Life with a narcissist is a lot like living in a house of mirrors. Unreal reflections and projections meet you at every turn. At first you may feel dazzled, seduced by what the narcissist is showing you about yourself and him/her. But before long you feel trapped in a maze of grotesque distortions, with no apparent exit.
Mirroring, or reflecting back what others say and do, is a common behavior that many of us engage in, often unconsciously, to create rapport and show feelings of connectedness with others. We may, for example, adopt another person’s (or animal’s) energy level, facial expressions, body language, and tone to show understanding and empathy.
People with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), on the other hand, take mirroring to extremes. Because early childhood circumstances prevent them from establishing a core sense of identity and self-worth, narcissists forever look to external sources for definition and esteem. When they find a prospective or new partner, they study that person and attempt to reflect back their personality, style, interests, and values. If you like going to the gym, gardening, chocolatey desserts, and helping at the local animal shelter, so do they! If you have tattoos, suddenly they show up with one too.
Narcissists mirror for three primary reasons:
- They lack a stable identity and are trying on yours.
- They are working to win you over, reflecting back what they think you want to see.
- They are faking intimacy, because they lack the skills and desire for genuine connection.
For those on the receiving end of this kind of attention, it can feel like you’ve met your soul mate—someone who has the same likes and dislikes, the same take on life. Narcissists’ mirroring ends when they realize you are imperfect, as we all are. Because they have a primitive child’s perspective, lacking empathy or the ability to see others on a complex nuanced level, narcissists assign people to either perfect or worthless categories. Their initial idealization of you will inevitably shift to harsh assessment, criticism, and devaluation, which are often followed by outright rejection and discard.
Projection is easily confused with mirroring. But the two things are distinctly different. Mirroring is reflecting an image back. Projecting is casting an image as if onto a blank screen. In psychological terms, projections can be positive or negative, but they are always external representations that may bear little to no relationship with the person they are ascribed to.
Lacking emotional intelligence, avoiding self-awareness, and sidestepping accountability at all costs, narcissists project their own traits, actions, values, fears, fantasies, hates, motives, and distorted self-beliefs onto others. People with NPD habitually idealize and scapegoat, assigning either positive or negative traits to those around them.
Golden Children and Scapegoats
Narcissists with children typically select a golden child, who serves as a projection screen for all they wish to see in themselves. The golden child becomes an above-reproach extension of the narcissist, praised lavishly, shielded from consequences or punishment, and elevated above other family members. Also a projection, the scapegoat is the shadow side of the narcissist, representing his/her underlying feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing. Scapegoats serve as receptacles for everything the narcissist wishes to disown and throw away about him-/herself, and they are routinely burdened with excessive responsibility, arbitrary blame, and punishing rage.
Neither the golden nor the scapegoated child is actually seen for who they are or allowed to freely express their authentic self or individuality. They are mere projections in a funhouse movie that the narcissist scripts, directs, and stars in.
Narcissists project “positively” to
- boost their self-esteem,
- support their grandiose assertions,
- control others through favoritism,
- take credit for others’ strengths and accomplishments, and
- show an idealized face to the world.
Narcissists project “negatively” to
- escape accountability,
- expel self-doubt and self-hatred,
- justify their manipulation and exploitation,
- blame others for their own disappointments and failings, and
- hold others responsible for their own abusive behavior.
Whether the narcissist mirrors you or projects onto you, s/he is attempting to manipulate you and control her/his environment. Depending on the circumstances, s/he may be doing so unconsciously or consciously. But one thing is for certain: It is not and never will be about you.