Manipulation Tactics Narcissists Use To Destabilise You

by | Sep 4, 2019 | Narcissism | 7 comments

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.

Healthy Narcissism

  • 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.

A photo of a mirror on the wall which represents positive self love - narcissists

Unhealthy Narcissism

Negative narcissistic traits can look different from person to person but essentially they are;

  • A grandiose (or highly inflated) sense of self
  • Arrogance
  • 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…

A photo of a black heart on a white background. The black, cold, dark heart of Narcissists

Gas Lighting

“It didn’t happen like that!”… ‘You’re imagining it!”… “That never happened”… “I didn’t say that!”

Sound familiar?

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.

Word Salad

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.)

A pile of white letters on a brown table. The scrambled letters represent the word salad narcissists use.


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!

A black and white spider web representing the manipulative web Narcissists uses to keep you trapped


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!


Erica Rundle

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!

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  1. Agustina Pruna Vega

    Thank you so much for this information…I knew I was not crazy for the things I have noticed in my partner and the way he has been treating me🙋🏻‍♀️

    • Erica Rundle

      Hi Agustina, thanks for stopping by! Glad you found the article helpful. You are DEFINITELY not crazy! I’m sorry to hear you too are experiencing this psychological warfare and hope you find some peace soon. Erica x

  2. Meemee

    I’m a bit lost… I don’t know if it is what I’m experiencing or not… My boyfriend has very nice sides but sometimes he really hurts me in ways that are described in this article. But he would never go very far like hurting me physically or anything.
    I just feel shitty around him but for unclear reasons because he doesn’t say it to me directly. And it seems like if it doesn’t go his way, then I’m nothing for him.
    Like for example, he promised me to spend Xmas with me as my family was in trouble and I became alone for Xmas, but on the Xmas Eve he told me “no sorry I can’t because my brother is coming so I’m gonna spend it with him” and I end up all alone. Or for example, he will call me crazy very often and it hurts me… But everytime I try to answer or communicate about those things he does that hurt me, he just blames them on me. Also he is very jealous and he check and hack all my social medias and he threatens to leave me if I see friends that he consider “bad” for me. He always thinks I’m gonna leave or cheat him and he never trust me.
    But he never does very huge things and he is nice with me the rest of the time… So I don’t know. And I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to end up alone and especially without him.

    • Erica Rundle

      So sorry to hear about what you are experiencing. Thanks for stopping by to leave a comment. I think it’s important to note here that emotional and psychological abuse can be just as traumatic, sometimes even more traumatic, than physical abuse… because it is ‘invisible’ and often hard to prove to those we love (friends, family etc). It’s very common for abusers to have different “sides” as you say… one side that you see behind closed doors and the other side they show to the rest of the world. Hence people often say it’s like a ‘narcissistic mask’. The very fact that they can turn on and off certain behaviours at certain times tells us that they can indeed control their behaviours and choices. This fact tells us a lot about the situation. If you are left feeling sad, confused and hurt more than you are left feeling confident, safe and happy in the relationship it may be time to speak to someone about how you are feeling and what you want for your future. Control, manipulation and any form of abuse are never ok. Sending you strength.

  3. Melissa

    I’ve felt crazy for years my soon to be ex-husband always told me well if you didn’t do this I wouldn’t be this way or have acted like this, if you would have given me what I wanted I wouldn’t have cheated. The list goes on and on. Right before I left with our kids he was constantly telling me I simply didn’t understand, misunderstood or just didn’t hear him. He began telling me he wasn’t responsible for how I felt for what he was doing as my emotions were my problem.

    Now it’s the constant threats about our kids that I’ve been the primary caretaker for their entire lives saying he’ll just take one or I’ll just come take them if I disagree with what he wants. I try to speak about what is going on or what they have been saying and it falls on deaf ears. I try to explain the negative affects things may have on our special needs child and he doesn’t believe me.

    I’m living a nightmare and the more I try to be civil and talk only about the kids the more he wants to argue with me.

    Now I’m asking myself why didn’t I see this before I got to this point? I’m always questioning my sanity and wondering if it was infact all my fault.

    • Erica Rundle

      Hi Melissa, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. Firstly I want you to know you are definitely not crazy, this abuse is crazy! What you describe regarding his excuses… that is blame shifting, a very common and highly toxic form of psychological manipulation. It’s a go-to for many narcissists. It sounds like things are really tough and it’s no wonder you’re questioning your sanity. That would be exactly what he wants you to do. My suggestion would be to get some legal support (court orders will help with managing the care of the children) and also to put some really strict boundaries in place in regards to the way you communicate with him. If you are in Australia and after some counselling to help find your way, I’d be happy to help. I too am a survivor of this abuse. Sending you strength, Erica x

  4. Gábor Szurdoki

    My father (NPD) when I was a kid, always used triangulation. I was a very good student, won coding and Math competitions from age 10, and I had good grades.

    Anytime I came with a 4 (B in USA), he started to ask about my good student classmates like “What grade Susan got?”. Like it’d make any sense, plus when I received a 5 (A in USA), he did not ask about my classmates.

    So, when I performed good (great), that was like normal, I received no praise, only like “okay”, when I only performed good or average, I was the bad.

    Also, he did triangulation in other ways like written in the article, like just creating a totally false story of XY said this about you, making me wonder for ages who said what. They are also INTENTIONALLY blurry when they do this so no actual statement remains in your mind you could check, only a fog of negativity.


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