I have been reading a lot lately about projective identification. Projective identification is a term that comes from psychologist Melanie Klein and I believe that every person that has ever been enmeshed with a narcissist needs to understand it. Most of all, understanding projective identification is really important for those of us who were raised by narcissistic parents.
The narcissist’s world of projections
There was a moment quite recently, when I realised, that my childhood was not really defined by who I was as a child but what my mother projected onto me.
It made me realise that the narcissistic personality disorder is a condition far more severe than it is generally regarded to be.
The narcissist really does live in a false reality. People that inhabit this reality are not seen as individuals with their wants, needs and personalities but rather as some projection screens onto which the narcissist projects elements of his or her disowned shadow.
When you are in a relationship with a narcissist, it’s really never about you and who you are as a person. It’s entirely about the projection that the narcissist places onto you.
Whilst a schizophrenic might perceive psychological elements outside himself in the form of voices, hallucinations and outrageous delusions, the narcissist projects the same elements onto the people in his or her environment. His or her social environment is therefore pretty much a reflection of his or her disordered mind.
The worst thing is that narcissists have a way to force those in their social environment to absorb those projections and accept them as their identity. That’s what projective identification is about.
Projective identification – how the narcissist forces you to identify with his or her projection
If you are a child of a narcissist, especially a scapegoat child, I don’t think you can possible grow up without identifying with what the narcissist projects onto you. They are immensely forceful when it comes to making you comply with the urges of their disorder.
Here is how it works:
Let’s have a look at my mother. My mother has quite a bit of an alcohol problem. Once she starts drinking, she can’t stop and she becomes an epitome of the totally disgusting drunk woman that is an utter embarrassment.
As a narcissist she is generally unable to see and respect other people’s boundaries but this trait of hers becomes even more pronounced in the drunken state. She rants and rambles, has a need to dominate every conversation and be the centre of attention. She doesn’t see it as a problem to openly embarrass you. She uses this type behaviour to demonstrate her dominance, stomps all over your boundaries and generally treats you as some sort of an accessory to her performance. Eventually, she passes out and falls asleep with her head on a table.
I have hated my mother’s drunkenness ever since I can remember and on many occasions I would protest against her behaviour in a desperate attempt to protect my boundaries (I obviously knew nothing about boundaries at that time but trying to make her treat me with some sort of respect was essentially what I was trying to achieve).
But trying to make a narcissist treat you with respect does not work. They need to make you comply with their projection. So my mother would react to my attempts to stop her behaviour with a massive anger tantrum, yelling at me, telling me what a horrible brat I was and how do I dared talk back to her.
Do you see what is happening here?
My seriously drunk mother believes that in her universe, she is entitled to behave however she pleases. If I protest, she makes me feel like the one who is faulty and misbehaving. By doing that, she creates a belief in me that if I stand up for myself, if I speak up against abusive behaviour, I am wrong and I will be punished.
This pattern was obviously present in all sorts of situations, in which my disordered mother would force her projections onto me – I am faulty, I am the problem, I am difficult, I am a brat, I am misbehaving, I am avoiding her for no reason.
Since I am the child, I am the small dependent and helpless one, she clearly must be right. Even though I keep protesting, I somehow absorb the projection. This would make me vulnerable in the future. I would be vulnerable to absorb projections of all sorts of narcissists that would cross my path.
You can understand where this leads. By the time I was 30, I absorbed so much toxic projections of all sorts of narcissists that I would live in a constant state of self-doubt. Am I really this faulty mis-behaving person? They are treating me as such so there must be something about it, right?
How a narcissist makes others relate to you as their projection
In addition to their use of brutal psychological force to persuade you that you are the culprit where they are actually the one who should rethink their behaviour, the narcissists infect the entire social surroundings the two of you inhabit with their delusional reality. They make everyone believe that you are the person that they project onto you.
That obviously happens by the traditional means of a smear campaign and triangulation. They talk about you to others as if you were what they project onto you – difficult, weird, anti-social – you name it.
People who have no knowledge of the narcissistic personality disorder and how it manifests and who are generally on the lower level of their psychological development would take the words of the narcissist at their face value and never question the narcissist’s version of you. As a result they will relate to you as if you really were what the narcissist describes you to be (the projection).
You will hear stories about yourself that are seriously distorted with only the smallest grain of truth in them. In all those stories, you would feature as some sort of an unbalanced, pitiful, silly character that makes funny mistakes, misbehaves, struggles and so on.
