Narcissists can become quite creative in the ways they seek an edge over you. Here are 11 tactics they use for narcissist manipulation.
Let’s begin with a reminder that narcissists are defined by the strong need for control, feelings of specialness and entitlement, low empathy, and a need to remain superior. They are deeply insecure people who habitually build themselves up at the expense of others, and they can become quite creative in the ways they seek an edge over you.
Manipulative narcissists have been playing their games for so long, they can hardly stop themselves. With little forethought, they dive right into their tactics, and the goal is obvious. They want to keep you emotionally unstable and imbalanced. Instead of seeing you as someone to connect with at the heart level, they approach you as an opponent in a game. And once they gain an upper hand, they are satisfied. They live with a strong agenda regarding the ways you are supposed to manage life, and when you fail to comply with that agenda or when you push against it, that’s when the manipulation games begin.
As manipulative narcissists repeat their games, you can become so weary of their nonsense that you respond with erratic and unhealthy emotions. This is fuel for their fire, and it delights them to no end. Each time you respond to a narcissist with open agitation, defensiveness, attempts to plead your case, and other adversarial behaviors, you lose. Your off-balanced reaction to them becomes their narcissistic supply. It gives them energy to keep coming at you with more control efforts.
Keep in mind…narcissists are injured. And just as a wounded animal strikes those who draw too near, so will a narcissist seek to harm you.
So your task is to become keenly aware of their manipulation games. Each time they attempt to harm you, try to remember that their behavior is a commentary about their inner wounds. You are a nuisance to them as they attempt to soothe their pain in very backward, destructive ways, but you are not obliged to correct the narcissist’s interpretations of you. Despite your efforts to reason, they will continue as they are.
As you see into their inappropriate ways, and as you choose not to respond with defensiveness and tension, you will be positioned to stay steady even as the narcissist tries to bait you into unsteadiness.
So let’s examine some of the most common manipulations you are likely to encounter as you engage with narcissists.
Narcissist Manipulation 1: The Dehumanizing Game
In healthy relationships, participants will cooperate with each other in direct proportion to their levels of empathy for one another. As you set aside your fixed agendas and prioritize knowing each other well, good things happen. You come to appreciate collegiality, diversity, and inclusion.
Narcissists, with their need to dominate, are not healthy and they make little or no attempts to understand your uniqueness or to appreciate your back-story. If you differ, you will be deemed as lowly and unworthy. Instead of showing empathy, they will demean. They will sneer and glare. They will call you names, attack your character, mock your preferences, remind you of your ignorance, and taunt your requests for decency. The narcissistic message is clear: “You are not my equal; in this moment you are sub-human.”
Narcissist Manipulation 2: The Blame-shifting Game
As people engage with each other, problems are inevitable. Mistakes and miscalculations happen. Schedules are disrupted. People forget details or they become distracted. Unexpected problems suddenly appear. Plans go awry.
Healthy people make room for life’s imperfections and seek coordination.
In the event of relationship breakdowns, narcissists do not seek coordination. Instead, they blame. They accuse. And when others point out problems, they sidestep personal responsibility. They make lame excuses. They absolutely cannot say, “I miscalculated.” That would require an admission of vulnerability, something they fear greatly.
Narcissist Manipulation 3: The Boomerang Game
As flaws and differences emerge in relationships, it is reasonable to discuss needs or disappointments with one another. Episodes of confrontation will happen. In the best case, one person explains feelings, needs, and preferences while the other listens with respect. Then, if necessary, the process is reversed as the other person’s perceptions are expressed. It doesn’t have to be complicated.
When narcissists are confronted, their defenses are so keen that they are unable to simply receive the other’s words at face value. They cannot say, “Okay, I hear you, is there anything else you’d like me to know?” Instead they instinctively reverse the flow of communication with an accusing comment. They may say something like: “Me? What about you?” Or, “You think you know everything, but what about all those times you screwed up?” In the attempt to create emotional imbalance within you, they will cleverly change the topic by throwing negative attention back toward you.
