There’s a multitude of behavior patterns in the realm of narcissism that, when understood, offer you your own personal set of tools to break the narcissistic abuse cycle. Projection is one of the most valuable behavior patterns in the realm of narcissism that you can have a comprehensive grasp on.

Projection is a defense mechanism that is embedded into the psyche of every single human being on the planet. Projection occurs when you unconsciously take the parts of your identity that you despise, and place them onto someone else.

Examples of Projection: 

  • Micheal is very insecure about his sexuality so he projects his insecurities onto others by regularly using homophobic slurs when interacting with his male friends.
  • April is very insecure about her weight so she projects her insecurities onto others by belittling them for their “unhealthy” eating habits. 
  • John is extremely lazy and never reached his full potential so he projects his shame onto his 10 year old son by overworking him and calling him lazy.

What differentiates a non-narcissistic person using projection, from a narcissist using projection, is the frequency at which it is used.

The importance of understanding projection is immeasurable. 

This article is going to enable you to have a comprehensive grasp on projection, illuminate hidden forms of projection, help you use projection to your advantage, and provide you with some bonus content about some of the other defense mechanisms narcissists over rely on as well.

Before we get started, I need to be transparent with you. A narcissist’s overreliance on defense mechanisms originates from an unhealthy/abusive childhood. 

While their origin story is sad, this article should not be interpreted in a way that would encourage you to remain in the relationship, rekindle, or seek out a narcissistic relationship in the hopes of healing them.

Learning about the defense mechanisms narcissists use are for your protection only. Don't try to use them to heal your abuser

The behavior patterns narcissists exhibit are so deeply woven into their psyche that even intense therapeutic guidance isn’t guaranteed to point them in the right direction. 

Without further ado, let’s dive into the origin of a narcissist’s overreliance on defense mechanisms. 

The Origin of a Narcissist’s Overreliance on Defense Mechanisms 

The cognitive development of a child is heavily dependent on the relationships they form throughout their childhood, especially with their primary caregivers. 

An unhealthy/abusive childhood could cause the child to accidentally equate the abuse they are receiving from their primary caregiver, with the love they see other children get. 

This is actually one of the most common precursors to a child gravitating towards abusive relationships in adulthood.  

Unhealthy/abusive childhoods are one of the biggest reasons people gravitate towards abusive relationships in the future.

But while an unhealthy/abusive childhood also has the potential to create a narcissist, there are many different theories on the specifics of a narcissist’s upbringing.

  • Heinz Kohut believes that narcissists are created when a child is raised in an environment where their thoughts and emotions aren’t accurately mirrored by their primary caregivers.
    • Robby, a 4 year old, is incredibly angry because he has to take a nap. His primary caregiver shames him into getting rid of his emotions. This is a manifestation of a broken mirror, healthy mirroring requires the primary caregiver acknowledging and respecting the child’s reality.
      • Growing up in an environment where your emotions are neglected instead of acknowledged and respected could cause a child to develop a fragile ego and an unhealthy belief that emotions are wrong. 
      • The denial of a child’s reality has the potential to create an individual who spends their entire lives trying to conform to societal norms to accumulate the acknowledgement and validation they desperately needed throughout their childhood.
example of Heinz Kohut's depiction of an unhealthy mirror in one's childhood.
  • Otto Friedmann Kernberg believes that narcissists are created by narcissistic parents.
    • Rebecca, a narcissistic mother, has two children named Andrew and Sarah. She refuses to acknowledge their existence unless they are providing her narcissistic supply. Andrew and Sarah could be incredibly depressed, but if they aren’t a source of validation and admiration, their well-being is denied. 
      • When a child is raised by narcissistic primary caregivers they quickly learn that the only way to be loved by their primary caregiver is through narcissistic supply. Meaning that achievements and awards, things that make the narcissist look good, are valued over emotional stability and security. 
      • Growing up in an environment where you subconsciously teach yourself to suppress your emotions if you want to be loved creates an individual who is incapable of regulating their own emotions.
Image of Otto Friedmann Kernberg's depiction of growing up with narcissistic parents
  • Alexander Lowen believes that narcissists are created when a child grows up in an environment where their emotions are treated as if they are a sign of weakness and inadequacy.
    • Mike gets hit in the face with a soccer ball and begins to cry. His narcissistic father/mother humiliates him by calling him a wimp and making him do physical exercise as a punishment. Mike’s childhood has been plagued with shame, guilt, humiliation, and fear.
      • Growing up in an environment that is plagued with high levels of toxic masculinity could teach a child that power is good and emotions are bad. 
      • As this child grows up and develops a narcissistic personality, it’s almost as if they are reliving their childhood but this time they are the one in control and you are the emotional wimp that needs to be straightened out.
Image of Alexander Lowen's depiction of growing up where emotions are treated as a weakness or sign of inadequacy