It’s very difficult to protect yourself against this psychic invasion, especially in your childhood. However, your inner voice, your emotions would be constantly protesting against this treatment, which might lead to you acting out against the narcissist’s projection, which unfortunately only serves as a reinforcement of the narcissist’s version of reality. Now you are acting out. Now you are angry. No one cares that you a rightfully protesting against psychological rape.
You don’t feel you can be yourself, you feel that if you dare to be yourself, you will be punished and rejected
Being subjected to this sort of abusive treatment will make you seriously self-conscious. You will feel hated, faulty, you will constantly expect rejections, you will feel that if you allow yourself to be yourself, you will be either punished or rejected, which is exactly what the narcissistic parent is doing – he or she is refusing to engage with you as you and is replacing the concept of you with a projection, which he or she is brutally forcing you to absorb.
You will struggle to understand who you are and what you want – your wants and talents don’t matter. What matters is what your parent wants and expects from you.
You will learn to supress yourself.
You will very likely find yourself in situations and relationships in your life where you will not be treated as you but as a projection.
Once you start healing and recovering your sense of self, you will notice that you feel off in the company of certain people. Somehow irritated.
Your natural tendency would be to blame yourself, thinking that perhaps you are not open enough, that you are socially awkward, yourself projecting something onto them.
The truth might, however, be, that this group of people is treating you as a projection. They don’t see you as you but as a figment of their imagination.
I have been in this situation many times. Frequently, people who are way below my intellectual level would treat me as if I am in some way below them. I am this naïve little girl or something (add to this that I have always looked quite a bit younger than my actual years and my baby face certainly did not reflect my life experiences and you get where it all comes from).
You will be noticing a stark difference between how you feel in the company of people who see you and those who project onto you. There is always this heavy feeling – your soul protesting against you carrying the projection.
How to break through absorbing other people’s projections
It took me quite a long time to finally see through this. I would get into discussions with narcissists online, in which they would be accusing me of things they were doing – attacking me, being passive aggressive, being judgemental. It’s a crazy world.
Sometimes, I would virtually feel the force of the projection suffocating me like an avalanche. Am I really doing this? Am I really this person they are accusing me of being?
The answer is no – I am only a magnet for narcissists’ projections.
It’s draining and it’s tiring. So how to defend yourself against this?
I feel that it really requires quite a lot of on-going work on your sense of self away from the narcissist-dominated circles. Since you have been trained to question yourself from the earliest age, it’s kind of your nature to allow others to treat you as a screen for their projections.
Really work on your understanding of yourself – who are you? What do you stand for? What do you value yourself for? How do your friends see you?
If your friends generally think that you are strong, awesome, wise and inspirational and someone else thinks you are silly and unstable, you kind of get the idea what’s going on.
I generally think that for people like us, psychotherapy is a very helpful and pleasurable experience. You get validation. You know, the therapist is not there to maintain your delusions. So if they are telling you that you are correct to feel a certain way and should not feel guilty for standing up for yourself, you get the idea that in the problematic relationship dynamic it’s probably not you who is the cause of the problem.
If you are confronted with someone who treats you as a projection, I feel that instead of trying to explain yourself and make them see, you should just very calmly tell them: “I am sorry that you see me this way. I don’t think you are right but I don’t think there is any point in continuing our conversation.”
You can also use non-violent communication to reflect back to them what you hear them say without getting emotionally affected by it (if they are a non-narcissist, they might actually hear what they are doing. If they are narcissistic, they will likely blow up).
Remember, you are dealing with someone who is either seriously mentally deranged or with someone who has been brainwashed and is under the spell of the deranged person.
Both of them live in a false reality.
They are not talking to you, they are talking to their projection
Anyway. Since absorbing narcissist’s projections has been such a profound experience in my life, I have spent quite a lot of time thinking about all this.
I have arrived at the conclusion that the narcissistic personality disorder is a much more serious mental health problem than people want to believe.
Narcissists live in false realities that are based on their projections. They don’t see people as who they really are and they are quite brutal in the way they force others to accept their projections.
There is absolutely no need to take anything a narcissist says personally – they are not talking to you. They are talking to their projection and that has absolutely nothing to do with you.
When it comes to people who are under the narcissist’s influence, I feel that we really should let them learn their lessons at their own time. It’s sad to live in someone else’s deranged reality and quite frankly, you are probably a much bigger loss for these people than the narcissist. The only problem is that they don’t see that and they made their choice.
In this video I talk about how to understand and control your emotional reactivity when dealing with a narcissist: