I believe that many of us…or maybe most of us … have experienced the harmful and destructive impact of an abusive narcissistic relationship.
As a Coach, I’ve worked with many clients to overcome the issues that have resulted from such abuse. Within the realm of Narcissism, there are specific tactics and strategies that the abuser will employ in order to manipulate and control the other person.
Obviously, there is a coercive and subtle nature to this pattern of abuse and often the surreptitious nature of it makes it very difficult to identify. Often it’s only in looking at the victimology that we find our answers.
The purpose of this article is to shed light on the common tactics that a Narcissist will use to distort reality for their partner.
The intention is to educate and inspire: So that if you can identify these tactics in a relationship in your own life, then you can take measures to protect yourself mentally and emotionally.
Common Tactics In Narcissistic Abuse
A person with narcissistic traits typically feels that they can’t do anything wrong. When confronted about mistakes, they will be defensive and might deny your reality or recollection of events.
Common phrases indicative of gaslighting:
- “it wasn’t that bad”
- “you made me do that”
- “you are always twisting things”
- “you must be losing your mind”
- “it didn’t happen like that”
- “I didn’t say that”
These are common statements employed to make you deny your truth and are all examples of typical gaslighting behavior.
At first, a person might argue back and stand their ground against narcissistic gaslighting. However, over time, changing someone’s perception of reality makes them more likely to drop or move on from an argument. Those with narcissistic traits frequently engage in this form of manipulation when they feel a loss of control in a relationship. In turn, this can sometimes lead to narcissistic abuse syndrome, especially if it is combined with other forms of narcissistic abuse.
The reality is that narcissist’s objective is to have their partner/other actually doubting their own sanity.
2. Love Bombing
Think back to the beginning of your relationship, when things felt like a fairytale. Perhaps your partner showered you with gifts and affection, professed their love to you very fast and early on, or provided you with excessive attention at all hours of the day. This stage of the relationship is called love bombing, during which a narcissist uses your affection and attention against you in order to control you. Their intention is to systematically exert more control over you, through influence or manipulation, by lavishing you with attention or affection.
This narcissistic tactic is particularly effective in manipulating people who have previous relationship or familial trauma, due to their tendency to excuse or ignore love bombing behaviors. But, love bombing is not secluded to romantic relationships, although it is most often seen in this form. It may also occur in the workplace, friendships, and family or social systems in which one person is trying to get the attention of or manipulate the other.
Narcissistic triangulation occurs when a person tries to bring a third person into a conflict to benefit them. This form of manipulation can be done within a relationship or friendship, or even with narcissistic parents.
- When a boss or coworker brings a third party into a conflict to encourage them to take their “side,” or to deflect from their own actions
- During a disagreement, one parent will solicit the opinion of a child in order to draw them into the conversation to validate their own perspective
This method of ‘ganging up’ on one person, is intended to elicit shame, self-blame and a feeling of wrongness. When this is successful, that individual will feel that the whole world must look at them poorly, in the same way the Narcissist does.
When someone is unable to handle their negative feelings or acknowledge their bad behaviors, they may project them onto someone else. In these cases, the recipient of their projection is usually accused of doing the very same things that the individual is doing themselves.
For example, a narcissist who is projecting may believe that someone else is angry, when in reality they are the one who is angry, but are uncomfortable with this feeling. This may also be evident in romantic relationships in the form of accusing a partner of cheating, when in fact they are the ones being unfaithful.
Note: Infidelity is often part of the Narcissists playbook.
5. Playing the Victim
A narcissist will often play the victim after engaging in harmful or vengeful behaviors, turning any sympathy and attention onto themselves. They might do so by saying that they were the ones who were hurt or manipulated, and not the real victim. Due to their convincing nature, projection, and cognitive distortions, they can be quite convincing and often have outsiders confused as to what the truth is.
As an example, if one person brings a behavioral issue to the other person’s (Narcissist) attention, the Narcissist will quickly speak to how hurt they are over the accusation. The conversation is speedily diverted to their feelings of ‘how could you say that’ or ‘what did I ever do to you’ and the original issue that started the conversation is dismissed. This narcissistic tactic is very effective at not only diverting responsibility away from the narcissist and back onto the vicitm but also places the attention squarely back on the narcissist.
