Guilt and Projective Identification: Bait for Narcissists

projective identification

by Jennifer Newton Martin, LPC

Schemata and Self-Sacrifice Schema

I do a lot of work with my clients around a particular Early Maladaptive Schema known as Self-Sacrifice Schema. Schemas are the way that we organize information and understand the way things work around us. As we grow and take in information we are continually piecing together schemata, or mental representations of plans or theories in the form of outlines or models. This is a normal, and typically helpful, way of making sense of the world around us. Early Maladaptive Schemas (EMS’s), used in Schema Therapy, are schemas that are thought to be developed early in life and that are maladaptive in the sense that where they did make sense of our early childhood experiences and environment, they often no longer represent our current environment accurately. Unfortunately for many of us, because we continue to operate out of these outdated models, and our current interpretations of “reality” are often skewed by one or more Early Maladaptive Schemas, we often continue to re-experience harmful events and feelings that are similar to those we experienced in our pasts.

“Because we continue to operate out of these outdated models, and our current interpretations of “reality” are often skewed by one or more Early Maladaptive Schemas, we often continue to re-experience harmful events and feelings that are similar to those we experienced in our pasts.”

Devaluing Our Needs Invites Others to Do the Same

Individuals who score high in the EMS of Self-Sacrifice are what I like to call the Caregivers of society. Much of the energy of these individuals is focused on managing or caring for the people in their lives. Many times I find that at the core of these caregiving behaviors is a desperate need to control their environment and produce safety for themselves. Often individuals with a strong Self-Sacrifice schema grew up in homes and environments where, in order to cope, they had to grow up early and become the “strong” ones of their families. This can develop in a number of ways depending on the situation, but the result is always the same: an overly responsible, overly independent, overly strong, and un-needy individual, who feels that to be needy would be the most shame and guilt provoking characteristic they could imagine. The message they received and internalized throughout their childhood was, “be strong and you will be liked”. Unfortunately, as adults when we seek intimacy and long to be known and understood by others, but simultaneously feel ashamed of our feelings and needs, we often find ourselves in a state of utter confusion and dissatisfaction relationally. We often have a deep desire to have a safe environment and healthy relationships, and yet we believe deep down that to express those things would inherently mean we are unlikable and shameful. Thus, we continue avoiding those things and simultaneously lose the opportunity to bring about the kind of life we long for, failing to experience intimacy and vulnerability. An unfortunate result of portraying our independence and un-neediness to others is that we often find ourselves surrounded by narcissistic or self-absorbed individuals who are quite happy to have us in their lives since we don’t often require them to “deal” with our feelings or meet our needs. We don’t share our vulnerable feelings or ask for our needs to be met and so self-absorbed individuals are happy with the arrangement.

Guilt Becomes Bait for Self-Absorbed Others

Another very unfortunate outcome of being driven by Self-Sacrifice schema to avoid our own vulnerable feelings and needs is that our strong feelings of guilt often become the very thing that others use to manipulate or control us. The shame provoked in us by persistent internalized parental messages that we are being selfish for needing, keeps us feeling that our needs indicate that we are selfish. Because we believe this deep down, even though we long to have our needs met and are often resentful because they are not, we fail to identify and ask for what we need from others, robbing everyone around us of the chance to really know us and step into meeting our needs. In reality, sharing our most intimate needs with those close to us, and allowing others to know us in that way, is the very gateway to having healthy, satisfying relationships. In order to experience being seen and known by others, we have to first challenge the Self-Sacrifice schema and understand that the guilt we feel for being honest about our true needs is a lie that comes from the schema. We have to do the hard work of talking back to shaming internalized parental voices and fully accepting and embracing the beautiful vulnerability of being human beings who long for connection and intimacy. Until we

“We have to do the hard work of talking back to shaming internalized voices and fully accepting and embracing the beautiful vulnerability of being human beings who long for connection and intimacy.”

