The Role of Narcissistic Projection in Self-Doubt and Relationship Drama

Someone with narcissistic personality disorder, or a significant amount of narcissistic traits, doesn’t see you for who you are. In fact, they don’t see you at all. For practical purposes, you’re more like a projection screen. Yet, since this is -for many of us- such a foreign concept to wrap our heads around, we tend to simply assume that, when someone likes us, they like who we really are¬†and, hence, can see who we really are.

At first, we might come to believe that, when a narcissist compliments us, it’s because they think we -as we truly are- are really great. Wow, all this time, so many people don’t see your value and here is someone who, quite quickly, just loves who you are! Or so you think.

What happens is that then you kind of get lifted “above” yourself. The narcissist convinces you that you are way more special than you ever thought possible. As a result, while this may feel really good, you also lose your inner footing. You are not the person you always felt you were. An inner sense of “I am just who I am and that is just what is normal for me, nothing special” gets shattered.

This may feel like an upgrade but, in fact, it’s destabilizing. It’s destabilizing because it’s not the same as someone who believes in you or likes you as you are.

For some reason, you seem to live up to seemingly impossible standards. Once you -flattered- accept that you apparently do, you’re also vulnerable to the opposite: now, when you appear less than fantastic, you’re suddenly far from good enough.

In other words, there’s no stable middle-ground. You’re always on an image rollercoaster.

While the romantic high that a narcissist can give you may seem preferable over a plain and simple kind of “I am o.k.”, it also comes with incredibly high expectations. Once you’ve acquired super star status, you’re expected to live up to it, and can never be normal again.

In the end, you’ll be left wondering about who you really are. If you’re not who you thought you were, and you’re not a superstar (at least, not always) and you’re not the lowest of the low (at least, not always) then who the heck are you? The ensuing self-doubt can create more vulnerability and openness to narcissistic flattery.

Perhaps it’s a bit of a disillusion to come back to normality and see yourself the way you always have: as nobody special. Yet, it’s precisely when you’re in that state, that you are who you are. After all, a fish in water is not going to see the water as special, nor their fish-status as something to obsess about. In the same way, when we are just being who we are, there’s nothing special about it. The “special” label is only something people can apply from the outside, by comparing you to someone else.

Yet, that kind of labeling does nothing for our inner sense of self. Chances are, if you’re trying hard to be special, it’s because you’re working hard to diverge from your natural sense, from your inherent sense of flow and ease.

It seems counter intuitive to want someone to see us as “just normal” but, in the end, isn’t that the end-all and be-all of total acceptance? Sure, there is always that getting to know each other period, during which you discover surprising things about each other. Yet, being normal doesn’t mean being boring. It also doesn’t mean being conventional. It just means that you are in alignment with your inner truth. That is your normal. If someone else agrees with you on that, that’s who you are and that’s who you should be, then you have both a special relationship and a supportive one.

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1 Andy February 12, 2014

Wow, this is really interesting! And very applicable when I think back to certain people. It doesn’t take long before you experience the true nature of a narcissist. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head – we can get confused thinking we want to feel special, but actually the biggest complement you can get in a relationship is ‘you are normal. You are the norm of you, that’s all I want, and I like it.’

2 Andreas February 12, 2014

Great article. Love reading your stuff.

3 Jane February 14, 2014

I think we have to be honest and realize there’s some narcissism in ME, or I wouldn’t fall for that beautiful image of myself that I imagine I see in the other person’s eyes. And I am projecting too, if I can’t see the other person as the mixed-up struggling human they are, but give them some kind of authority to determine my value. Or turn around and create this opposite persona called ‘narcissist’ to whom I assign the power to create this sense of dissatisfaction I feel about myself.

It’s very easy to stray from the real issue, which is learning to see, objectively, that I (my beliefs, thoughts, psychological issues) create my inner reality, it isn’t caused by anyone else.

4 Caroline van Kimmenade February 15, 2014

True, yet it’s also important not to blame ourself for the ways in which we perhaps do feel that others have the authority to determine our value. While that is projection, these kinds of projections tend to have very deep (often childhood) roots & intense wounding that cannot be undone easily or quickly.

To come back to a place of objectivity requires a willingness to experience all aspects of the situation and not deny, minimalize or distract from them. Often, a passionate, and very subjective experiencing of our circumstances, is the first step and the only way to get back in touch with our inner conditioning around a particular issue. Our anger about a situation can point us to an awareness that something is out of alignment. At that point we have a choice as to whether we look for our own power in the situation, or lay it at the other person’s feet. But we need to be in touch with our hurt first, to know that there is something to look into at all.

When we start with acknowledging how we are hurt, then we can move on to find ways to change the situation/remove ourself from the situation. From there, we can look inside for ways in which we enabled the old situation. Yet if we start by looking at how we may have enabled something, without acknowlediging the legitimacy of our own hurt, then we can easily end up staying stuck instead of moving forward. My experience in talking to people about this topic is that it’s often super easy for HSP’s to see others for the mixed-up struggling humans they are. Seeing the narcissist as an “other” is often an important step to take, not as a final conclusion about the situation, but as a way to move from self-blame to self-acknowledgement and healing.

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