What Is Narcissistic Projection and How Do Narcissists Use It?

Narcissistic projection is a psychological defense mechanism that allows a narcissistic person to protect their grandiose self by projecting their shortcomings onto others.

This will be discussed in more detail below but first, what exactly is projection?

a man leaning over a woman with her head in her hands. Projecting blame onto her

What is Projection?

Projection is a defense mechanism that is used to reduce the anxiety caused by having “undesirable” traits, behaviors, and motivations by attributing them to someone else. For example, we might believe it is unacceptable to be jealous, so instead of acknowledging that we experience this emotion, we accuse someone else of being jealous. 

We are not necessarily aware when we are projecting as this process happens mostly on a subconscious level.

Projection is a type of suppression. When we suppress something, it does not simply disappear and thus needs to be dealt with in some other way. In the case of projection, unacceptable characteristics are dealt with by attributing them to another person, freeing us of their burden.

Think of a projector that projects an image onto a wall or screen. It projects what it “sees” onto an external wall. Similarly, projection means perceiving what is within us in an external object (a person), outside of the self.

That way it is easier to deal with as we do not need to take responsibility for the unacceptable traits – the responsibility shifts from us to the other.

There are two types of projection: complementary and attributive projection. The former refers to a person projecting the cause of their feelings, traits, motivations, etc. onto others, e.g. I am frustrated because others are annoying. The latter refers to a person projecting their own feelings, traits, motivations, etc. onto others, e.g. a selfish person calling other people selfish.

What are Psychological Defense Mechanisms?

Everyone has psychological defense mechanisms, as these help us to restore and protect our self-esteem. These defenses range from being adaptive to maladaptive or destructive. When we face a stressor, using adaptive defenses allows us to be aware of our feelings and behaviors and we can return to a state of well-being.

Examples of adaptive defenses are affiliation (asking other people for help) and sublimation (channeling unhelpful feelings and impulses into socially acceptable behaviors).

These adaptive defense mechanisms generally occur on an intrapsychic (personal) level, i.e., they happen within us. Maladaptive defenses, such as projection, splitting, and denial, are mechanisms that shift the blame onto others – they occur on an interpersonal level.

At its core, narcissism is also a defense mechanism, and as with other maladaptive defenses, it involves other people. In other words, narcissists need other people to feel good about themselves.

They feel entitled to the constant validation and admiration of others to protect their grandiose, yet often fragile egos. One tactic they use to protect their ego is projection.

What is Narcissistic Projection?

The key difference between projection and narcissistic projection is not the mechanism itself (that remains the same) but rather the frequency or consistency of this process and the reaction or behavior that follows projection.

That means projection happens in combination with the narcissist’s grandiosity, superiority, entitlement, hostility, and lack of empathy. This is what makes narcissistic projection so problematic and potentially dangerous.

How Narcissists Use Projection and What You Can Do

To some extent, most people use projection as a way to cope with emotions, traits, beliefs, and situations they find difficult – not just narcissists. 

However, the nature of narcissism means they project all or most of their shortcomings onto other people, cannot take responsibility, and use it as a way to manipulate their victims. The following are ways narcissists use projection:

To Avoid Acknowledging Their Imperfection

Vulnerable narcissism is associated with shame, anxiety, and even self-hatred. But instead of acknowledging their shortcomings, narcissists project them onto others. They express the shame, anger, and resentment they feel towards themselves towards another person. 

They seek to destroy the other (as a mirror of themselves) but without damaging their own self-esteem.

Instead of bullying themselves, they bully other people. Instead of hating themselves, they hate people. In combination with their other narcissistic traits, this leads to abusive behaviors.

To illustrate, let’s say a narcissistic person feels shame about their appearance (maybe because their parents bullied them for it). They suppress this shame, but because it still exists subconsciously and does not disappear, it has to be dealt with in some way.

So they project the shame onto you and might tell you “you’re ugly” or “you should wear make-up/ other clothes” – in other words, you receive the wrath they actually feel towards themselves. You represent everything they do not like about themselves like you are holding up a mirror. 

To Shift Blame

Projection is used to blame others for their feelings and behaviors (complementary projection), e.g., “it’s your fault I’m angry”. They also use it to project any shortcomings onto others (attributive projection) as their grandiose protective shell does not allow them to see themselves as anything less than perfect. 

For example, they might express that you do not care; you are always late; or you bully them – when, in fact, this is true for them, not you.

To Turn the Tables/ Play the Victim

Admitting and taking responsibility when they did something wrong or are not perfect in some way would be too damaging for the narcissist’s ego. So instead, they will project their wrongdoing onto you. 

For example, they might accuse you of cheating, being too jealous, abusing them, etc. This allows them to play the victim and turn the tables on you. The result is that you end up apologizing and/ or feeling guilty, and their self-esteem stays intact. 

What You Can Do About Projection

Projection is highly confusing for the receiver because they are assigned emotions, behaviors, motivations, and traits that do not belong to them and they do not recognize within themselves. 

This leads the victim to question their perceptions, and from this perspective, projection becomes a form of gaslighting. But just as you can protect yourself from gaslighting, you can protect yourself from projection.

Remember It Is Not About You

As mentioned above, projection is a defense mechanism that protects the ego from shame and anxiety. 

Much of what the narcissist throws at you is a reflection of how they feel about themselves and therefore it is not about you. In fact, their words and actions can be a way to understand them better and get a glimpse into their mind and how it works. 

Practice Self-Awareness

Preventing the effects of projection means knowing yourself and your behavior. If someone accuses you of having certain feelings or behaving in a certain way, check in with yourself and assess whether that is true or whether it is a projection. 

It takes self-awareness and confidence to stick to your guns and not allow a narcissist to convince you otherwise. Trust your gut instinct and do not take responsibility for their shortcomings and misbehavior.

Maintain Boundaries

When you know you are being projected on, establish and maintain your boundaries. Tell them “no, that is not the case” or “that is not how I feel” but avoid arguing – say it once and leave it at that. 

Narcissists thrive on confrontation and enjoy any attention they get, even when it is negative, so they will continue to argue endlessly. 

Preserve your energy and walk away, if necessary. Unfortunately, the best way to deal with narcissists is not to engage with them at all or as little as possible.


Holmes, D.S. (1978) Projection as a Defense Mechanism. Psychological Bulletin, 85 (4), 677-688. 

Kampe, L., Bohn, J., Remmers, C. & Hörz-Sagstetter, S. (2021). It’s Not That Great Anymore: The Central Role of Defense Mechanisms in Grandiose and Vulnerable Narcissism. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 12.

Thobaben, M. (2005). Defense Mechanisms and Defense Levels. Home Health Care Management and Practice, 17 (4), 3. 

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Anna Drescher

Mental Health Professional

BSc (Hons), Psychology, Goldsmiths University, MSc in Psychotherapy, University of Queensland

Anna Drescher is a freelance writer specializing in mental health and psychology.