So, as you might imagine, narcissists are different when they use projection. While they may also be projecting due to their own insecurities, most of the time, projection acts as yet another manipulation tactic. This can become a serious issue, especially since it is often directed at people like us – people who are sensitive, empathic and who care too much about how they feel – at least until we recognize what they are.

And since many of us were also raised by narcissists or other toxic people, our own emotional struggles and lack of confidence can then be compounded by any narcissist we are in a relationship with,  thanks to their extreme manipulation and gaslighting during our relationships. On the narcissist’s part, the goal is to divert your attention from what is really going on. By distracting you, not only do they get you to focus on yourself as the problem, but they also get you to take responsibility for the problem.

The Effects of Narcissistic Projection

When narcissists project their own issues on to us, we tend to actually personalize it and in some cases, we even accept the projections as true, or we worry that it could become true. Then, we might actively work to change something about ourselves that doesn’t need changing – or that isn’t even a quality or issue we have, but rather one of the narcissist’s projections of their own issues or qualities. Alternatively, we will spend our lives attempting to soothe their projected insecurities and ignore our own wellbeing in the process. In either case, it spells disaster for our core selves.

But on the plus side, if we can learn to recognize when the narcissist is doing this and identify it as projection, then we can label it and choose to see it for what it is and not internalize it.

So, how do you know if a narcissist is projecting on to you?

Since narcissists are well-known to lack self-awareness, it makes sense that they wouldn’t necessarily be consciously aware of their projecting thoughts and behaviors. And, since the narcissist’s ability to feel any self-esteem or self-worth is entirely dependent on how other people see and perceive them, they have a tendency to deny that they are in fact flawed humans who, like everyone else, have their own shortcomings or limitations. But rather than accept and recognize them, the way I did with my pregnancy issues, they will blame the people around them for anything about themselves they deem less than perfect.

So, in a way, you could almost say that narcissists tell on themselves through their projections. Using the example of the cheater who accuses his partner of cheating, we can see that projection is one way they reveal their own bad behaviors and ideologies on to us. It’s how they show us who they are and tell us what they’re doing.

When the narcissist projects on to you, they are essentially calling you by their own name, in a way. They’ll accuse you of doing whatever it is they are actually doing, or what they’re considering or planning to do. And since narcissists aren’t prone to feeling guilty for their behaviors, even when they should, they end up assigning that guilt to you through projection. Does that make sense? They unconsciously deny the existence of a feeling or action of their own and attribute it to you or someone else, thereby externalizing it.

Some people would call this intentional manipulation. Others would say it’s a subconscious way for them to avoid taking personal responsibility for their behavior. I say it’s a combination of those two things.

Examples of Narcissistic Projection in Toxic Relationships

Let me make this a little easier to understand by sharing a few examples of psychological projection in relationships.

1. The Narcissist Says You’re Something They Are.

This is where the narcissist has some insecurity about their personal selves and then they either call you that thing or they put a lot of pressure on you to change it. For example, if the narcissist is lazy around the house, they will accuse you of the same. Or they might constantly complain about the extra 10 pounds you’re carrying around, while they’re carrying an extra 50. They might even say something like, “You never put my needs first. You only care about yourself.” Sound familiar?

They do this because in fact THEY never put your needs first (or even second), and they care only about themselves. And think of the example I explained with my client in which she was constantly on-guard to stay transparent with her partner after being constantly accused of cheating or wanting to cheat, and later learned it was actually her ex who cheated.

And in some cases, they are projecting on to someone else in a similar way. Maybe they over-focus on the fact that a neighbor doesn’t keep their yard tidy enough, while their own yard leaves a lot to be desired.

2. The Narcissist Plays the Victim.

This is one of the most infuriating types of projection: when the narcissist plays the victim – also known as narcissistic injury. When the narcissistic person abuses or victimizes you in some way, they will act like you’re the one who did it to them, and they’ll twist everything you say and do to fit the narrative. For example, if you finally get fed up with the way they treat you and go no contact, they will tell everyone (including anyone they’re currently grooming to be their new source of supply) that you did everything they did. They play the victim, play up the sob story and get plenty of narcissistic supply out of the deal.

3. The Narcissist Flips Accusations Around.

When you call the narcissist out on something they’re doing or have done that upsets you, they will turn it all around on you and before you know it, you’re the one apologizing. So, for example, if you notice that your partner is paying too much attention to a particular person of the opposite sex (or same, or whatever y’all are into) and you call them out on it, rather than explaining and or acknowledging their behavior and trying to change it, they instead find something to poke at you about. In the case of this example, they might say you are overly jealous and have nothing to worry about – but that if you continue to bother them with your nonsense, they may as well go ahead and cheat on you anyway. I mean, after all, you’re accusing them of it. What is really going on here is that they’re once again deflecting their bad behavior on to you and getting you to focus on what they’re accusing you of instead – so you end up trying to stop being jealous and end up allowing them to do things that make you really uncomfortable in order to prove that you’re not. It’s crazymaking, to say the very least.

How do you deal with narcissistic projection?

It helps to first recognize the issue, and then to see it for what it is – just one more way the narcissist is manipulating you – consciously or otherwise. You should also realize that as someone who might be an empath and who is sensitive, kind and compassionate, you might have the unfortunate habit of projecting your GOOD qualities on to the narcissist, so be careful with that. Be sure you take off your rose-colored glasses and see the narcissist for what they really are.

Once you’ve done that, identify and focus on your boundaries. Be sure to stand firmly behind them and to be aware of what is true and what is a manipulated falsehood designed to push you down and boost the narcissist into the position of power. Take the power back by refusing to be convinced of something that isn’t true. If you need to, keep a journal of what actually happens so that you don’t doubt yourself. It can be a really helpful way to deal with both projection and gaslighting – which, of course, can be dealt with using the gray rock rule. If you aren’t familiar with the gray rock rule, take a look at the video I’m sharing with you right here, where you can learn everything you need to know about how to use and benefit from the gray rock method of dealing with manipulative narcissists.

Question of the day: Have you experienced narcissistic projection? Have you, yourself, ever found yourself projecting? Share your thoughts, share your experiences and share your ideas in the comments section below this video and let’s talk about it.

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