- The constant projection of a parent's unresolved emotions distorts the child's reality.
- Experiencing parental projective identification is likened to enduring a sustained form of gaslighting.
- Reclaiming your reality involves self-reflection, validation, and reparenting.
In the realm of narcissistic abuse, there's a covert and lesser-explored form known as "projective identification." It's a psychological maneuver, a subtle, yet powerful tool often used by individuals with narcissistic tendencies.
Unlike more obvious forms of abuse, parental projective identification operates on a subconscious level and has a profound impact on the recipient—the child of a narcissistic parent.
According to psychoanalytic thought, what makes projective identification different from "simple" projection is that projective identification combines elements of both projection and introjection. The projector thrusts their emotions, thoughts, or traits onto the recipient and induces a compelling psychological influence that prompts the recipient to internalize and identify with these projected elements.
This twofold nature turns the recipient into an unwitting collaborator in the drama, as they unknowingly assume the projected attributes as their own. It is not just about one person projecting emotions outward but it also binds the projector and the recipient in a shared emotional narrative, blurring the lines between self and other.
Experiencing parental projective identification can be likened to enduring a profound and sustained form of gaslighting throughout your life. The constant projection of your parent's unresolved emotions, fears, or insecurities onto you creates a distorted reality in which your own experiences are systematically invalidated. The result is a pervasive sense of confusion and self-doubt, akin to living in a perpetual state of gaslighting.
Over time, you begin to internalize the false narrative, doubting the authenticity of your own traumatic experiences. The insidious nature of this process compounds the trauma, as you start to believe you are the one who made up your trauma.
Thus, breaking free from this cycle requires acknowledgment of the manipulation and a journey toward reclaiming your narrative and trusting in the validity of your own experiences.
Narcissistic Parents and Projective Identification
Narcissistic parents, with their specific characteristics, are often more inclined to subject their children to projective identification.
According to Heinz Kohut's self-psychology, individuals with narcissistic traits have fragile self-structures and struggle with a lack of mirroring and empathy during their development. Their self-esteem is fragile, so when they encounter aspects of themselves they find undesirable or threatening, they resort to projecting them outward onto others.
Narcissists often use projection as a defense mechanism to be rid of parts of themselves they do not want to face. Parental projective identification takes it a step further—it involves projecting and compelling the child to internalize and identify with these projections. The child becomes an emotional dumping ground for the narcissistic parent's psychic materials.
Imagine a scenario in which a narcissistic parent uses projective identification to cast their feelings of "self-disgust" onto you. In this psychological ballet, you would find yourself enveloped in a cloak of self-disgust, thinking it originates from yourself rather than something your parents have injected into you.
The subtlety of this form of narcissistic abuse lies in its unconscious nature. As the projector, your parent remains oblivious to their role as the emotional choreographer, and you, as the unwitting recipient, are equally unaware of the emotional script being imposed upon you.
Instead of working on themselves through personal growth, therapy, or addressing past hurts, they hand off their emotional baggage to you. Unconsciously, they resort to different tactics, from being critical to giving the silent treatment or neglecting, all to make you believe that their shame and self-hatred are somehow your own.
Adding to the complexity, narcissistic parents might unknowingly replay their own childhood stories while raising you. It is like a subconscious replay button, where they make you feel the same way they did when they were growing up—worthless, ashamed, and in constant fear of punishment. So, when they criticize, ignore, or show a lack of empathy, they pass on their unwanted shame, urging you to carry and absorb it as your emotional baggage.
Thus, it is worth remembering that when they treat you like you're inherently "bad," dumb, a loser, or worthless without a good reason, it's likely because they're projecting the parts of themselves they dislike onto you.
To put it simply, projective identification is a form of abuse that happens when a parent, as a narcissist, is not able to face their shadow side. Instead of directly dealing with these undesirable parts, they use you as an emotional dumping ground, saying, "I don't want these feelings; you take them."
Healing From Projective Identification With Narcissistic Parents
If you suspect you've been subjected to projective identification from your parents and want to address the fragmentation of yourself, you may consider some of the following practices:
Begin by cultivating self-awareness. Pay attention to your emotions, thoughts, and reactions. Developing a keen understanding of your inner world allows you to distinguish between your authentic experiences and the projections imposed by the narcissistic abuser. Eventually, you can identify the emotional baggage you carry that may not authentically belong to you but has been projected onto you.
Validating Your Reality
Being subject to projective identification can lead to a profound distortion of your self-perception. As a result, you may start to question your reality, wondering if you have "made up" your abuse.
To heal from such narcissistic abuse, you may have to work on reclaiming your sense of reality, refusing to be gaslit, and being told you have "made things up."
You can start a journal to document instances of gaslighting or projective identification. Write down your feelings, the events you remember, and any attempts to manipulate or distort your reality. This written record serves as tangible evidence of your experiences.
You may also share your experiences with trusted friends, family members, or a therapist. Seeking healthy validation from those who genuinely support you can provide additional perspectives and reinforce the legitimacy of your reality.
If you choose to try psychotherapy, try to pay attention to the transference dynamics. The therapeutic relationship may replicate patterns from your early relationships, which gives you an opportunity to explore and rework these dynamics with the guidance of a skilled therapist.
Through reading or working with a professional, you may also familiarize yourself with gaslighting tactics and the mechanisms of projective identification. Understanding these psychological strategies empowers you to recognize them in real time, making it more challenging for the abuser to distort your reality.
Working Through Shame Through Reparenting and Self-Nurturing
Finally, you may want to work on addressing feelings of shame that may have been internalized through projective identification.
For someone who has been through narcissistic abuse, the concept of "reparenting" can be extremely powerful. It means providing your inner child with the care and support they may have lacked. This could involve positive self-talk, acknowledging your feelings without judgment, and practicing self-forgiveness. You can start by rediscovering and indulging in activities that bring joy and fulfillment. Whether pursuing a hobby, spending time in nature, or immersing yourself in creative expressions, these activities can help you reconnect with your authentic self.
Knowing It Is Happening Is Half of the Battle
Projective identification is an insidious form of narcissistic abuse that could have left a deep wound on your psyche. But here's the hopeful part: By just recognizing that it's happening, you have begun your healing journey.
As you reflect on your feelings, validate your experiences, and give yourself the care you might have missed, you're building a path toward a better, brighter future. You're not stuck with the hurtful labels others put on you. Instead, you become the robust creator of your story, filled with strength, confidence, and the promise of a more fulfilling and peaceful life.
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Silverman, R. C., & Lieberman, A. F. (1999). Negative maternal attributions, projective identification, and the intergenerational transmission of violent relational patterns. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 9(2), 161–186.
Waska, R. (2004). Projective Identification in the Clinical Setting: A Kleinian Interpretation. Routledge.