Understanding Narcissistic Projection And How It’s Used To Confuse And Manipulate You

At some point, you’ll likely collide with a narcissist.

It could be a family member, friend, or colleague — and they’ll drive you batty.

But narcissists are much easier to handle if you know what you’re working with.

To that end, today, we’re breaking down signs a narcissist is projecting — a common defense mechanism of the uber-egotistical.

We’ll unpack why it happens, provide a few common examples, and end with ideas on how to deal with it.

So if you’re ready to regain the upper mental hand, keep reading.

What is Narcissistic Projection? 

Projection is one of the narcissist’s favorite battle weapons.

So what is it? How does it work?

Ultimately, projection is a defensive mechanism people deploy when faced with something about themselves they don’t want to acknowledge.

It’s a way of externalizing and brushing an issue under the proverbial carpet.

To be fair, we all project insecurities and fears. It’s a human emotional instinct embedded in our survival DNA. Everyday examples include:

  • Assuming someone can do something because you can
  • Saying someone doesn’t like you because, deep down, you don’t like them
  • Judging someone as “stuck up” because they didn’t pay as much attention to you as you’d like
  • Chastising someone for their makeup or fashion sense because you’re secretly insecure about your aesthetic 

But narcissists take things to an unbearable level. Moreover, they’re typically incapable of recognizing their poor behavior.

For them, every little criticism or disagreement is an opportunity to gaslight and pelt projection at the person who triggered their insecurity. 

In most instances, narcissists whip out their defensive shields when faced with feelings of jealousy, loss of control, fear, and inferiority. 

Ultimately, being targeted by people with narcissistic personality styles can erode your mental health.

Sometimes, you may internalize their projection and grow to believe they’re right.

6 Ways Narcissists Use Projection With Examples

We’ve discussed projecting behavior and why it’s a default gear for egomaniacs. 

Now, let’s unpack a few narcissistic projection examples to give you a peek inside the minds of delusionally conceited people.

1. Media Mayhem

Narcissists see their personal judgments and opinions as facts, and sometimes it reaches a point where they can’t handle when others disagree with their views on subjective matters.  

For example, it’s not unusual for someone with these entrenched personality traits to grow unnecessarily upset if someone doesn’t agree with them about a song, movie, or show.

couple talking on sofa woman is upset Narcissistic Projection

When you disagree with their assessments, all of a sudden, it’s pursed lips, a huffed and dismissive sigh, followed by something along the lines of, “I guess it’s just one of those things that’s only appealing to people who appreciate dry wit” or “I cannot believe you don’t like it! I guess you just don’t ‘get it.’”

Since they can’t handle a minor difference of artistic opinion, narcissists feel the need to passive-aggressively crawl their way back to a place of dominance (in their mind’s eye). 

2. Professional Peril

Heaven help you if the narcissist in your life is a colleague, family member, or friend with similar professional aspirations. Some might even argue that having a genuinely caring relationship is impossible under such circumstances.

Because they cannot handle coming in second, and they have mini nervous breakdowns whenever they feel threatened professionally — even when there’s no reason to be.

Take, for example, the tale of Tina and Robin. Tina was a technical writer, and Robin was a playwright — two tracks at polar-opposite ends of the authoring spectrum. Yet, whenever Tina got a promotion or landed a new client, Robin would slap backhand barbs at her “friend” like, “you are the luckiest person in the world; I don’t know how you keep finding work!?”

3. Fashion Faux Pas

Narcissists see themselves as fashionistas. In their heads, they’re the trendsetters, not the followers.

So when a person with deep NPD tendencies feels like someone’s look is a little too similar to their own, they may flip out and start accusing their fashion twin of “stealing” their style.

In these cases, if you want to keep the peace, don’t point out they’re not the only person who dresses a certain way. They’ll snip at you and start nitpicking your wardrobe to regain a sense of sartorial dominance.

couple talking on sofa Narcissistic Projection

The story of Emily and Madison is a prime example of this type of narcissistic tantrum. Emily is a content creator working to build her brand. So she hired a stylist and photographer for a shoot.

When Madison saw the pictures, she was immediately upset and said, “Why did you pick my style for this project!? Why are you copying my style!?”

When Emily explained the stylist made the wardrobe choices, Madison continued to accuse her friend of being uncreative and derivative.