In this scenario, the Narcissist will effectively deflect responsibility and become the victim, but they will not forget the comment made which will fuel their manipulative behavior.
6. Smear Campaign
A smear campaign occurs when a narcissist creates a web of lies or exaggerations in order to discredit and isolate a person. This is typically done publicly, and to anyone who will listen – the victim’s friends and family are not exempt. For instance, a person breaks up with their partner, and their ex in turn begins to spread rumors about them within close-knit social circles. Slowly, this person notices that their supports are turning away from them, and reducing contact.
The cruel end result of this is that often the victim is left with limited support, as their loved ones may believe the lies spread against them. When they try to report the abuse they are experiencing, they are treated as if they are the one causing the problems.
Note: This is a particularly effective strategy for the Covert Narcissist. Their mode of operating ensures that not only is their partner the only one who sees their dark manipulation, they are held in high regard because of their frequent public displays of help and assistance to others. Their superior ability to create the disguise of being a pillar of society, lends to their credibility. In this way, when their partner decides to speak out or leave, the covert narcissist has the social standing to turn everyone against them.
7. Revenge Seeking
When someone with NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder) feels wronged, they often go into revenge seeking mode. This may be done in the form of a smear campaign, but it can also occur in a number of other ways. A narcissist may seek revenge in the workplace if someone turned them down for a promotion or a raise, or criticized them openly in a meeting. The narcissist may then purposefully turn in projects late or avoid completing important tasks in order to make the other person’s job more difficult.
8. Guilt Tripping
When someone tries to get you to do something because you feel bad for them, they are guilt tripping you. This behavior can be difficult to recognize, especially if you do not know the person well, or have not been exposed to this form of manipulation before. However, a narcissist will often use this tactic to convince others not to do something or relinquish control over a certain situation.
The Narcissist has no boundaries. Thus, the normal rules, ethics and morals that guide our behavior simply don’t apply to them. They will never come right out and say what they mean, however they might suggest having to cheat on you if you refuse intimacy, or feign serious emotional upset and illude to having no desire to continue living this way during an argument.
Hoovering takes place when a narcissist attempts to “win” a person back. This is comparable to the love bombing stage, in that the narcissist may employ similar tactics such as showering a person with gifts and praise. However, this time it is to win someone back after a breakup or conflict.
In these cases, they feel as though they might be losing control over the other person, or want to get this person back on their side. Examples of this include sending texts or messages sporadically, liking a post on social media, or sending a person gifts randomly. In turn, the person is sucked back into the former relationship.
This can also happen after a breakup or when the partner has been discarded. The narcissist may come back when they see their former partner starting to rebuild their lives or when they find a new relationship.
10. Covert Aggressive Abuse
Insults are disguised as teaching, helping, giving advice, and offering solutions. The manipulator makes them appear as a sincere attempt to help, especially to others.
This can also be followed by put-downs, and disappointment from the manipulator and anyone else who they have convinced of the victim’s inferiority.
The goal of this manipulation tactic is to belittle, control, and demean the victim while covering up the appearance of wrongdoing on the manipulator’s behalf.
11. Setting you up to Fail
The manipulator puts their victim in such a state of stress, or stressful situation, that failure is almost certain, wherein the outcome can be used as ammunition to discredit and blame the victim.
This can be done covertly as well, using sabotage or undermining an objective that may otherwise have been achievable. This type of manipulation tactic may be the projection of the bully’s own feelings of inadequacy onto the victim.
The manipulator does not acknowledge their victims maturity either emotionally or psychologically.
The victim is treated as if they have no knowledge of life or experience dealing with life’s challenges.
The goal is to reduce a person to that of an infant or child, lowering their status in the social order, and stripping them of the ability to make choices, both in the victim’s mind and the manipulator’s.
13. Hurt and Rescue
A drowning person will clutch at anything to rescue them. So by pushing them into the water then throwing them a rope, you guarantee that you gain the upper hand by being their rescuer.
Hurting the other person does not necessarily mean physical harm and it may not even mean making them feel bad, but it does mean creating a situation that they want to resolve.
The goal is to get the victim to play into the manipulators hands so they can rush to their “rescue” only to trick the victim into trusting, believing, or becoming dependent upon them.
