Narcissists have no real self-awareness to speak of. Indeed, their very sense of value is derived from how others perceive them. As a rule, narcissists are unable to recognize their shortcomings and failures, instead choosing to cast the blame – no matter the merits of such – onto someone else. It’s called projection – a default defense mechanism of the narcissist.
In this article, we’re going to define narcissism, projection, and how those with narcissistic tendencies use projection in order to achieve their aims. As you will read, narcissists are experts at manipulation. To this end, we’ll discuss how you can spot the narcissist, along with proactive things you can do to avoid becoming a victim of narcissistic manipulation.
What is Projection?
In the field of psychology, projection – or psychological projection – is the denial of subconscious impulses by the human ego. For instance, someone accusing their partner of cheating when they’re actually the one engaging in the scandalous act is projecting. A jealous co-worker who accuses everyone else in the office of being jealous is projecting; secretly, they’re jealous of just about everyone with a modicum of success. And so on.
While common among the narcissistic, projecting is something that we all do to varying degrees. We usually project onto others when we have uncomfortable, sometimes disturbing, emotions, and thoughts about ourselves. The father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, believed that we project things onto others when we don’t want to burden ourselves with our perceived flaws or feelings of inferiority.
In other words, we want others to be the vehicles for our insecurities. We don’t want to deal with them anymore.
The thing is: while we all project, we don’t make a habit out of it. Most of us wouldn’t use projection to make someone feel inferior. We certainly wouldn’t employ projection as a means of coercion. Because, well, you’re not a narcissist (we don’t think.)
Speaking of which, let’s discuss narcissistic personality disorder in a tad more detail.
The Story of Narcissus (the OG Narcissist)
The ancient Greeks and Romans promulgated a myth about a young lad a wee too obsessed with his image. The story goes that Narcissus was a handsome guy who rejected all female comers. In fact, Narcissus rejected all of those who loved him, leading some of those he loved to take their own lives as a last effort to show Narcissus their devotion and love.
A young nymph named Echo, shortly after being cursed by the wife of Zeus (a philanderer, that one) to only being able to repeat what others say wandered out to the forest convinced that her life was over. Upon laying her eyes on Narcissus, she was once again hopeful that she could live a normal life – if she could just get his attention. But Narcissus being, well, Narcissus, rudely rejected the young lady’s innocent advances.
None of this moved the vain young man, however, which led the Goddess Nemesis to punish Narcissus for his callousness. The story ends with Narcissus getting a glimpse of himself in a lake, which reflected back an image showing him in the prime of his beauty. Narcissus fell in love with his own image, eventually realizing that nothing could love him as much as he could love himself. Nemesis takes his own life shortly after this realization.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder
In the late 1800s, psychologists decided that the vain Narcissus was an apt representation of some of their clients. A sexologist by the name of Havelock Ellis coined the term “narcissus-like” to describe his patients engaging in excessive masturbation.
In 1911, an Austrian psychiatrist by the name of Otto Rank published the first academic paper proposing narcissism as a potential psychological disorder. Rank described narcissism in the context of excessive self-admiration and vanity. Three years later, Freud published the paper On Narcissism: An Introduction.
It wasn’t until 1968 that the term “narcissistic personality disorder” was coined by psychologist Heinz Kohut. Narcissistic personality disorder (or ‘NPD’) is defined as:
“…a personality disorder with a long-term pattern of abnormal behavior characterized by exaggerated feelings of self-importance, excessive need for admiration, and a lack of empathy.”
Clinical treatment of NPD is not well-studied but is thought to be difficult – as those with NPD are unable to see their condition as a problem. NPD occurs more often in males, affects roughly one percent of the population, and is far more common in younger people than older.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) – the diagnostic literature published by the American Psychological Association (APA) – lists ten recognized symptoms of NPD:
- A sense of grandiosity
- Expecting superior treatment from others
- Exploiting others for personal gain without feelings of guilt
- An inability to understand the thoughts and feelings of others
- Strong feelings of envy towards others
- Constantly engaging in the bullying, belittling, and demeaning of others
- A sense of entitlement and the need to be treated special
- The need to be perceived as superior and unique
- Obsession over desired traits such as attractiveness, intelligence, power, and success
- The need to be constant admiration from other people
Narcissists + Projection = Manipulation
“When the [narcissistic] individual is in the superior position, defending against shame, the grandiose self aligns with the inner critic and devalues others through projection.” – Darlene Lancer, JD, LMFT (source)
Here’s how narcissists use projection to manipulate you (and what to do about it):
1. They “Call You Out”
Perhaps the most straightforward way to project is to call someone out. When a narcissist calls you out, you can bet they’re doing so for one of two reasons: (a) to get you to do something, (b) to attack you, or both. Guilt-tripping is among the most common methods narcissists use. If that doesn’t work, they may get frustrated and verbally attack you.
What to do: In any case, don’t take the bait. Recognize the behavior for what it is: a shameless, insulting attempt to manipulate your thoughts and feelings. You have something they want – don’t give it to them!
2. They Mimic
While narcissists have the emotional depth of a puddle, they’re smart enough (many are highly intelligent) to know that emotionality matters to people. For this reason, narcissists will often mimic the emotional behaviors that they see elsewhere to convince someone of their genuine nature.
For the narcissist, the problem with this tactic is that mimicry goes against the grain of innate human behavior. Assuming that they’re not some CIA-trained spy, the entire façade will become apparent sooner or later.
What to do: Be observant. Someone’s core personality will always make itself known. You just have to keep your eyes and ears open.
3. They Use Character Assassination
If you’ve ever been the victim of character assassination, then you may know the far-reaching effects. Targeting someone’s character is the ultimate “go for the jugular” act. When a narcissist engages in character assassination, it’s often out of vengeance, or for the purpose of winning people over for some reason.
What to do: The most important thing here is not to panic. Most have pretty good sense when it comes to getting a feel for someone’s character. For this reason, we’re naturally cautious when someone verbally attacks another’s person. If these things are occurring in a work environment, it may be necessary to speak with your manager, human resources, or the legal department.
4. They Play the Victim
Narcissists love to play the victim. At first, anyway. Why? Because they realize that most of us have some kind of sensitive core. We don’t like to see other people suffer. We want to help alleviate that suffering. Narcissists are all too eager to take advantage of this near-universal human trait. For this reason, the narcissist will project a “Woe is me” demeanor as well.
Some less-intelligent narcissists make the critical error of playing the victim to one person. If this is the case, it’s much easier to see through the charade.
What to do: It’s important to remain observant and keep your ear to the ground. If you’re particularly sensitive (e.g., an empath), make sure that you’re offering your assistance only to people you know well.
3. They Shape Shift
When a narcissist feels that they’ve got the victim where they want, they’ll quickly drop the act. They do so because they’re confident that the victim will offer little if any resistance. Indeed, this is often the last opportunity that the potential – or, by this point, possibly real – the victim will have to minimize the damage.
If you catch onto the shape-shifting, don’t expect the narcissist to go quietly into the night. Remember, narcissists are experts in the art of manipulation – and they may still be able to flummox you just enough that you’ll keep them around.
Final Bit of Advice on Dealing with Narcissists
At this juncture, it is critical that you not hesitate to “end it.” Unless that person has some undiagnosed mental health disorder, there’s just no rational explanation for displaying extremes along the personality spectrum. Particularly if you’re being hurt in the interim.