Narcissists often lack a conscience so climbing in the ring with one is like bringing a knife to a gun fight. Wielding cruelty and abuse like it is their right, the narcissist easily wounds a person with a conscience who often feels guilty for firing back. The guilt perpetuates feelings of responsibility and self-doubt, frequently causing the person with a conscience to surrender. So how does a person create a fair fight? The most effective way is to fully understand the narcissist’s most lethal weapon, projective identification, and to disarm it.
It’s truly amazing how unfair, underhanded and malicious a narcissist is, but rarely do they feel true remorse for their deeds. Readily deflecting, distorting, and projecting, they alter their perception of reality, freeing themselves from accountability while simultaneously projecting blame onto another. Their line of unconscious defense mechanisms operate like a force field around their ego, excusing them from deep and sincere feelings of remorse, insight, introspection, and accountability. Thus, they feel like they are never wrong.
Occasionally, when their back is against the wall, the narcissist may act as though they feel sincere remorse, but it is a trick to regain the trust of the person they want to continue to manipulate. Also, operating from a victim stance assists him or her in controlling others due to the guilt they inflict.
The most powerful defense mechanism in the narcissist’s arsenal is projective identification. It is what creates the toxic chemistry that psychologically chains an empath to a narcissist. Projection is a psychoanalytic term used to describe the process of unconsciously expelling one’s own intolerable qualities and attributing them to someone else. For example, an individual who routinely acts rude may call someone else rude. This person does not see the quality in himself or herself but perceives it in others. Narcissists utilize this defense mechanism routinely. In couples counseling, for example, I often hear the narcissist in the relationship “diagnose” their partner as the narcissist.
Identification is the second component of projective identification. This is the empath’s role. An empath’s access to the deeper emotions such as insight, introspection, deep remorse, accountability, and empathy, automatically qualifies them as less rigidly defended. Most of the deeper capabilities cause the ego to experience a tinge of pain, so a person who has access to the deeper emotions has a stronger ego. It requires fewer defensive structures be activated. As a result of this “open heart,” the empath unknowingly absorbs the projections from the narcissist and unconsciously identifies them as their own. As the narcissist projects his or her shameful qualities onto the empath, the empath instantly feels, shame, insignificance and incompetence.
These feelings cause a tremendous amount of self-doubt in the empath. Suddenly, he or she is vulnerable to believing the distortions communicated by the narcissist. Eventually, they are convinced they are the root of the problems in the relationship, so they begin to cater and appease, giving the narcissist control. The narcissist takes advantage of their power and intensifies their tactics to isolate and cause conflict with the empath’s friends, family, and work relationships. The empath’s sense of self slowly erodes, and their support system wanes, so they begin to feel dependent on the narcissist, ensnared in the lethal cycle of projective identification.
Breaking the chain of projective identification requires the empath become consciously aware of this unconscious dynamic. Once the insidious psychological mechanism is illuminated, the empath’s knowledge protects them from believing the narsciisst’s distortions about who they are. After recovering elements of their sense of self that were lost, an empath regains the strength to strive for space and independence from the narcissist. Once the empath has succeeded in creating distance in the relationship and operates on a friendly but distant basis, he or she is safe from the narcissist’s projections.