Understanding Narcissistic Projection

Understanding Narcissistic Projection

Authored by Pin Ng PhD

Edited by Hugh Soames

Reviewed by Michael Por, MD

What is Narcissistic Projection?

Narcissistic personality disorder is one of the many types of personality disorders. Individuals suffering from narcissistic personality disorder experience a mental condition that causes the sufferer to create an inflated sense of their own self-importance. Narcissistic personality disorder causes an individual to form a deep need for attention and it must be received excessively and fully focused on them. Individuals also experience troubled relationships and lack empathy toward others. While people with narcissistic personality disorder look cool and confident, behind the facade is a fragile person with self-esteem issues. Their low self-esteem often causes them to crumble at the smallest criticism.

One of the main areas in which narcissistic personality disorder causes problems is relationships. Although problems can arise at work, school, or in financial instances, it is relationship with other people – romantic, platonic, familial – that individuals really have issues. People with narcissistic personality disorder can struggle to find a satisfying relationship as each feels unfulfilling. In addition, others may not like being around the person exhibiting narcissistic traits and Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome has been well documented.

Relationships are a major issue for narcissistic individuals and projection is one of the major tools they use that causes problems in romantic or friendship scenarios. Narcissistic projection is a major defensive mechanism that narcissistic personality disorder sufferers use. Narcissistic projection isn’t only used by sufferers of the mental health disorder as abusers, addicts and individuals with personality disorders also rely on the defense mechanism.1https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0092656685710203

Projection is used to defend the actions and words of a person. A person may use it to defend themselves against impulses and traits they do unconsciously. People who project put thoughts and feelings onto someone else rather than themselves. It is a way to feel better about certain aspects of life or decisions made.

How does narcissistic projection work?

One example of narcissistic projection is when a man claims that his girlfriend hates him. In this situation, he is actually projecting the hate he feels for the girlfriend onto her. Narcissistic projection is commonly used by drug and alcohol addicts who blame others for their addictions. A heroin addict may blame their parents for their drug addiction while an alcoholic may claim it is their coworkers that are the reason they cannot stop drinking.

Experts consider narcissistic projection as a primitive defensive strategy. The use of it distorts reality and ignores the facts of the situation. This allows a person to function and feeds their ego despite the reality of the situation not aligning with the false narrative.

When narcissistic projection is used by adults, it shows a lack of maturity and poor emotional development.2https://www.pep-web.org/document.php?id=ijp.066.0201a This is because it is a defensive tactic that children often use.

Signs and symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder

There are a number of signs and symptoms associated with narcissistic personality disorder. These signs and symptoms include:

  • An exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • A sense of entitlement
  • Require constant admiration/praise
  • A need to be recognized as superior without reason
  • Exaggerate their achievements and talents
  • Preoccupied with fantasies related to success, power, brilliance, looks or the perfect mate
  • Believe they are superior
  • Claim they can only associate with people equal to them
  • Dominate conversations and belittle or look down on people they believe are inferior
  • Expect special favors
  • Demand unquestioned compliance with their expectations
  • Take advantage of others to get their way
  • Possess an inability and unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of other people
  • Envious of others and believe others envy them
  • Act in an arrogant manner, come across as conceited and boastful
  • Insist on having the best of everything and brag about it


Projecting onto others

Individuals who project onto others have low self-esteem and can be sensitive about a certain issue. For example, an alcoholic who is sensitive about their drinking and projects blame onto a spouse who urges them to stop drinking. When self-esteem is low or sensitivity is high, a person can be vulnerable to believe a projection to be true.

By projecting these ideas onto others and accepting them as facts, a person complicates their relationship, building problems. When an individual projects a belief onto their partner, the projection is validated when the significant other accepts the idea. An abuser gains control of the relationship when their projection is accepted by the other person. In turn, it can send the significant other’s self-esteem plummeting down when the projection is accepted further compounding the relationship.

A person in an adult relationship with an addict and/or abuser, may self-sacrifice to avoid conflict. At the same time, their self-esteem may be lowering do to accepting the projections put upon them. A person that is a narcissistic projector can easily abuse, exploit, and manipulate a partner.

How does a narcissist project and attack another person?

Since most narcissists lack self-awareness, it is easy for them to attack others using multiple tactics. A narcissist denies the flaws that exist in them and blames shortcomings on others. There are five very distinct ways that a person can project onto someone else.

  • Calling you names/making assumptions/accusing
  • Mimicking and exaggerating
  • Project their own views of themselves on others
  • Play the victim
  • Turn the tables/the ‘it’s you’ defense


Set boundaries

When a person projects, it can be difficult to know what to do in response. The easiest reaction is to set a boundary3https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5819598/ which simply send the projection back to the other person. Experts state that the boundary creates a defensive wall that protects a person against the projector.

Examples of a boundaries include phrases like:

  • “I don’t see it that way.”
  • “I disagree.”
  • “I don’t take responsibility for that.”
  • “That’s your opinion.”


One of the most important responses to a narcissistic projection is not to argue with the person and not to become defensive. This only adds fuel to the fire and validates the projectors feelings in their own mind. By simply leaving the conversation, the narcissist is left to deal with their own emotions.


Frequently Asked Questions about Narcissistic Projection


How do you tell a narcissist is projecting?

Answer: One way to tell if someone is projecting is to ask them about their feelings. Narcissists will often project their own negative feelings and thoughts onto others, so if you ask them about their feelings they will likely deny that they have any negative thoughts or feelings and instead accuse you of having them. Another way to tell if someone is projecting is by the context of the conversation. For example, if a narcissist is talking about how bad another person is, it’s likely that they are actually describing themselves in a negative light and are using the other person as a scapegoat.


What is narcissistic mirroring?

Answer: Narcissistic mirroring is a technique narcissists use to get their needs met. It involves using other people as mirrors to reflect back the narcissist’s idealized image of themselves. By doing this, the narcissist can see what they want to see and feel affirmed in their self-image. The problem with narcissistic mirroring is that it’s a one-way street. The other person is used solely for the narcissist’s own gratification and is not seen as an individual in their own right. This can be very damaging to relationships because it leads to a sense of emptiness and loneliness on the part of the person who is being mirrored.


Is narcissistic projection a mental illness?

Answer: Narcissistic projection is not currently classified as a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). However, narcissistic personality disorder is listed in the DSM as a mental illness. Narcissistic projection is a defense mechanism used by people with narcissistic personality disorder. It involves attributing one’s own unacceptable thoughts, feelings, or attributes to someone else. This allows the person with narcissistic personality disorder to deny their own negative qualities and to avoid responsibility for their behavior.


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References: Narcissistic Projection

1. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 4. Washington, DC: Author; 1994. []

2. Back MD, Egloff B, Schmukle SC. Why are narcissists so charming at first sight? Decoding the narcissism–popularity link at zero acquaintance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2010;98:132–145. [PubMed] []

3. Bradlee PM, Emmons RA. Locating narcissism within the interpersonal circumplex and the five-factor model. Personality and Individual Differences. 1991;13:821–830. []

4. Farwell L, Wohlwend-Lloyd R. Narcissistic processes: Optimistic expectations, favorable self-evaluations, and self-enhancing attributions. Journal of Personality. 1998;66:65–83. [PubMed] []

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Narcissistic Projection
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Narcissistic Projection
Experts consider narcissistic projection as a primitive defensive strategy. The use of it distorts reality and ignores the facts of the situation. This allows a person to function and feeds their ego despite the reality of the situation not aligning with the false narrative.
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