It’s important to note that there isn’t a correct theory. Even though a narcissist’s upbringing is unhealthy/abusive, it’s certainly on a spectrum. 

Meaning that while one narcissist’s childhood could be characterized as the theory Alexander Lowen portrayed, another could align more with Otto Friedmann Kernberg’s theory. 

Why Do Narcissists Use Projection?

After learning about the different theories about how narcissists are created, it’s very clear that narcissists use projection because they’re emotionally inadequate. 

The emotional immaturity they develop from an unhealthy/abusive childhood causes them to have incredibly fragile egos. The fragility of their ego is what makes them so explosive in the face of criticism, rageful when they’re disappointed, and projective when their reality is contradicted. 

Narcissists spend their entire lives formulating a reality through manipulation that enables them to neglect their own emotional instability. 

So, when their reality is contradicted, they use projection to keep it intact. 

For this article we conducted a study among 135 survivors of narcissistic abuse to find the most common precursors of projection in the realm of narcissism, here’s what we found. 

Study among 135 survivors of narcissistic abuse about the most common precursors to projection in their relationships

Our findings in this study were very predictable. For example, a very common answer that fell under the shame category was cheating. Many of the participant’s abusers were cheating on them so to regulate their feelings of shame, they projected it onto our participants

As for the insecurities category, one’s appearance was a very common answer as well. Meaning that many of our participants reported that the narcissist they had in their lives at the time would constantly portray them as a burden, ugly, and worthless. 

These are all beliefs that narcissists have about themselves, that’s why the results were predictable. But it’s important to know that there are also hidden forms of projection in the realm of narcissism.

The Hidden Forms of Projection

As we know, projection is a defense mechanism narcissists use to fabricate a distorted version of reality that enables them to neglect their own insecurities, vulnerabilities, and emotional inadequacies. 

But this goes much deeper than projection along the lines of feeling ashamed that they’ve cheated so they accuse you of cheating, or feeling embarrassed that they overreacted so they tell you that you’re angry and out of control. 

The Narcissistic Abuse Cycle

The purpose of narcissistic abuse is to erode the emotional stability of the victim so the narcissist can project their emotional instability onto them. 

For example, gaslighting in the realm of narcissism is when a narcissist will doubt and deny your reality so frequently that you question your sanity, lose faith in your identity, and ultimately become temporarily codependent.

This enables them to project a significant amount of their emotional instability onto you, simply because overtime gaslighting forces you to accept the narcissist’s distorted version of reality. 

Image of the toll gaslighting takes on people

Scapegoating

Yet another fantastic manifestation of a more complex form of projection is scapegoating. A scapegoat is essentially a repository for a narcissist’s negative emotions. 

Because of their emotional inadequacy, they’re unable to regulate their own emotions so they use scapegoats to neglect the hatred they have for themselves. 

A simple example of this would be a narcissistic father/mother disproportionately abusing one of their children because the child’s intelligence is a constant reminder of their own inadequacies. 

But where scapegoating has the strongest correlation with projection is scapegoating through hatred. One of the four precursors to one becoming a scapegoat is when the narcissist views them as weak or undesirable.

If one doesn’t conform to their twisted criteria of an “acceptable” human being, a narcissist’s disdain towards this person mimics their insecure need to be accepted by society. 

Image of a mother using her child as a scapegoat

By scapegoating someone they deem weak or undesirable, they’re actually projecting their fear of society looking past their disguise, seeing the truth, and discarding them forever.

How Can You Use Projection to Your Advantage?

It’s really important that you understand that projection is an unconscious behavior pattern. 

Meaning that both narcissistic and non-narcissistic people don’t know when they’re projecting unwanted thoughts, feelings, traits, or emotions onto others. 

Because it’s an unconscious decision, trying to defend yourself against the accusations that accompany projection is useless. 

