empathic projection

Are You Using Empathic Projection to Rescue the Narcissist?

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You’ve probably heard of narcissistic projection. It happens when narcissists transfer their own problems, toxic emotions, and wrongdoings onto you. For example, they accuse you of flirting with a coworker when they are, in fact, having an affair. Or, they criticize you for being lazy and not doing the dishes, even though you spent all afternoon cleaning the house. 

Narcissistic projection is undeniably painful (and frustrating), but it isn’t the only dysfunctional pattern in narcissistic relationships. Many partners unknowingly project feelings of empathy, love, patience, and compassion onto the narcissist- even when none of that exists.

Empathic projection comes from a profound place of good intentions, but it ultimately creates a destructive dynamic. Here’s how it all works.

Signs and Symptoms of Empathic Projection 

If you identify as an empath, you probably know what it’s like to feel overwhelmed by your level of empathy. You feel your emotions intensely and profoundly. You take on other people’s feelings, even when you wish you didn’t.  

But it isn’t just empaths who engage in empathic projection. Almost anybody who closely aligns with a narcissist, whether it’s a partner, child, or friend, often uses empathic projection to justify their relationship and cope with the abuse. 

Here are some common signs and symptoms.

1 – You Believe You Must Rescue or Save the Narcissist 

You care about the narcissist, and you see the good in them that nobody else sees. In addition, you also believe that they can reform themselves. After all, people can change, right?

And so, you excuse their awful behavior and assume that it’s your righteous duty to help them come around. It’s your job to save them from their own agony. It’s your responsibility to show them the love you believe they deserve.

This is a classic case of empathic projection. First, you assume that the narcissist wants to fix themselves (which generally isn’t true). You also assume that you’re the right person for this seemingly impossible task. 

2 – You Rationalize Their Behavior

They had a horrific childhood!

Their mother/father is a narcissist.

Their ex treated them terribly.

They struggle with addiction! 

Do the above excuses sound familiar? While there may be a grain of truth behind them, adamantly defending toxic behavior only perpetuates the problem. Even if the narcissist had a traumatic childhood or suffered significant abuse, that doesn’t make their current behavior acceptable.

Justifying it only keeps it alive. As long as you engage in this pattern, you continue reinforcing the narcissist to keep treating you poorly. 

3 – You Keep Future Tripping 

So, things are bad now. You can admit that. 

But you hold onto hope that a beautiful future lies ahead. Once they quit drinking or manage their anger or decide they’re ready for marriage, things will be magically better. Right?

If these fantasies sound delusional, it’s because they mostly are. Narcissists love to promise you anything you want when they feel threatened. They know your weaknesses, and they will exploit them to try to keep you committed.

So, when all the chips are down, you can expect them to suddenly “come around” with the beautiful engagement ring or promise to enter therapy. Don’t be fooled. They aren’t genuinely interested in changing or making you happy- they’re only interested in ensuring that you stick around. Once they feel secure in that, they’ll pull the rug right from under you again. 

4 – You Believe They’ve Stopped Being a Narcissist 

After a phase of intense and euphoric love bombing, you might feel heartbroken if the narcissist ends the relationship. They were your soul mate! You two were supposed to live happily ever after!

And now, you can’t help but seethe with envy and rage towards their new partner. Part of you may even believe that this person gets the “better, healthier” version of the narcissist.

Don’t fall for this fallacy. A narcissist will try hard to gaslight you into believing that they only act this way because of you. Then, they will do everything in their power to convince you that you’re responsible for their terrible treatment. 

But narcissism is a fixed personality disorder. So even if the narcissist can conceal some of their awful behavior when they first meet someone, it’s only a matter of time until their authentic self emerges. The truth about narcissists is – they create and install traumas inside you so that they live on inside of you, even when the relationship is over. 

Getting closure from the narcissist is not possible. You cannot negotiate with them. You cannot make them atone for their wrongs.  These are things that never happen with narcissists, even with the passage of time.

5 – You Keep Falling For Their Lies (And Disregarding Their Actions)

Narcissists talk such a good talk. They know how to tell you exactly what you want to hear. And if it isn’t what you want to hear, they know how to manipulate any situation to make it feel like it’s entirely your fault. 

If you’re involved with a narcissist, you need to stop listening to what they say. All that really matters are their actions. Their actions reveal the truth and tell you everything you need to know about how they care about you. 

At first, this task may seem impossible. If you struggle with empathic projection, you will naturally excuse their actions because you’re so focused on empty promises, fake apologies, or grandiose declarations of love. And if you call them out on inappropriate behavior, the narcissist will respond with either more sweet talk or complete narcissistic rage- there is very little in-between.

Regardless of their response, make no mistake about it. The narcissist is counting on you to stay under their captivating spell. And they will tell you whatever you want to hear to keep you close.   Even if they eventually discard you, the narcissist isn’t interested in giving you peace or leaving you alone without keeping you traumatized.  This is why they generally hoover you once they believe you might be ready to finally start moving on without them.

6 – You Get Angry When Others Call Them Out

Maybe you’ve identified that the narcissist hurts you or acts inappropriately, but you become unraveled when someone else acknowledges that. Why? Because it feels personal! It feels like the other person is demeaning you for your choices.

