Projection was the first clue I had that my husband James had something terribly, terribly wrong with him. When he reported having an entire conversation with me in his head, becoming angry with me as a result of “my part” in the “conversation,” and then retaliating against me as a result, I was shocked. On questioning him, however, trying to discern just what it was he thought I would say, I was further surprised to discover that, after years of marriage, the responses he imagined I would give were not even close to the kinds of things I would say. They demonstrated a complete lack knowledge about me, my beliefs, values, and even my behaviours. Further probing revealed that the real person he was responding to was his mother and for the entire term of our marriage, he had been projecting…and reacting to…her, not to me. I didn’t even exist.
Most times, projection is slightly different from this type, but both kind have a lack of recognition of the real person who is the victim of projection: the reality of the person is simply not acknowledged and the projecting person’s imaginings are substituted. In classic projection “ .. a person subconsciously denies his or her own attributes, thoughts, and emotions, which are then ascribed to the outside world, usually to other people. Thus, projection involves imagining or projecting the belief that others originate those feelings.”
“In psychopathology, projection is an especially commonly used defense mechanism in people with certain personality disorders: ‘Patients with paranoid personalities, for example, use projection as a primary defense because it allows them to disavow unpleasant feelings and attribute them to others’…all ‘the primitive defenses, such as splitting, projection and projective identification, are commonly connected with primitively organized personalities, such as’: Borderline personality disorder, Narcissistic personality disorder, Antisocial personality disorder, [and] Psychopathy.”
Narcissists and malignant narcissists differ somewhat in that the garden-variety narcissist often operates from a position of lesser consciousness of what she is doing to others, although when confronted she will invariably rationalize or justify her actions and take no responsibility for the hurt she caused. Malignant narcissists are more self-aware in the sense that they consciously create some of the hurt they inflict on others and feel entirely justified in doing so. Both, however, engage in projection and neither of them project with intentional malice…projection doesn’t work that way.
My MNM was a master at projection. When I learned to set a proper table in my Home Ec class and tried to replicate it at home, my mother’s immediate reaction was to assume I wanted something from her. When I later asked for a ride to my Girl Scout meeting, she assumed that I was “buttering her up” so she would be inclined to give me that ride, the fact that I needed a ride every week somehow forgotten. When I did something unexpected, her response was often to think I was “buttering her up” or the contrary—“are you trying to make me mad?” There was some kind of calculating motive behind virtually everything she did and, in true projection mode, she believed others operated just as calculatedly as she did…and often she ascribed to others the feelings or reasons that would have been her own motivations.
A narcissist will believe you are out to get her not because you are or that there is even any indication that you, but because she would be out to get you in a similar circumstance. I read recently about a bride who purposely chose ugly bridesmaid dresses and unflattering coiffures for her wedding party so that none of them could upstage her on “her” day. It would take a narcissist who would actually upstage a bride to think of this and project that onto the women in her wedding party.
James constantly projected his lack of integrity and willingness to “sandbag” others by assuming they also lacked integrity and had no compunctions against sabotaging their colleagues. If, in a meeting, someone disagreed with him, James would immediately assume the other person was doing so for the sole purpose of discrediting him, because that is why he would disagree with someone in a less-than-wholly-private forum: to discredit them and make them look like fools. The idea that someone honestly disagreed with something he had said in the meeting would never occur to him because he, himself, wouldn’t bother to speak up unless there was something to be gained by it: either making someone else look bad so he could look good, or to get credit for something.
Narcissists will do this projecting on virtually any topic with just about anyone. When I was about nine or ten, I was late coming home from the library so I cut through the school yard. NM chose all of my clothes and despite how badly I hated the ugly red oxfords she had bought me that school year, I wore them without protest—they were the only shoes I had and a protest could earn me a beating. In the schoolyard I was accosted by a “flasher,” a man who opened his pants and exposed himself to me. I dropped my books and fled, running across a small creek between the school and my neighbourhood. Hearing my screams, a classmate’s father intercepted me in mid-flight and called my parents and other adults who went to the school in search of the pervert. They found my library books, but nothing else.
My father was appropriately concerned for my well-being but my mother’s grim face told me another story. Sure enough, as soon as she could get me alone she informed me that she knew there was no man at the school, that this whole thing was an elaborate charade on my part to get the shoes wet and ruin them so that she would have to buy me a new pair. My protests were labelled “lies,” and I was beaten for ruining the shoes, “cooking up” a “fairy tale” to explain their damage, and for lying. And, the replacement shoes were ugly red oxfords like the first pair to “teach me a lesson.” The real truth was, this was the kind of scheme she would have cooked up to get new shoes and that, as far as she was concerned, was exactly what I had done. Her projection took precedence over reality, even with a horde of concerned neighbourhood parents prowling the school looking for the man who had so terrified me.
Projection occurs anyplace a narcissist might appear. Standing in the queue at the market you accidentally bump the woman ahead of you who then turns on you and accuses you of intentionally trying to damage her costly coat because you are jealous of her affluence; I accidentally lost control of the heavy door on my luxury SUV one day as I was getting out of the car and the powerful spring popped it open—and into the door of a tiny little transportation box parked next to it. It didn’t leave a mark, but the owner of the little transportation box saw it happen and, before she even reached the car, was already verbally abusing me for believing that the fact I drove a luxury car gave me the right to “slam into” other cars and damage them. That I was chagrined at the heavy door getting away from me and that I immediately checked to see if the other car was damaged did not even occur to her—no, her very insistence in attributing an unpleasant motive to me told me, on the spot, that were our positions reversed and she was exiting the luxury car, she wouldn’t care if it damaged a little econobox parked next to it—she was projecting her own subconscious onto me. As stated earlier, projecting her feelings onto me allowed her to disavow her own unpleasant feelings and attribute them to another—me.
Projection is a tool that is not exclusive to the narcissist. Anyone can use it, given the right circumstances, but in the hands of a narcissist it is one of the tools that define their lives. Where you might think—or even say—something cutting about another person when, in fact, you really are a little envious of her, the narcissist uses projection to disown her own feelings and ascribe them to others. She is then at liberty to use that projection, what is now her perception of victim, as a justification for anything she chooses to do in retaliation. It is entirely too easy to ascribe motives, beliefs, and feelings to people in the absence of information, but the narcissist hones it to a fine art…and inflicts some painful damage along the way.
You know you are engaging in projection when you say “Well, that is what I would do/want/think,” and then immediately assume that is what someone else is doing. Truth is, you might be right…but there is a pretty high chance that they would be doing/wanting/thinking something entirely different. Narcissists, with their assumption that they are the centre of the universe, find it inconceivable that other people would have different, even loftier, motivations than themselves have.
What can you do about it? What can you do if another person persists in projecting her own motives/beliefs/values onto you? In reality, not much. Projection is a form of denial and trying to get someone to give up denial is a formidable task. To ask them to see you as you really are may well be creating an impossible task and, since the narcissist is only motivated by her own advantage (she doesn’t care if you are hurt or upset by her projection, so there is no motive there), it is unlikely the narcissist will see any reason to put in the effort necessary to inject a little reality into her fantasy kingdom.
Next up: Denial
It is difficult to deal with a narcissist when you are a grown, independent, fully functioning adult. The children of narcissists have an especially difficult burden, for they lack the knowledge, power, and resources to deal with their narcissistic parents without becoming their victims. Whether cast into the role of Scapegoat or Golden Child, the Narcissist's Child never truly receives that to which all children are entitled: a parent's unconditional love. Start by reading the 46 memories--it all began there.