With that being said, there is a way that you could use projection to your advantage. Take this advice with a grain of salt because there are rarely absolutes in the realm of narcissism, but projection offers you the chance to read the narcissist’s mind. 

The reason being that when a narcissist uses projection, they are trying to discard negative emotions they have within themselves. Instead of preparing your defense, take a step back and take a good look at what they are trying to project, it just might tell you what they’re up to.

Other Defense Mechanisms Narcissists Over Rely On

A narcissist’s emotional inadequacy bleeds into every aspect of their lives. In fact there are a few other defense mechanisms that narcissists over rely on that you should be aware of.

Denial 

The defense mechanism known as denial is when one tries to protect their emotional stability by refusing to acknowledge reality. I’m sure many of you have already guessed, but gaslighting is a manifestation of denial. 

Gaslighting is the most dominant form of manipulation in the realm of narcissism because of how versatile it is. It’s when a narcissist will doubt and deny your reality so frequently that you begin to question your sanity and your ability to accurately formulate your own version of reality.

It can be perpetrated by contradicting your reality, denying your thoughts and emotions, using ultimatums to silence you, minimizing your emotions, and using diversions to distract you.

the five types of gaslighting

“We were in an argument and he was using my vulnerabilities and insecurities against me as usual. I just happened to be putting the dishes away when I finally had enough. I turned around with a wooden spoon in my hand, pointed it at him, and told him to stop. He proceeded to take out his phone, record me, and told me to put the knife down. Even though it was clear that I was holding a spoon, at that moment he convinced me that I was holding a knife. I had to watch the video he took to confirm that I wasn’t losing my mind!” – Brie Robertson

Rationalization

One of the reasons that escaping a narcissistic abuse cycle is so difficult is because those who have suffered it have been forced to rationalize, normalize, and justify the narcissist’s abusive behavior.

The manipulation tactics narcissists use, like gaslighting and scapegoating, are designed to plague you with self-doubt and self-blame. 

Examples of the Most Common Ways Narcissists Rationalize Their Behavior:

  • It’s your fault I did (blank).
  • If you had done (blank) I wouldn’t have done (blank).
  • You’re the reason I get so angry.
  • Well maybe if you did (blank) I would be able to do (blank). 
  • You’re crazy and everyone else thinks so too!

For those of you who haven’t experienced narcissistic abuse, those comments may seem quite easy to overcome. 

Unfortunately, after months, years, and even decades of having your reality manipulated and denied, many of those who’ve suffered narcissistic abuse become codependent on their abuser.  

Comments like that can be detrimental to their emotional stability, plaguing them with self-doubt and self-blame.

Image of a narcissist rationalizing their abusive behavior.

A much more subtle way that narcissists rationalize their behavior is through manipulative tactics like the silent treatment. 

The silent treatment is exactly what it sounds like. When a narcissist is in a situation where the reality they’ve fabricated is being contradicted, they can get very passive aggressive and use the silent treatment.

When you confront a narcissist about your thoughts and emotions and they respond with the silent treatment, it can be incredibly destabilizing. Their silence could make you second guess yourself, and doubt the validity of your thoughts and emotions. 

What Should You Take Away From This Article?

Pushing yourself to understand projection is one of the best things you can do if you want to protect yourself from narcissistic abuse. Much like gaslighting, projection can manifest in so many other forms of narcissistic abuse.

One thing I do want to make clear is that the information you learn about narcissism, especially about projection, should never be used to try to heal the narcissist in your life. As I mentioned before, that job is for very qualified and established professionals, and even they aren’t guaranteed to yield results.

It’s our hope that you use the content that we create to ensure the success of your healing journey.

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All of the content that Unfilteredd creates is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for clinical care — please visit here for qualified organizations and here for qualified professionals that you can reach out to for help. This article has been reviewed by our editorial board and has been approved for publication in accordance with our editorial policies.

References:

Costa RM, Brody S. Immature psychological defense mechanisms are associated with greater personal importance of junk food, alcohol, and television. Psychiatry Res. 2013 Oct 30;209(3):535-9. doi: 10.1016/j.psychres.2013.06.035. Epub 2013 Jul 16. PMID: 23866675.

Coping Strategies and Defense Mechanisms: Mature Defenses Examples

Neurotic Defenses .” International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. . Encyclopedia.com. 8 Sep. 2021 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>

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