There’s no doubt about it… the term ‘Narcissist’ is thrown around freely these days. It feels like every second person has dated one, married one, worked with one or lived with one. Narcissists seem to be everywhere.
Whilst people can be diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) it is more common for people to display narcissistic personality traits. There is a clear and distinct difference. Effectively, NPD affects all aspects of a person’ life where as people who only display certain narcissistic traits can turn their traits on and off to suit the company they are keeping in any particular moment. This is what people often call the narcissist ‘mask’. This article focuses on those with narcissistic traits. I will refer to them as 'narcissists’.
Narcissistic behaviours range from healthy to pathological, as in the case of many other conditions, diseases or disorders.
- Feeling proud of ourselves
- Recognising our strengths and talents
- Liking what we see in the mirror
Healthy narcissism is vital to life. It helps us through challenging times if we can essentially be ‘in love’ with ourselves. It helps us appreciate all that is great about ourselves and reminds us why we are worthy of good things in life.
Negative narcissistic traits can look different from person to person but essentially they are;
- A grandiose (or highly inflated) sense of self
- A strong sense of entitlement
- An ability to abuse and exploit others without guilt or shame
- A lack of respect for authority
- A need for constant admiration and validation
- Little to no empathy for others
Narcissists are often extremely defensive, stubborn and opinionated. They also have difficulties maintain healthy, loving, fully functioning relationships. Contrary to common beliefs narcissists can either absolutely love themselves or absolutely hate themselves. Both manifest in similar patterns of behaviour on the narcissist spectrum. The difference lies in whether their narcissism is fed by external validation or internal validation. That’s a topic for another article I think!
So, with that in mind, here are 5 tactics narcissists often use to destabilise you…
“It didn’t happen like that!”… ‘You’re imagining it!”… “That never happened”… “I didn’t say that!”
The term “gas lighting” came from a mid-1900’s play called Gas Light. The husband in the play subtly fiddles with the lighting in their flat over time and when the wife raises her concerns about the lighting problem, the husband convinces her she is imagining it and in fact, that she is going crazy. Of course the lighting wasn’t the only issue. The woman was also beginning to think she was a thief when in fact her husband was taking and misplacing things himself and then trying to convince the wife that she had done it!
Essentially what gas lighting is, is brainwashing. Slow and deliberate psychological manipulation that results in the victim questioning their own reality. The ultimate aim of gas lighting is to disorientate the victim so that they begin to doubt what is real and what is not. It is far more effective than people generally understand and if used over years and years, can lead to all sorts of poor mental health outcomes for the victim.
Narcissists will use denial, misrepresentation, lies and contradiction to slowly trap the victim in this distorted reality and to maintain control over them. By making the victim feel ‘crazy’ the victim is less likely to ask for help, reach out to friends and family for support or, leave the relationship or workplace.
Anyone and everyone can fall victim to gas lighting, no matter the context of the relationship.
Ever tried having a conversation or an argument about a drunk tree in pink shoes, before school and not in summer? Make no sense whatsoever? That is EXACTLY what word salad is. Random words, sentences, concepts, phrases and contradictions tossed together in a bowl and then strung together in an order that makes literally no sense!
Again, this is a psychological manipulation tactic.
A logical person would argue trees don’t drink. Trees don’t wear shoes. Trees don’t go to school. And that it doesn’t matter if it was in summer or not. A narcissistic person would argue everything BUT!
No amount of logic, reasoning, evidence, laughter or insults will make them back down. They will argue for the sake of arguing to rile you up and make you LOOK like the crazy person they are trying to convince you (and others!) that you are. These word salad conversations go round and round and round. By behaving in this way narcissists aim to exhaust you into submission, thus avoiding all accountability for their behaviour.
Word salad is a tactic very often used when a narcissistic person has been cornered or confronted with the reality of their behaviour. They are a deer in headlights and their defence is to create more drama and deflect the issues they’ve been presented with. If you’ve ever had a heated argument with a narcissist you WILL understand this!
(Note: Word salad is also a genuine symptom of other psychological disorders. In the context of Narcissism however, this is a deliberately used manipulation tactic.)
