Wikipedia defines psychological projection as “A defense mechanism where the ego defends itself against unconscious impulses or qualities in itself and attributes them to others.” An example of this would be a bully who projects his own feelings of vulnerability onto a target and puts THEM in a vulnerable position. This defense is commonly called “blame shifting” or “shame dumping”. A cheating husband will accuse his wife of infidelity or a wife will accuse her husband of wasting money while she is the one who is spending it recklessly. In terms of negative projection, almost everything they say is about THEM and not you. This can lead the victim wondering if SHE is the narcissist. I have seen this more times than I can count in my practice.
Narcissists use projections frequently and often times unprovoked. They condemn others for their own behaviors, traits and reactions. Not always are these projections negative. Love bombing, for example, is a projection that many narcissists employ during the early courtship stage of a relationship. It’s a phenomenon called “mirror imaging”. While it’s often mistaken for real love, it’s just a projection of an ideal self that the narcissist wished he could actually feel and own for himself.
Blame shifting gets played out most obviously in divorce court. By this time, the victim has gained some emotional distance from the abuser and can therefore see that the accusations are clearly projections. She listens to arguments presenting her as the cheater, the one wasting money, the one triangulating the children. These are usually projections by the narcissist but are presented so forcefully that real evidence of any of these behaviors is not needed by the narcissist to make his argument. Sometimes child custody courts see this, sometimes not. On the financial side of things, it is easier to prove misconduct than it is to prove emotional abuse of children. Nevertheless, the victim of narcissism will often need to go to great extremes to legally prove that her partner is/was hiding money etc.
Recently a client undergoing divorce with a narcissist presented her attorney and me with pictures of her six-year-old daughter’s bruises which would be apparent when she came home from visits with her dad. She would also say “daddy hurt me”. In court papers the narcissist insisted that the wife was the abuser and that he took the pictures even though they were on the wife’s phone. This is an example of projection in the extreme, even bordering on the sociopathic. The well being of the child was not considered at all. Fortunately, the courts ruled in the mother’s favor and she obtained custody with the father only getting supervised visits.
I will end this blog by stating that projection is not new. It was known even to one of the earliest proponents of modern psychology. It was Carl Jung who said “The most dangerous psychological mistake is projection of the shadow on to others. This is the root of almost all conflicts.”