Projection and Narcissism: The Mechanics of the Narcissistic Personality

Narcissism is” a personality disorder with a chronic pattern of abnormal behaviour characterised by exaggerated feelings of self-importance, an excessive need for attention and admiration, and a lack of empathy” (Power of Positivity, July 28, 2019).

Various other definitions of narcissism exist, but broadly speaking, narcissists have no real sense of self-awareness and get their value from how others view them. 

The narcissist often uses friends, family members, partners and co-workers as “narcissistic supply.”

Narcissism and projection

Because narcissists suffer from a profound lack of self-awareness, the condition can be complicated to treat since many do not seek help and support for their symptoms.

Most narcissists do not believe they have a problem and blame others for their mistakes and wrongdoings.

Defence mechanism

woman with a megaphone

Due to narcissists’ lack of awareness and fragile egos, these individuals often blame others for their bad behaviour and shortcomings. 

Psychologists refer to the above as projection – a default defence mechanism often used by those with a narcissistic personality disorder.

Official diagnosis

According to the diagnostic and statistical manual, fifth edition, narcissistic personality disorder is the official diagnosis for those presenting with narcissistic symptoms.

Psychologists explain that projection can help a person with narcissistic personality disorder shift blame or responsibility for something they’ve said or done onto someone else. 

Moreover, specific personalities are more likely to attract a narcissist (The Tactic Narcissistic Personalities Often Use on Empathic People, PsychCentral, Courtney Telloian, November 9, 2021).

Narcissistic projection

Narcissists often employ specific manipulation strategies to bait their victims into submission. According to writer and researcher Courtney Telloian, narcissistic projection can turn qualities such as compassion and empathy against you. 

However, people can protect themselves (The Tactic Narcissistic Personalities Often Use on Empathic People, PsychCentral, Courtney Telloian, November 9, 2021).

What is projection?

According to mental health professionals, projection is the process of displacing one’s feelings onto a different person, animal or object (Psychology Today, Projection).

Projection is a term often used to describe defensive projection – a process where an individual attributes their unacceptable urges to another person (Psychology Today, Projection).

Examples of projection

There are various examples of projection, such as the ones below.

Example one

Suppose your partner or friend accuses you of lying or keeping a secret from them – however, you know this is not the case. Thus their accusations are likely to be a projection of their hidden secrets or web of lies.

Example two

woman being bullied by a group

Another example of projection is the office bully who taunts a colleague for being insecure; here, the bully is projecting their insecurities and shortcomings onto another person.

Example three

Lastly, suppose your friend accuses her husband of cheating.

However, it materialises that she is the one having an affair. In that case, your friend projected her indiscretions onto her husband by attributing her unacceptable behaviour to him.

Everyone engages in projection to a degree.

Although narcissists often use projection, we all do it to varying degrees.

Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud hypothesised that people project things onto others when they don’t want to be burdened with feelings of inferiority.

However, projecting now and then and making a habit out of it could be a deciding factor between narcissists and non-narcissists.

For instance, most of us wouldn’t dream of using projection to cause distress or hurt to another person.

Nor would most people use projection to coerce or oppress others; however, projection is often used by narcissists to do just that.

How narcissistic projection shows up

Narcissistic projection can happen in any relationship. 

However, it is widespread between narcissists and those high in empathy (such people are sometimes called empaths).

Although narcissists are not the most self-aware people in the world, they know the exact type of people to target – such as those with highly empathetic traits. 

Suppose you have been the target of narcissism. 

In that case, it is likely because the narcissist picked up on your sensitive, empathetic qualities – narcissists tend to go for highly ambitious people with strong values and standards.

Phrases to look out for

a couple is sitting separately

Narcissistic projection can show up in many ways. However, psychologists say there are specific phrases and language patterns that are consistent with this type of manipulation.

Signs of narcissistic projection include:

  • When sharing a concern or problem with a narcissist, they may accuse you of being self-absorbed or only thinking about yourself. 
  • “You seem moody lately – what’s that about?” This statement from the narcissist may sound confusing, especially since you noticed the narcissist has been quiet or offish lately. 
  • If a narcissist hurts your feelings in some way and you bring it up, they may say something like, “Can’t you see how stressed I am right now? Why would you bring this up today?” or “You only ever think about yourself, do you ever consider my feelings or well-being?”

No matter what you say or do, the narcissist has a way of twisting the narrative and projecting blame, so they end up being the victim – this is a defence mechanism to protect their fragile egos.

Why empaths attract narcissists

Empaths are incredibly attuned to the needs and feelings of others; they are compassionate individuals who are profoundly impacted by their environments and the moods and emotions of other people.

Narcissists are also attuned to their surroundings and the moods of others, but for different reasons.

Thus it is not uncommon for empaths and narcissists to be drawn to each other.

Psychologists explain that because empaths are like emotional sponges, they often attract narcissistic personalities – the narcissist knows the empath will instinctively meet their needs and demands without having to give much in return.

Narcissists can see how caring and charitable you are. The more selfless and giving a person is, the more the narcissist can see an opportunity to get their needs met.

Personality traits of narcissists and empaths: similarities and differences

Narcissists and empaths share some similar traits, while other characteristics are widely different.

For example, narcissists and empaths are likely to:

  • Worry or focus on what other people think of them
  • Avoid uncomfortable emotions
  • Suffer from low self-esteem
  • Be highly sensitive to criticism or negative remarks

However, unlike the narcissist, empaths have other traits, including:

  • Self- awareness
  • A tendency to put others first
  • Difficulty saying no to others’ demands or expectations
  • High compassion
  • A tendency to self-blame
couple having fun in the kitchen

In addition to the traits already mentioned, narcissists are likely to:

  • Manipulate others
  • Have low empathy 
  • Exhibit defensiveness
  • Have a strong sense of entitlement and superiority over others
  • Have strong feelings of envy 
  • Constantly engage in belittling, bullying, and debasing others
  • Expect special treatment from others
  • Exploit others for personal gain without feeling any remorse or guilt
  • Fantasise about beauty, wealth, brilliance, and success
  • Have a sense of self-importance and grandiosity

Dealing with narcissistic projection

It can be challenging to deal with narcissistic projection, but not impossible.

People often feel like they are “damned if they do and damned if they don’t” when dealing with narcissists; however, some effective coping strategies may help, some of which are listed below.

Speak up 

It can be challenging to strike a balance with a narcissist, especially when bringing up issues or concerns with them – narcissists will do almost anything to bait people into an argument and then play the victim. 

However, bringing up your concerns in a calm, gentle manner without engaging in an argument is critical. Speaking your truth to the narcissist can also foster self-confidence, resilience and a sense of trust and safety within yourself.

Maintain your boundaries

Having clear boundaries with a narcissist is essential to your health and well-being.

Having boundaries with a narcissist can help you avoid being sucked into their world of manipulation and abuse; having limits can also prevent you from becoming drained by their constant accusations and narcissistic projections.

Psychologists say that to avoid being sucked into the narcissist’s world of deceit and abuse, you can set a boundary on how long you want to interact with them.

For instance, if you are discussing a concern with a narcissist and it starts to go awry, be assertive and cut the conversation off before it has a chance to worsen. 

Remain calm and collected

Engaging in an argument with a narcissist fuels their behaviour and allows them to villainize you while they play the victim.

Remaining calm and collected when the narcissist is hurling accusations at you can be challenging. 

Still, by ending the conversation and disengaging, you leave the narcissist to deal with their emotions (The Tactic Narcissistic Personalities Often Use on Empathic People, PsychCentral, Courtney Telloian, November 9, 2021).

Narcissists want nothing more than to bring you down to their level; the key is to remain calm and logical when they engage in narcissistic projection.

Seek therapy and other support

seeking help or therapy

Narcissistic abuse, especially long-term, can negatively impact your mental health and well-being.

Fortunately, various therapies can help you manage the effects of narcissistic abuse. Speaking to a therapist will give you the space to air your feelings and adopt healthy ways to cope.

Remember, you do not have to deal with disrespectful or abusive behaviour. 

Speaking to a trusted therapist may give you the confidence to manage your interactions with a narcissist or cut ties entirely.

Many people, particularly empaths, internalise the negative projections offloaded by the narcissist. This is because empaths are highly susceptible to other people’s feelings and emotions. 

However, long term, this can negatively affect a person’s health and overall quality of life. 

Speaking to a supportive friend or therapist can give people a more objective perspective on things, which may help them to stay grounded when times get tough.

Camino Recovery

If you want more information about this article or are concerned about your mental health, contact a Camino Recovery specialist who can help.

We specialise in treating various mental health disorders and addictions and offer a holistic approach to treatment.

We understand that it can be challenging to reach out at first, but the Camino Recovery team is always available to lend a compassionate ear. So speak to a friendly specialist today.

Additional resources

  1. Psychology Explains How Narcissists Use Projection To Manipulate: Power of Positivity, July 28, 2019
  2. The Tactic Narcissistic Personalities Often Use on Empathic People: PsychCentral, Courtney Telloian, November 9, 2021
Ameet Braich - Camino Recovery Spain

Ameet Singh Braich, a distinguished Clinical Director at Camino Recovery, is renowned for expertise in addiction and trauma resolution. With 15+ years of experience, he transforms lives through a holistic therapeutic approach. His research focuses on childhood maltreatment's impact on cognitive, emotional, and social functioning.

A dynamic speaker and trainer, Ameet empowers clients to achieve lasting recovery, prioritizing trauma resolution and relapse prevention. His diverse training includes EAP, crisis intervention, and EMDR. Committed to positive transformation, Ameet equips individuals across fields to address challenges of addiction.

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