[NOTE: please read the second and third paragraphs from this post before continuing. Important–don’t skip reading them!]
In this post, I’m not going to be talking about the kind of projection most people usually think about, which involves imagining that other people have one’s own good or bad personality traits. The kind of projection I’ll be discussing, what Melanie Klein called projective identification, is, however, just as commonly practiced between people; in fact, it’s the most primal form of pre-verbal communication and interaction between people, starting with the mother/infant relationship, as Wilfred Bion noted in his theory of container/contained.
Projective identification involves actually pushing out those personality traits, emotions, etc., and imposing them on other people, actually manipulating others into manifesting the behaviour associated with one’s own personality traits, emotions, etc. Emotional abusers, those who practice gaslighting, use projective identification to an especially great extent.
My late mother was never formally diagnosed with NPD, but as I’ve discussed in many blog posts, I have every reason to believe she had pathological levels of narcissistic traits, even to the point of malignant narcissism. As many narcissists do, she cleverly hid her disorder behind a mask of altruism, all the while bad-mouthing and triangulating anybody she either disliked, envied, or felt in some sense threatened by.
One way she kept her pathologies hidden and unknown to the world, even to us in the family, was by projecting her faults onto other people, in the Kleinian form I described above. She projected her narcissistic self-absorption onto me, calling it “autism,” from the old definition it had a century ago (i.e., Bleuler‘s notions of excessive social withdrawal, admiration of oneself, etc.). Since I was an impressionable child at the time, I naïvely and uncritically accepted the label, and found myself acting accordingly. My acceptance of it was a case of introjective identification.
This is what narcissists and emotional abusers do: as self-psychology originator Heinz Kohut pointed out in his book, The Analysis of the Self (pages 176-177 and footnote of page 185), narcissists vertically split off and disavow everything they hate about themselves (along with horizontal splitting, through repression), everything about them that reminds them of how flawed they are, and they find a suitable victim to project those faults onto. They use gaslighting and denial to trick the victim into believing he or she has the victimizers’ faults, and the victim so thoroughly believes he is the flawed one that he displays and manifests those very faults; thus, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
My mother and her flying monkeys, my elder siblings, all projected their faults onto me from when I was too young to suspect their true motives. Their projections–in the form of my mother’s gaslighting and lies about me being “autistic,” and in my siblings’ almost daily insults, verbal abuse, bullying, and making fun of me–instilled in my pre-teen/adolescent mind that I was so flawed, I behaved in the very awkward, inappropriate ways associated with such flaws, thus ‘confirming’ their judgements of me.
But my awkwardness was based on false beliefs about myself, not on reality.
I’ll give a few examples of my family’s projections. My eldest brother, R., back when I was a teen and he was in his early/mid 20s, would sometimes hear me talking too loudly (a natural thing overexcited teens will do); and instead of just telling me to lower my voice–a reaction that a young man of his age should have been mature enough to give–he felt it was necessary on such occasions to say, “Can you be an ass quietly?” It never occurred to the egotist that he was the one being an ass.
On other occasions back then, he would call me a “wimp.” Recall how I explained in other posts–his young-adult meanness towards me was really based on his anger towards our dad (from back when he was a teen), on whom he was too much of a coward to release that anger. Any young adult jerk can take out his anger on a pre-teen/adolescent, designated as the family’s emotional punching bag. R. was projecting his own weakness onto me (in fact, when he as a teen was having his problems with Dad, he was so weak about it that he dropped out of school and ran away from home; whereas when I was a teen and being emotionally abused by up to five people, I was strong, stuck it out, and stayed home until finishing university, then I left home as a young adult); and he was gaslighting me into thinking I, a kid at the time, was the weakling.
My older sister, J., the family’s number one golden child (my two older brothers, R. and F., being somewhere in between golden and lost/invisible children), was fond of pointing out how “rude” I often am (which, to be fair to her, I must confess has more than some truth to it), though she had no qualms about being rude to me if she wanted to (the same goes for my mother, who also liked to complain about my rudeness). J. would, for example, be talking to me, and if I interrupted–which, granted, I shouldn’t have done–she’d snap “I’m talking!” at the top of her lungs. On another occasion, when I was 14 and too preoccupied with a high school bully to remember to thank her (about 19-20 years old at the time) for a ride to school, she–feeling narcissistic rage at the time, no doubt–screamed at me for being “ungrateful.” Wow, J., what graciousness you have.
Then, recall how in this post she barked at me to remember to say goodbye to our grandfather at our grandmother’s funeral about thirty years ago. She then rationalized her bitchiness by lecturing to me about how “rude” it is not to say goodbye to the funeral guests (my crime was daydreaming when all the goodbyes were being said: dissociation is a common C-PTSD trait, an escape from the pain). When I angrily tried to stick up for myself, she shouted four-letter words at me to silence me. What graciousness, J.! Again, she was projecting her personality problems onto me; and our mother’s biased defence of her attitude was just more gaslighting.
