Projective Identification: How a Narcissist Projects Their Identity on Others
By: Christine Hammond LMHC
A client walked into my office for the first time and began to describe her husband as a narcissist. They had been married for 15 years, had two children, were well established in the community, and were both very career oriented. She came across an article about narcissism and that her husband fit the profile. Not interested in getting a divorce, she wanted to learn how to manage his narcissism.
But something seemed a bit off about her as she was too put together and completely lacked the usual anxious reaction that corresponds with living with a narcissist. Her appearance was immaculate, her mannerism was guarded, she shed what seemed like an obligatory tear, and within minutes she revealed her income, square footage of her house, and details of the latest European vacation. There was nothing about the kids, no admittance of even the slightest abuse, and no signs of PTSD, anxiety or depression. Then it hit me, she was the narcissist.
Twisted Perception. The distorted perception of reality that a narcissist possesses allows them to be the stars in a world that is centered on their wants and desires. Everything they see is colored by that viewpoint. The narcissist has a limited picture of life as they are the superior ones in beauty, knowledge, power, or influence. It is easier to think of it as seeing the world through 50 shades of yellow. Yellow because they are the bright shining stars in a world that caters to their demands.
This client viewed herself as perfect with an imperfect husband who needed to be fixed. She would play the victim card when backed into a corner of realization for her contribution to the marital issues. There was no acknowledgement of her wrong doing, a complete lack of remorse, and no empathy for anyone but herself.
Unhealthy Coping. This twisted perception is the perfect stage for utilizing denial, projection, and intellectualization as coping mechanisms. In order to maintain their perfect world, narcissists need to cope with anything that poses a threat to their reality. They usually start with simple defense mechanisms: denial (refusing to acknowledge the existence of a problem), projection (taking their negative emotional responses and assigning it to others), and intellectualization (distancing through overthinking so as not to feel). If those fail, they escalate to abusive measures.
Within the first hour of meeting, all of these defense mechanisms were exploited. She denied any issues with her children which is impossible with a narcissistic parent. She showed text messages from her husband that were mild in nature and claimed instead that he was furious. And when asked how she felt about an incident, she dodged the question by talking about her thoughts on the matter. When pressed for any signs of abusive treatment, she insisted that he could be violent but lacked any explanation of how or when.
Projective Identification. Taking projection one step further, a person assigns an aspect of their personality onto another person. In the case of narcissism, all of the narcissistic traits may be splintered off and attributed to a spouse. This is done at an unconscious level where the narcissist is not even aware of what they have done. In some cases, it may be malicious but for the most part it is due to their twisted perception of reality where the narcissist must remain perfect.
While it appeared in our first encounter that my client was doing this to her spouse, it was further confirmed by meeting her husband. He had zero signs of narcissism and instead was extremely co-dependent. His natural tendency was to enable the narcissism as he adopted the viewpoint that she was perfect and he was the one with the problem. He even agreed that she was right and he was narcissistic.
It took many sessions to reveal the actual narcissist. The projective identification was so integrated and well managed that it required much convincing to expose the real narcissist. The unraveling of the truth was painful at first but then it transitioned into healing as the husband was able to see the multiple colors of reality instead of only yellow narcissism.
To schedule an appointment with Christine Hammond, please call our office at 407-647-7005.