Narcissist Manipulation 4: The Scapegoating Game
As part of their strong defensiveness, narcissists take the game of blame-shifting further by singling out a specific person or group to carry shame and guilt for relationship breakdowns. They will smear the “problem person” with insults and character assassination. They will openly attack, accuse, and misrepresent the identified problem-maker. They will shun, exclude, speak critically behind that person’s back, remove privileges, withdraw approval, and do all possible to perpetuate an outsider’s identity.
What is more, narcissists will pressure others to similarly shun and demean the “problem person.” Showing no mercy, they will generate group-think as they encourage others to join the effort to disavow the scapegoat. Narcissists, being power hungry, build up their fragile egos by asserting that when problems arise, it’s “that person over there” who deserves the blame.
Narcissist Manipulation 5: The Gaslighting Game
In the effort to maintain a superior edge, narcissists want you to feel or appear confused and misinformed. They will repeatedly attempt to distort your understanding of reality. This is called gaslighting. With many repetitions, they will call into question your memory of events, or they will insist you do not have a solid grasp on facts, or maybe they will make up stories to completely contradict what you know to be true.
As a simple illustration, if you call a narcissist’s decision into question, you may hear: “That’s not at all what I said.” Then the narcissist may double down by insisting: “In fact, you were the one who set the problem into motion.” They are known for telling half-truths if that allows them to establish a better narrative, and they will publicly speak about your inability to report events accurately, often with sarcastic humor. They can ascribe false motives to you with comments like: “I couldn’t believe how rude you were when you spoke to that person.” And when you express dismay, they may add: “All I know is what I saw and what I heard others say about how poorly you handled the situation.”
Creating doubt and insecurity within you allows them to bask in their enlightened status as compared to your “obvious” inability to interpret reality.
Narcissist Manipulation 6: The Absurd Conclusions Game
When you are in conflict with narcissists or even if you just mildly disagree, you cannot expect a rational discussion about those differences. Remember, narcissists are highly competitive, so they need to have an upper hand over you. A favorite tactic they may use is to draw exaggerated conclusions about the improperness of your thoughts and emotions.
For instance, if you express a wish for a different outcome in a joint effort, narcissists may roll their eyes and say: “You think you are SO perfect!” Or perhaps they will feign hurt and say: “Go ahead, tell me again how awful I am!” By attaching absurd interpretations to your perceptions, they can cause you to back down with a defensive response. Once you show a willingness to argue the merits of your perceptions, they have won the game since you are now debating, arguing, and speaking with disdain.
Narcissist Manipulation 7: The Projection Game
Part of a deepening, healthy relationship is knowing each other’s flaws, mistakes, and imperfections. Vulnerable sharing can lead to relationship intimacy, honesty, and mutual encouragement. This sets the stage for empathy and trust to develop.
Narcissists, though, have a deep fear of personal vulnerability. It is virtually impossible for a narcissist to say “I need help” or “I’m not at my best right now.” They cannot bear to be known as flawed because that might lead to a loss of power. In the effort, then, to maintain superiority over you, they will repeatedly focus on your problems, but very commonly, the problem they see in you is actually the problem they carry within themselves.
As an example, a highly deceptive narcissist might say: “You are such a liar.” Or an evasive narcissist might accuse you with words like: “You’re never available when people need you.” Or the angry, pushy narcissist might complain: “You are the most argumentative person I’ve ever met.” And as they minimize their own propensities toward those matters, they brazenly will declare that they would have few problems if you were absent. In their world, they only see what is wrong with you.
Narcissist Manipulation 8: The Word Salad Game
Accountability and open discussion are necessary as relationships attempt to find harmony. However, if narcissists feel their behaviors or decisions will be criticized, they will use a confusion tactic (another form of gaslighting) called word salad. The gist of this game is to speak in a disjointed or garbled fashion so eventually the original topic is lost.
Inside the word salad, narcissists might bring up non-essential details. They may talk about your deficiencies even though they are not germane to the immediate discussion. They can tell a joke to throw you off-focus. Perhaps they will bring up a topic from years prior that will evoke irrelevant discussions. They may change the subject altogether. They may provoke an unrelated argument.