do this, the guilt button we have will be pressed continuously by those who seek to get something from us. When self-absorbed individuals in our life attempt to manipulate us, all they have to do is project their unwanted trait of selfishness onto us. At the mere suggestion that we might be selfish, we recoil and relent to their requests because the shame of selfishness is too painful to bear. This projective identification becomes the very bait that often lands individuals in a series of relationships with self-absorbed or manipulative friends and significant others. These individuals often come into therapy with the question, “why do I keep ending up in the same type of relationships over and over again?” As long as we identify with what people project onto us, the power is all theirs to use us as they wish. Until we disable the guilt button we have, others will continue to push it. It is not uncommon to hear people say that others “made” them do something, however, the only person in control of how we respond to the attempted manipulation of others is ourselves. Until we deal with the shame and guilt that we feel for being needy, and until we can value and validate our own feelings and needs, then we will continue to have them go unacknowledged and unmet.

Healing Self-Sacrifice Schema and Guilt

If you identify with Self-Sacrifice schema and find yourself deferring to the wishes of others rather than identifying and advocating for your own needs and desires, you are not alone! This schema is one of the most frequent ones that I work with in therapy with clients. There is a way out of the cycle of unmet needs and desires and there is a pathway towards healthy connection and intimacy, but it starts with you.

  1. Don’t Identify with Projections. Projections from self-absorbed others don’t work unless you identify with them. Until your truth becomes valued above the truth of others, and your version of yourself is stronger than the version that others present to you, you will identify with their suggestions and projections and you will give into being used and manipulated. If you struggle, like many do, to hold on to the truth of who you are and feel that you need an objective third party to help you sort this out, then counseling might be the perfect place to do some of this work.
  2. Learn to Identify and Embrace Your Feelings and Needs. The first step towards healing Self-Sacrifice Schema is learning that it is okay and healthy to feel your own feelings, have your own needs, and to bring those into trusting relationships. Identifying your needs and learning to communicate them effectively is your work!
  3. Learn How to Find Healthy and Trustworthy Individuals. The second step to healing Self-Sacrifice schema is learning how to locate and identify healthy and trustworthy individuals to practice vulnerability with. The last thing that you want to do, as a Self-Sacrificer, is attempt to share your vulnerable feelings with someone who is going to shame you for your feelings and reaffirm to you that you really should feel guilty about having them. This would be the number one way to revert right back to feeling ashamed of your needs and desires.
  4. Disable Your Guilt Button. Thirdly, you have to do the tough work of disabling your own guilt button. As long as you have a guilt button and it works people will use it to their advantage. You can’t control that you may feel guilty for saying “no”, setting a boundary, or ending a relationship that doesn’t meet your needs, but you can hash out those feelings with a trusted friend or counselor. There is no need to reveal that guilt to someone attempting to use it for their own gain. They need to get the message that attempting to guilt you will not get them what they want!
  5. Let Your Adult Mind Override Your Feelings. At the end of the day, hang on to hope! Where it is true that we may feel the effects of Early Maladaptive Schemas throughout our life, we can learn to use our adult mind to recognize and challenge old messages, and we can change our behavior and choices to line up with the new things we learn about what is true about ourselves and being human. We can learn to identify and find healthy others and we can practice new ways of being in relationship with others.
  6. Help Others Be Accountable. By doing our own work around Self-Sacrifice schema, we can not only find healthy other people to have satisfying relationships with, but our new boundaries, assertiveness, and consequences for manipulative behavior from others, may just counteract the impact of a narcissistic individual or two along the way. By doing our own work and being vulnerable about our own feelings and needs in the kindest way possible, and asserting our needs or enforcing consequences, we are also inviting others to step into growing themselves by requiring that they do so in order to keep the connection that they have with us. In this way, we are not only being responsible for our own growth and modeling accountability, but we are also being socially responsible and requiring the same of others.

For more reading on how avoiding painful feelings can keep you from the healing you desire, see Narcissism, Caregiving, and Trauma: Facing Uncomfortable Feelings Results in Healing or Running From Guilt and Shame Means Running Towards Narcissism and Caregiving.

Published by thinkagainjenn

Jennifer Newton Martin is a Licensed Professional Counselor and writer in Libertyville, Illinois.

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