Toxic people such as narcissists are masterful blame shifters. They will literally stop at nothing to avoid accountability. They will often blame the other party for all the things they themselves are doing, or have done. Think the cheating spouse. Or the wife in the ‘Gas Light’ play referenced earlier. He blamed her for the stealing he was doing.
This defence mechanism plays out in many ways but ultimately aims to distract the other party and make them carry the emotional burden. By shifting the blame the argument then becomes about the other party proving their innocence, thus allowing the narcissists behaviour to slip past.
Projection is avoidance 101. Classic. Simple. Avoidance.
Again, the frustration this behaviour evokes in the other party often results in them being labelled the ‘crazy’ one. In fact the frustration is actually a normal response to an abnormal situation! The great thing about projection though is that whilst the confrontation may start with one topic the projection will often reveal many other things the narc has been up to. They effectively dob themselves in!
You confront them for lying, for example. Which in turn leads to them blaming you for lying. Or cheating. Or stealing. If you can look past the emotion and into the reality, the narc is in fact laying out exactly who they are!
This tactic can be extremely destructive to a person’s sense of self. It can involve all sorts of scenarios but what it basically means is bringing in a third party (literally or not) to back the narcissist's case or to make you question your own abilities, worthiness or sanity.
It might mean that they compare you to their ex…
“My ex-girlfriend was so fit and sexy. Why aren’t you?”
“My ex-girlfriend wore blue lingerie… you should too!” (this one is one I personally received!)
It might also be them bringing in a mutual friend…
“See, xxx thinks you’re a sh!t wife too!”
“xxx told me you’re crazy and incapable. She sees it too!”
And in the context of a workplace it might look like…
“If only your work was as good as xxx’s!”
“What have you been doing for the last 2 hours? xxx has done so much more than you!”
When you’re living free of narcissistic abuse and the fog has finally cleared it’s easy to see how these statements just don’t matter. How your sense of self doesn’t rely on mirroring other people. But when you are living in the bubble of abuse these statements really erode your confidence thus making you do all sorts of things you wouldn’t normally do. By triangulating you the narc is further sucking you into their web of manipulation!
When a narcissist’s cover is threatened in any way they suffer what is known as a ‘narcissistic injury’. This blow to their ego often induces ‘narcissistic rage’. To a narcissist a threat might be someone giving them an ultimatum, someone trying to expose their lies or, someone promising to leave the relationship with them.
A wounded narcissist is literally capable of anything.
They might threaten to;
- Call your boss and tell them a lie so you lose your job
- Tell your partner you’ve been cheating on them so they break up with you
- Stop you having contact with your family
- Kill you
In a nutshell your perceived ‘disobedience’ enrages them. The very fact that you would question their control over you bruises their self-esteem and makes them think YOU think you are better than them. When it comes to a narcissist it’s all about winners and losers. You know which they prefer to be! Threats are the narcissist’s attempt to terrify you into compliance. They are a last resort when the narcissist seems to have lost all control.
Because a narcissist cannot see things from another person’s point of view, it’s their way or the highway. They feel that it is effectively their right to threaten you. To them, winning and bringing you down restores their self-esteem.
I hope this information helps people to better understand narcissism and the life changing impact it has on survivors the world over.
As I said earlier, narcissism is a term we hear regularly but until you are 100% sure you have experienced narcissistic abuse I encourage you to look for other ways to describe your lived experience. In overusing this term we effectively ‘cheapen’ it’s meaning which dis-empowers survivors and downplays the severity of this behaviour.
If you are experiencing something that sounds like narcissistic abuse, support is available. Please don’t suffer in silence. Together we can identify what it is that you are experiencing, discuss strategies to help you cope and ultimately work out a safe way to remove you from the situation.
Feel free to reach out for support via the contact page. My services are available Australia wide. As a survivor myself, it would be my pleasure to help you. x If you know someone who would benefit from reading this article, you can share it using the links below!
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Erica has a passion for Women’s Health. She works with women who want to be heard, supported and empowered! Erica is a survivor of many life experiences. A Mum. A travel lover. A green thumb in training and an eternal optimist!