I’ve also mentioned elsewhere how my older brother F. used to harangue me about ‘not caring about anyone but myself,’ when it was his bullying of me, as well as that of R. and J., and Mom’s gaslighting of me with the autism lie (not to mention all the bullying I’d suffered at school as a kid), that had alienated me from society so much that it should have been no surprise at all that I grew so aloof from others and their needs. F.’s brute stupidity blinded him from the obvious consequences of his and others’ actions.
What’s more, I knew of several occasions when J. and Mom complained of him and his wife being ‘cheap,’ or in some other sense detached from the family (one example involved his family habitually arriving late at family get-togethers). Now, to be fair to F., this complaining was probably motivated, to at least a large extent, by J.’s and Mom’s narcissistic judging and competing to be the family member ‘most worthy of love and respect’; but given what I know of how mean F. is capable of being (if only to me), it’s far from impossible to believe that J.’s and Mom’s gripes had at least some substance. And if that’s true, surely to a fair extent, then his complaining of my ‘uncaring’ nature is partially projection, too.
All of them taking their little bites out of me over the years allowed them to shed hateful parts of themselves, or at least fool themselves into thinking they’d done so. This shedding, this projective identification, was a major factor helping them to build self-confidence (even if based on a narcissistic false self), raise families, and function in society in ways that it’s been much harder for me to do.
Research on the long-term deleterious psychological effects of bullying on its victims (developing social anxiety, depression, substance abuse, suicide ideation, etc.) shows that it is a serious problem in our society that must be addressed. Bullies and emotional abusers are stealing victims’ happiness, their self-esteem, and their very ability to live.
So, what can we do to repair ourselves? If you can’t afford a therapist, you could consider free online therapy. I recommend such forms of self-care as ASMR, EMDR therapy, meditation, self-compassion, and repeating lots and lots of affirmations to offset all the vicious lies your abusers made you believe about yourself.
Yes, lies. That’s what projective identification and gaslighting are all about. Everything nasty they said, or are saying, about you was and is only a reflection of themselves, not of you. They were and are telling you about their faults; when they say these faults are yours, they’re lying.
Now, there’s also no doubt that the abusers really believe the lies they tell you. This doesn’t mean they’re merely mistaken in their judgements: it means they’re lying to themselves as well as to you. Their false belief doesn’t mean they’re lying less (i.e., that they’re being delusional); it means they’re lying more, for recall that narcissists have a false self they want to present to the world.
My family fancied themselves as all confident, polite, considerate, and thoughtful of others. They loved to flatter themselves in this regard, in their private thoughts, if not always openly in public. (J., for example, once bragged to me of being a follower of “the religion of human relationships,” during the very same years she alienated me from her with an endless stream of condescending, snarky, know-it-all remarks.) In reality, my siblings were in an exclusive social club, jealously competing for our late mother’s love and approval while believing, uncritically, all of her denigrating comments about our cousins, our father, and–of course–me.
So what you must do, Dear Reader, is aggressively work to counteract all the brainwashing your abusers subjected you to. Take the time every day to remember every compliment you’ve heard other people give you, remind yourself of good, loving moments in your life (dig deep into your brain and search for those long-forgotten moments…find them!), and make lists of everything you’re good at. This, over time, can gradually boost your self-esteem.
Those good moments, those good words–for far too long trivialized and invalidated in your mind by your inner critic–must be revived. They not only have every right to all the attention that you’ve unfortunately given your negative thoughts and memories, all those mean things your abusers said and did to you…they have so much more of a right to that attention. The mean words you heard were lies, projections; if you believed all that nonsense, why not give it a try to believe the good words, regardless of whether you think they were valid, or if you think they seemed not to be?
We need to reprogram our brains to stop just uncritically accepting every negative opinion we hear (each one just a projection), getting emotionally invested in it, believing it, and using confirmation bias to find ‘proof’ of it in our everyday problems and mistakes, thus reinforcing the negativity. Instead we must take those nasty comments and say to ourselves, “That’s just his or her opinion. I don’t have to believe it.” Don’t be emotionally invested in it.
Instead (and this will be difficult, given all the abuse we’ve endured over the years), we must magnify the positive words we hear from others (embrace those good projections!), get emotionally invested in them (feel good about them!) so we can believe they’re true, then find proof in our daily successes of the truth of those compliments. We must do this healing work every day without fail, over and over again, so that eventually we can turn things around and finally start to like ourselves.
If thinking straight ‘happy thoughts’ seems too unrealistic to you at the moment (yes, abuse does weigh us down that much!), you can start with Kati Morton‘s “bridge statements,” which start with small but realistic compliments and slowly work your way up. You can combine that with starting your day with several diaphragmatic breaths and at least 10-15 minutes of meditating, among other suggestions I shared in this blog post. Remember that this is a long process that will achieve results only gradually. Breaking free from the past isn’t at all easy; but it isn’t impossible, either.
Whatever you do, don’t believe your abusers’ lies and projections. Those people are sellers of falsehoods. To put it crudely and bluntly, your abusers are full of shit; and if they’re full of shit about you, then you must be so much better of a person than they say you are.