Then later as the discussion is way off course, you may think: “Now what were we originally talking about?” At that point, the narcissist can state: “I have no idea what you’re getting at, but all I know is that you’re impossible to talk with.”
Narcissist Manipulation 9: The Triangulation Game
Narcissists like to keep negative attention off themselves, so one way to accomplish that is to put negative attention onto others, even if it is contrived. A favorite tactic is the use of triangulation, communication with two parties separately for the purpose of stirring up tension between them.
For instance, a narcissist may sidle up next to Robert and say something like: “I’m really at a loss about what to say to Jane. She’s ridiculously negative and has spoken about you in ways I find offensive.” Later the narcissist might go to Jane and confide: “Robert is really upset and has intimated that the two of you are having serious differences. I hope you’re going to be ok.” Topping it off, the narcissist might even secure a non-disclosure agreement from both Robert and Jane that the topic will not be openly discussed since the information is confidential.
As narcissists pit one person against another they feel powerful and in control of each person involved. If the triangulated individuals figure out what is happening, typically the narcissist will speak separately with each, intimating that the other is lying and has a history of misrepresenting the facts.
Narcissist Manipulation 10: The Love Bombing or Idealizing Game
Whether in a romantic, business, family, or social setting, narcissists may try to establish themselves as the nicest person you ever met. They can seem charming, caring, helpful, generous, interested, and invested in you. They might be very attentive, offering special favoritism, being deferential toward your interests. Additionally, they will praise you, brag about you toward others, and remark about your unique qualities.
But…once they succeed in convincing you of their irresistibility, their control tactics emerge. They illustrate a “now you owe me” attitude. They feign hurt when you are not appropriately appreciative. They will guilt you for having separate preferences, plans, or priorities. They keep a scorecard showing how good they are and how you have not returned the favor.
Over time, you will be able to see in retrospect that the narcissist’s kindness and thoughtfulness was superficial, part of a scheming and conniving pattern. The idealization was merely a game for the purpose of owning you.
Narcissist Manipulation 11: The Victim’s Game
Narcissists are truly impressed with themselves. They are convinced their ideas, attitudes, preferences, and decisions are enlightened. What is more, they presume you are supposed to have the same positive impression of them as they do. When problems arise or if you dare to disagree, they can think: “Seriously? You’re not on board with ME? Look at how you’re making my life miserable!”
Because of their inability to empathize, they cannot discuss problems fairly. They cannot say: “Let’s see if we could each adjust and find a reasonable middle ground.” Instead, any discord must by default be credited to you. Not only is the conflict your fault, they conclude you are a saboteur and a trouble-maker.
In the process of playing the victim’s role, they demonize you. You will be criticized, labeled as difficult or deficient, dishonored, shamed, questioned, and ridiculed. As the Victim, they will speak poorly about you toward others. (For instance: “You wouldn’t believe what he/she has done to me.”) Likewise, they will run a smear campaign against you to ensure that others conclude that you are an awful person.
As far as the narcissist is concerned, life with you prompts them to proclaim: “Woe is me, I have been tragically mistreated.” Objectivity is dismissed as they fall back upon irrational emotions.
A common byproduct of living with the manipulative narcissist is a “walking on eggshells” feeling. Narcissists “succeed” when they lure you away from self-confidence and into their world of confusion, shame, and doubt. The more you argue and defend, the more powerful they feel.
Your task, then, is to see the emptiness of their manipulations. Remember, they are insecure people who need to create and maintain a False Persona of superiority. Rather than attempting to correct their attitudes, behaviors, and interpretations, you will need to focus instead on living as a decent person, with or without their endorsement. Also, you will need to know your limitations with them. These people cannot manage relationships well, so cease expecting it to happen. Engage with them minimally (if you need to associate with them at all), then expend your energy with people who are committed to a healthy manner of life alongside you.
If you are interested in online counseling, Dr. Carter has a sponsor who can assist. As the need is there, please seek the help you deserve: https://betterhelp.com/survivingnarcissism
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