A defining feature of narcissism is manipulative behavior. Wanting to stay in control, narcissists use all sorts of tactics to keep you off your game. They approach relationships with an adversarial attitude, so it is predictable that they are less-than-healthy when they engage with you. Your task, then, is to know their games so you will not inadvertently feed the very patterns that perpetuate stress.
Let’s identify some of the narcissist’s favorite mind games:
We’re Only Talking About Your Failures
When narcissists delve into a relationship with you, they might seem interested in how you’ve overcome obstacles. But over time you get the feeling that data about you is being collected and it could eventually be used against you. When you ask that person to tell you about his/her highs and lows, you receive vague responses or broad generalizations that might seem revealing, but are really evasive. For instance, “Yeah, I had some moments when I felt frustrated, but stuff like that doesn’t weigh me down.” No further details are given, and the focus goes back onto you. Narcissists want the dirt on you, but they do not want to reveal their own dirt.
When you confront a narcissist, it will not be received well. In a healthy relationship, a person will would listen to the confrontation and seek insight. What are the odds of that happening with the narcissist? Instead, they use the tactic of boomerang communication, throwing the attention and discomfort back onto you. For example, you say: “You were late, so I had to unexpectedly change my plans.” The boomerang response might be: “Do you want to talk about all the times I’ve had to change my plans because you can’t follow through on what you promised?” The topic of the moment is stepped over as the narcissist reverses field to remind you that your defects are much worse.
Let’s suppose a disappointment is experienced or a disagreement occurs, which means it’s time to discuss how to find an appropriate middle ground. Instead of sharing perspectives with each other, trying to find a meeting of the minds, the narcissist goes into name-calling or insults about your character. The negative comments can be atrocious. Cursing is common as is finger pointing and feigned outrage. The narcissist will shame you, reminding you and anyone else who might listen that you are a low-life. This allows the narcissist to cling smugly to the notion that you are an inferior person whose opinions are meaningless.
I Need You To Trust Me
You are in a conflict and it seems there will not be an immediate agreement. It could be that time and contemplation are needed for such matters to clarify, so you decide that it would be best to hit the pause button and take a break. Instead, the narcissist puts you into a defensive posture by asking something like, “So are you saying you don’t trust me; is that what this is all about?” Your loyalty is now on the line and if you don’t give the narcissist a favorable response right now, you have become a saboteur.
You are not in a coordinated place with the narcissist, but you are doing your best to keep your cool and remain reasonable. The narcissist speaks rudely to you, but you respond calmly. Later, a question is asked suggesting you are not being honest, but you again remain patient. Then more argumentative or abrasive comments come your way, but you don’t take the bait. But finally it happens. The narcissist makes one more outrageous abrasive comment and you burst out, “Would you just shut up!?” The narcissist (with a smug tone of voice) says, “How am I supposed to have an adult conversation with someone who has such a bad temper as you?” The narcissist then claims a moral high ground over you.
You Go Positive, I Go Negative
You are discussing something that makes you feel good and it’s clear that you are in a positive frame of mind. At the peak of your excitement, the narcissist has to bring you down a few notches, so negative words are thrown into the discussion. For instance you might say, “My sister has a new job and she feels optimistic that this position is going to bring out the best in her. It’s so good to see her this happy.” The narcissist replies, “How soon do you think she’ll tell them about the screw-ups she had at her last job?” The message to you is: “I can’t stand it when you are in an upbeat frame of mind. That makes me feel jealous.”
Now You Owe Me
A part of a mutually gratifying relationship is the exchange of good will. This can come in the form of gifts, acts of service, doing special favors, adjusting schedules or priorities. Helpfulness and kindness is foundational to building trust. For a time it may seem that the narcissist is indeed a pleasant, giving person. Yet time can reveal that the narcissist is keeping a scorecard. Your good deeds are deemed minimal, but the narcissist’s good deeds are lauded. As the narcissist feels smug about his/her goodness, you are reminded that you have a lot of catching up to do. This usually happens when the narcissist is angry, feeling entitled, and pressing an agenda. When you balk, you are called an ingrate. You’ll hear: “Have you forgotten all I’ve done for you? You’re such an ungrateful person!”
You may be discussing a problem that happened earlier (yesterday or seven years ago) and as you describe your recollections, the narcissist is aghast. The narcissist may claim not to remember the event, sometimes when it was major. “That didn’t happen.” Or it may be that new “facts” are introduced to twist the story, and you hear an entirely different version of what you remember to be true. You are told that you are the one who is confused and you obviously have a problem with dishonesty and trustworthiness. Then a campaign might ensue whereby the narcissist will claim innocence while telling others how crazy you are. This is a narcissist at his/her gaslighting best.
The narcissist can do favors for you, but with a twist. You didn’t ask for the favor, you don’t need the favor, and the favor is not something you prefer anyway. For instance, a gift is bought for you, but in the end it is the narcissist who would benefit from it most. Or perhaps the narcissist does a kind deed, but later you realize he/she told others about it, putting a spotlight onto the narcissist for being so magnanimous. Or at the last minute you are informed that a special guest will join a group outing, but it is someone you have nothing in common with. When you protest, you are accused of being selfish and you always have to have it your way. The narcissist will then think, “I’m such an unappreciated nice person!”
Each individual is a unique blend of emotions, life experiences, interpretations, skills, and preferences. Yet narcissists can minimize a person’s broad appeal by putting tight, unfavorable labels onto others. For instance, a person can be labeled as an addict. That’s it. Or it might be said, “Well, she’s seen a psychiatrist for years.” Or, “You know he has marital problems.” Dehumanization is the attempt to paint another person in a very narrow context for the purpose of the narcissist controlling the narrative about that person. Full context is not at all discussed. Nuance is not allowed in a discussion about that individual.
You Should Read My Mind
With a strong attitude of entitlement, narcissists assume you are supposed to give them special attention and favors. When you comply, they are satisfied. When you fail to do so, it means you have insulted them. They can think: “You’re required to know my wants and needs, then satisfy them.” Narcissists assume you should remain laser focused on their immediate wants. For instance, at a social function the narcissist may be upset because you did not introduce them to a particular person. “You should have known that I wanted to meet that person.” Or it could be that you buy a sweater and the narcissist thinks, “I’ve been looking for a sweater for weeks, why didn’t you offer to get me one too?” In a narcissist’s mind, the only one in the room who matters is…well, you know.
As you spot these (and many more) mind games played by a narcissist, it becomes abundantly clear that these individuals are deeply insecure. Insisting that it is your job to conform to their whims and cravings, they illustrate an empty interior. Your task is twofold: 1. Be a reasonable person who indeed seeks ways to coordinate life with another person. 2. Remember that each person (including you, including the narcissist) is ultimately responsible for his/her well-being. You have enough on your plate as you attempt to be a healthy individual, and you are not required to also take on the task of keeping the narcissist propped up too.
Editor’s Note: If you are struggling with a narcissistic relationship, consider online counseling with our vetted partner and sponsor BetterHelp. Complete a short survey here to match with the right therapist for you.