Additionally, empaths tend to be protective of their narcissistic partners. Again, this often comes down to rationalizing narcissistic behavior or assuming that their motives are inherently good. Therefore, you feel frustrated when others won’t give the narcissist that same patience or compassion.

So, if you feel like you must protect the narcissist at all costs, ask yourself this:

  • Am I afraid that the narcissist will hurt me if I don’t?
  • Do I subconsciously want to believe I’m imagining the narcissist’s toxic behavior?
  • Am I afraid of how people will judge me if they really understood the narcissist?

If you answer yes to these questions, you’re enabling the narcissist. Unfortunately, you’re also dismissing your own reality and likely alienating yourself from others! Keep in mind that this is exactly what the narcissist wants. 

How to Stop Using Empathic Projection

If you recognize that you use empathic projection, congrats! The first step is awareness, and you are certainly not alone in your experiences. 

Victims of emotional abuse often rely on empathic projection to cope with their horrific circumstances. The projection, in a way, keeps you feeling safe and grounded, even when life feels utterly chaotic.

And yet, the more you engage in this pattern, the more it will persist. Narcissists don’t stop hurting people once they get what they want. If anything, they often double down on their efforts to ensure they can maintain their narcissistic supply.

If you struggle with empathic projection, here are some steps you can take to change your behavior.

Recognize and Label It When It Happens

Did you defend the narcissist again? Did you overlook abusive behavior or say to yourself, that’s just how they are? 

It happens! Changing your mindset will take time and effort, but growth requires holding yourself accountable. That means you must identify and label instances of empathic projection as you notice them. Doing so will help you recognize trends and triggers.

Over time, you can start anticipating when you might use empathic projection. But instead of acting automatically, you will have the insight (and choice!) to respond differently.  

Avoid Blaming Yourself

It’s easy to fall into a self-defeating trap when you decide to change problematic behavior. Be careful of staying in this trap for too long. The narcissist wants you to feel guilty, insecure, and vulnerable. They love when you beat on yourself- it takes all the pressure off them.

Instead, it’s important to remind yourself that you are a loving, compassionate person with an abundance of empathy. You reacted in ways that tried to ensure your survival. 

You wanted to give someone the benefit of the doubt, and that makes you a good person! Furthermore, most people in your situation would react in similar ways. So, try to let go of blaming yourself. You can and will grow from this experience. 

Commit to Breaking Free

The only effective, guaranteed way to end all empathic projection is to disengage from the relationship entirely. This step may seem dramatic, but it’s necessary for your healing. 

By now, you probably realize that narcissistic relationships make it impossible to enjoy a genuine connection. After all, you’re too busy feeling angry, second-guessing yourself, and trying to make the narcissist happy.

It is no way to live your life, and it’s certainly no way to coexist with someone else!

If you know you need to purge the horrific addiction and devastating emotional and spiritual contamination from a narcissist, then please consider The Break Free Program.  Healing is a process that can open up some truly transformative revelations and opportunities when we give ourselves the chance to recover and thrive. 

Please know that as crippling as it feels to finally break free from abuse, there is an end to it.  The body and mind know how to heal themselves when we create the conditions for them to do so.  Students of The Break Free Program write in to tell me all the time how their lives have been changed incredibly by following the steps laid out for them.  I am always humbled and grateful when I hear success stories from those who thought their lives were over.  

This can be possible for you, too.  And it’s my deepest wish that you begin healing and living the life you deserve.  


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2 comments
Karen says August 1, 2022

Why help them! It took me years to see through this spoilt brat behavior so I thought but I know I did see it ,the ungratefulness but “refused to see it” . I thought this person would change take from me and my daughter about healing and love we so wanted this person to heal from bad behavior . I was so confused was it me to pushy, no. We had limited contact from the start. The narc pushed us away in fact not only us but her whole family everyone except her so called best mate. When the best mate didn’t provide her demanding attention horrid things where said about even her.

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Linda says July 13, 2022

Kim, I’m so glad you wrote about this. I became aware that I was doing this once I reconciled myself to the truth of how uncaring people can be. I found it hard to believe that others weren’t interested in growing up, in being nice people, in honestly evaluating themselves. I still find it hard to understand. But I realized it was a kind of reverse narcissism to think others would want to be or should be like me. Even if all my intentions are faultless, to think that others would want the same heart’s desires as I have is not only narcissistic, it’s stupid. How can I get to know someone if I’m always trying to see myself in them? Everyone is unique and deserving of being known for who they really are. The sad thing is that we can never really know the narcissist because he is always hiding behind his false self. The only thing we can do is ascribe to them all the fictitious stories they tell about their past successes. But we have to listen carefully to see the truth. All those people who they helped were ultimately ungrateful. All the horses he broke, fought like hell and were pricks. All his exes were crazy. He can’t find anything good to say about anyone. He isn’t interested in my story, nor is he interested in my success. It’s always sad for me when I realize that I will never get an apology or be treated better. Then I have to let go of any desire for a reciprocal relationship and just treat them as I would anyone else with whom I have no relationship. Ships that pass in the night. That’s all they can ever be.

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