In addition to these methods, a narcissist will employ:
A Note About Passive Aggression
We often term certain behaviours as ‘passive-aggressive’. But what is that?
Passive-aggression is behaviour that is seemingly accidental or neutral but that indirectly displays an aggressive motive. It often involves inaction rather than action.
Those who exhibit passive aggression will let someone else take control while someone who is aggressive is more confrontational or directly forceful. In this way, someone who is passive-aggressive will exert their control over situations in a less direct or recognizable way.
Signs of passive-aggression:
- Backhanded compliments (“I saw you cleaned the kitchen – I was surprised”)
- Silent treatment (meant to make you confused about what is going on)
- Indirect refusal of a request (not tell you no, but also not do what was asked)
- Procrastinate when asked to do something
- Respond with sarcasm or subtle digs
- Frequent or repeated lateness (indicative of disrespect)
- Creating an egg-shell situation (makes others feel like they have to constantly be careful so as to not set them off)
- Sabotages others
- Hints instead of stating a need or complaint directly
- Denies anger while enacting it indirectly
Examples of passive -aggression:
- You ask them to do something and they tell you they will, but they procrastinate, never wind up doing it, or give you a sarcastic response.
- They give you the silent treatment for no apparent reason, and when you try to talk about what’s bothering them, they won’t tell you how they feel.
- They seem angry, but when you ask them what’s bothering them, they say, “I’m fine” or “nothing is bothering me,” when something clearly is.
- They pout, sigh loudly, or otherwise exhibit behaviors that they are not happy—such as slamming cupboard doors—even though they don’t express their unhappiness verbally.
- They complain about situations with other people that bother them as a means to indirectly say that they’re unhappy when these same situations occur with you.
Passive-aggression is a type of manipulation typcially used by covert narcissists to continue to manipulate their partners. By exerting control in this less obvious way, their partners are continually left not knowing what’s going on, not understanding their partner and feeling constantly confused within the relationship. Over time, this erodes not only the person’s confidence, trust and intuition but also the relationship itself.
Healthy relationships are what we all desire. We simply don’t go headfirst into a new relationship looking to be treated poorly or seeking dysfunction. However, the skillful manipulation of the Narcissist by nature, necessitates that we get sucked in, ignore every red flag and systematically lose ourselves in the process.
Many of us wonder if it’s possible to have a relationship with a Narcissist and my answer would be “what are you willing to compromise?”. The reality is that these types of relationships are difficult and will be met with very little empathy or emotional intimacy on the part of the narcissist.
If you suspect that you or someone you know might be in a Narcissistic relationship, understanding how this presents in the victim of Narcissistic abuse is imperative. To understand more about what the vicitimology looks like, read more in my article on the Signs Of Narcissistic Supply.
If you’d like to have a conversation around Narcissism or support with some changes in your life, let’s chat.
- NIHM – Nicholas Day, Michelle Townsend & Brin F.S. Grenyer. “Pathological Narcissism: An Analysis of Interpersonal Dysfunction Within Intimate Relationships” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9541508/ ) Accessed 10/20/22
- Science Direct – Kathrin RItter, Isabel Dziobek, Sandra Preibler, Anke Ruter, Aline Vater, Thomas Fydrich, Claas-Hinrich Lammers, Hauke R. Heekeren & Stefan Roepke. “Lack of Empathy in Patients with Narcissistic Personality Disorder” (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0165178110005901 ) Accessed 11/22/22
- HelpGuide.org. Narcissistic Personality Disorder. “Narcissistic Personality Disorder” (https://www.helpguide.org/articles/mental-disorders/narcissistic-personality-disorder.htm) Accessed 12/19/2022.
- Stathis Grapsas, Eddie Brummelman, Mitja D. Back and Jaap J. A. Denissen. “The “Why” and “How” of Narcissism: A Process Model of Narcissistic Status Pursuit” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6970445/) Accessed 12/19/22
Katrina Murphy is a Professional Intuitive Mindset and Confidence Coach in Ontario, Canada, serving clients across Canada and internationally. Katrina helps professionals to change the relationship that they have with themselves so they can reconnect both in their relationships and at work. She’s been featured in various publications and is the creator of the Power-Passion-Purpose Framework.