Narcissistic projection can turn qualities like empathy and compassion against you, but it’s possible to protect yourself.
Projection is a defense mechanism that helps us create distance from an uncomfortable personal feeling or behavior. While it’s not a constructive way to cope with things we don’t like about ourselves, chances are most of us have done it.
“All human beings utilize projection to some extent, and some personality styles use it more than others,” says Dr. Sterlin Mosley, assistant professor of human relations at the University of Oklahoma. But Mosley also points out that for people with narcissism, it can be a “key survival strategy.”
In other words, projection can help a person with a narcissistic personality shift responsibility or shame for something they’ve done onto someone else. And there are certain personalities that may be easier to project onto than others.
Narcissistic projection is a behavior that manifests when someone with a narcissistic personality projects a trait or behavior onto another person. It can happen in any relationship but may be common between people with narcissism and very empathetic people, also called empaths.
The tricky thing about projection is that most people aren’t aware they’re doing it. And since narcissism is linked to lower emotional intelligence, someone with a narcissistic personality may be especially unlikely to recognize that they’re projecting.
What it sounds like
- “Seems you haven’t been doing much lately — what’s up with that?” Meanwhile, they haven’t helped with household chores in weeks and you’ve had to pick up the slack.
- They accuse you of thinking only about yourself when you share about a problem you’re experiencing.
- When you tell them that something they said was hurtful, they reply, “I can’t believe you’d say something like that to me right now. Do you ever think about my feelings?”
What is an empath? And why do they attract narcissistic personalities?
An empath is someone who’s high in empathy, meaning they tend to take on the emotions of the people around them — good and bad.
Many empaths are also highly sensitive people. Both of these types of people tend to be strongly impacted by their physical environments and by the moods and emotions of others.
It’s not uncommon for empathetic and narcissistic personalities to be drawn together in relationships.
“Empathetic people seem to attract narcissistic personalities because they absorb feelings from others very easily, almost like an emotional sponge,” explains Dr. Holly Schiff, a licensed clinical psychologist in Greenwich, Connecticut.
Schiff also notes that this same quality is often what attracts a person with narcissism. The more selfless and caring you are, the more the narcissistic person may see an opportunity to get their own needs met without having to do much in return.
While people high in empathy and those high in narcissism might share some qualities that can create codependency, the differences are significant.
|Trait||Highly empathic person||Person with narcissism|
|sensitivity to criticism||✓||✓|
|focus on what others think||✓||✓|
|avoidance of uncomfortable emotions||✓||✓|
|difficulty saying “no”||✓|
|tendency to put others first||✓|
|tendency to self-blame||✓|
|possible manipulation of others||✓|
Responding to narcissistic projection can seem like a no-win situation.
Ignoring it might feel OK for a while, but carrying another person’s insecurities can easily become exhausting — especially for an empath. Meanwhile, confronting a narcissistic person about projection might lead to long, unproductive arguments.
While it isn’t always easy to navigate narcissistic projection, it is possible. It can help to remember the following tips.
It’s not really about you
When a narcissistic person projects onto you, knowing what’s happening behind the scenes can keep you from taking on their guilt and shame.
Dr. Brian Wind, chief clinical officer at JourneyPure, says, “Narcissistic projection can seem to come out of nowhere. However, remember that it’s often just a projection of what they really feel about themselves.”
Speak your truth
If you choose to address the defense mechanism head-on, keeping things straightforward and not engaging in argument are key.
It’s unlikely a person with narcissistic traits will come around to your side of the story.
But for some people, getting the chance to speak up in their defense — even briefly — is a way to foster a sense of trust and safety in themselves. Some research has even linked self-esteem with assertiveness.
You might try
Responding to an accusation by saying something as simple as “I’m sorry you think that, but it’s not true” could be effective.
Set clear boundaries
Strong boundaries can prevent you from becoming emotionally drained by persistent accusations you might experience with narcissistic projection.
While setting boundaries can be a challenge for many empaths, it’s a skill you can sharpen over time.
One way to set boundaries during narcissistic projection is to decide how long you want to engage in a discussion with the person and to be assertive and direct about cutting it off when you’ve planned to.
Keeping a cool head is much easier said than done when someone is trying to make you feel bad for something you didn’t do. Still, not giving the narcissistic person a reaction can be a great way to shut down their attacks.
Schiff also emphasizes that walking away from the situation is a perfectly acceptable way to keep things calm.
“Do not argue with them or become defensive. This will only add fuel to the fire and to the projector — it will validate their feelings in their own mind,” she explains. “By leaving the conversation and not engaging, you are leaving them to deal with their own emotions.”
If you experience narcissistic projection as an empath, you may be inclined to take on the emotional load of the person with narcissism. This may even cause you to wonder if you’re doing the things you’ve been accused of.
While internalizing, or taking in, the projection might be a natural response if you’re very sensitive to the feelings of others, it’s not always good for you in the long run.
If you’re still not sure where you stand in the relationship, asking a trusted third party — like a good friend or therapist — for their perspective can help you feel grounded in the reality of the situation.