4. Psychological Hot Potato

What happens when you ask a therapist specializing in narcissistic personality disorder how to tell someone with NPD that they’re self-centered?

They’ll advise you not to even try.

Why?

Because 9.9 times out of 10, the narcissists will immediately try to flip the script and aggressively insist you’re the one who needs to find a counselor’s couch ASAP.

In these instances, they’ll typically try to give themselves a measure of plausible deniability by saying something like, “I’m your friend, I care about you, and I really think you should find someone to talk to.

You don’t look good, and you’re acting unreasonable.” Narcissists will also throw around comments like, “What’s wrong with you!?” and “You need help!”


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5. Intelligence Invasion

Don't underestimate a narcissist's capacity to believe their own intellectual hype.

They're the folks who lie about their IQ, and they genuinely don't understand when they're not hired for a position or picked for an award.

When their intellectual prowess is challenged, they will immediately belittle the person who made them feel “less than.”

Vulnerable narcissists will typically take a passive-aggressive route and say something like, “Well, we all couldn't have tutors like you” or “you're so lucky you're part of a group that's given entitlements.”

Malignant and dominant narcissists will be more direct and shoot off blunt comments like, “Well, the higher-ups are afraid of my intelligence; that's why I didn't get the position,” or “it's amazing how mediocrity is rewarded these days.”

6. Jealousy Jubilee

Envy is the narcissist's touchstone. When it arises, they cannot control themselves and will immediately spiral into a pit of jealousy when confronted with a situation that makes them feel inferior.

Anything can trigger them. If you get a used car that's newer than theirs, they'll comment about how it has a horrible safety rating. If you work hard and save money to buy a home, they'll assume someone gave you a chunk of money.

Then, when you invite them over for a housewarming party, they'll spend the whole time dolling out backhanded “compliments” and nitpicking every tiny flaw.  

Furthermore, people with NPD tendencies cannot genuinely feel happy for others' wins when they don't somehow benefit from it. In extreme situations, they may even start telling people you made fun of them for not having the object of their desire.

How to Deal with Narcissistic Projection 

Sure, exceptions exist. But 99.99% of people with extreme forms of narcissism won’t ever admit when they’re wrong, nor will they acquire the necessary self-awareness to confront their selfishness.

To them, everything is always somebody else’s fault.

So, how can you deal with narcissists without pummeling your mental health? Let’s explore a few ideas.

  • Assess Your Behavior: Are you making yourself an easy target? Are you constantly making excuses for the narcissist and enabling their behavior? If so, think about what boundaries you can draw to shield yourself from their projection and emotional manipulation.
  • Work on Yourself: Instead of focusing on the narcissist, turn your attention inward. Plot out your goals and get to work. The more focused you are on your prize, the less consumed you’ll be with the machinations of an insecure megalomaniac.  
  • Practice Mindfulness: Studies show that mindfulness is a great way to reduce anxiety and improve cognitive function. When your brain is sharp and firing on all cylinders, you’ll be better able to brush off some of the narcissist’s bad behavior. 
  • View it as a Decoder: Though challenging, try to see narcissists’ projections as windows into their souls. Because essentially, every time they throw a biting remark in your face, they’re actually admitting their fears and insecurities. Use what they give you!
  • Don’t Engage: No rule says you must engage with people behaving poorly. So when the narcissist infesting your life starts acting up, respond by ignoring their behavior. Refusing to throw fuel on their dramatic fire turns down the temperature — (and has the added bonus of ticking them off). 
  • Wittily Point Out Their Projection: While confronting a narcissist can be emotionally dangerous, landing a witty remark at their expense can be surprisingly effective. Under the right conditions, it works like a muzzle and knocks the narcissist off their high horse.

Final Thoughts

Dealing with a narcissist is excruciating. But sometimes, you can’t immediately escape them because the person in question may be a family member, colleague, or spouse.

To maintain your mental health, it’s helpful to remember that people with narcissistic personality disorders usually get that way because of severe childhood trauma. Seeing them through the lens of a hurt child can smooth out the rough edges.

At the same time, don’t compromise yourself, and try not to enable their behavior. In most cases, you won’t be able to change them. The desire to get better rests solely with the narcissist.