A narcissist has many manipulation tactics they use in order to (ab)use their victims. Sadly, a lot of people experience or have experienced narcissistic abuse. When in a relationship with a narcissist, the brutal and manipulative behaviour of narcissists leads to very unhealthy dynamics. The only real solution in order to protect your energy and yourself is to eventually break the cycle and go into a no-contact situation.
It’s useful to be aware of manipulative behaviour and how it works. You could be triggered and seek answers within yourself instead. When you’re able to recognize unhealthy behaviour, you will know and realize that you’re not responsible for the unhealthy behaviour of others. It gives you the control to decide how to deal with it.
I hope this article can be helpful to you in order to recognize manipulative behaviour.
When someone uses the manipulation tactics mentioned in this article, it doesn’t necessarily mean someone is a narcissist. Everyone uses forms of manipulation from time to time, whether consciously or unconsciously. The difference with narcissists is the purpose, extent, and intensity of the used manipulative behaviour.
A narcissist consciously uses manipulation for abusive purposes and will not hesitate to use the more abusive kinds of behaviour such as gaslighting, devaluing, and smearing others.
In this article, I will explain some of the most common manipulation tactics and attempt to categorize these manipulation tactics. First, I will shortly explain how the narcissistic abuse cycle works in order to give some insight into the dynamics of an emotionally abusive relationship with a narcissist.
Narcissistic abuse cycle
This cycle is a repetitive cycle consisting of the stages of idealization, devaluing, and discarding. After the discarding stage, a narcissist could try to hoover you back into the relationship to go through the cycle again. If they succeed, a relationship could endlessly go through the cycle until the victim recognizes it and manages to stop the cycle.
The continuing game of going back and forth between idealizing and devaluing can result in a trauma bond within the victim. It can be very tough to break the cycle and it requires emotional detachment from the narcissist. Therefore, it’s important to learn about narcissistic abuse and corresponding behaviour.
I’ve summarized the cycle and narcissistic behaviour attached to the stages in the following overview:
This overview shows the stages of the narcissistic abuse cycle and the most important corresponding behaviour of narcissists.
In short, the stages are:
1. Idealization: The stage of idealization is the stage in which the narcissist performs love-bombing and shows an overwhelming amount of (conditional) love, attention, and interest.
2. Devaluation: The stage of devaluing follows by (slowly) withdrawing the idealization and showing increasingly more manipulative and abusive behaviour.
3. Discard: The stage of discarding is where the narcissist fully discards their victim.
4. Hoovering: This is when the narcissist tries to suck the victim back into the cycle after the discard.
If you want to learn more about the narcissistic abuse cycle, I recommend reading my article explaining the stages of the narcissistic abuse cycle.
The manipulative game of a narcissist
It’s important to understand that a narcissist is fully invested in the world of their ego. A narcissist has an inflated sense of their importance and an unending need for attention, validation, and ego-boosting. Their ego is fed by having control over others and things as drama, and emotional responses, which is called narcissistic supply.
A narcissist’s created identity is essential for their survival. It’s their truth and it will stay their truth because they seem to have no ability to honestly reflect on themselves or take any responsibility for their manipulative behaviour. They will protect their truth without having any boundaries. As they lack emotional empathy they don’t mind crossing boundaries of others and will always do what’s necessary to ‘survive’.
Therefore, the only solution for victims is not to play the manipulative game. If you want to read more about the manipulative game of narcissists, you could read my article about why outsmarting a narcissist is not smart at all.
9 narcissistic manipulation tactics explained
I will now go into 9 narcissistic manipulation tactics and explain them. I have categorized them into: ‘Devaluing behaviour and gaining control‘, ‘Using groups and external pressure‘, and ‘Games of truth‘.
Devaluing behaviour and gaining control
In this category, I summarize the manipulation tactics that are mostly about gaining control and devaluing the victim.
1. Idealizing and devaluing
One of the most important dynamics within narcissistic abuse is the idealizing/devaluing dynamic. It’s a back and forth between idealization (or love-bombing) and devaluation.
A narcissist can show a lot of conditional love and be very charming, loving, and appear as warm personalities. As long as they’re pleased with your behaviour they will shower you with loving attention, care, compliments, gifts, and so forth. You are the special one, their soulmate or the love of their life.
By using mirroring they create the illusion of being the perfect partner. The problem is that their love is conditional and therefore it will end when their needs are greater than your supply. As these needs are unending, you simply will never be able to fulfil them. It would require you to disconnect from yourself, cross your boundaries, and agree the narcissist is superior and more worthy than everyone else.
The devaluation stage will (eventually) start after the idealization stage. Your intuition will give you signals when this happens but it can be hard to recognize in the beginning. The devaluing can start in a slow manipulative way and because of that, the victim might not realize this is going on.
The narcissist starts showing idealization behaviour such as praising, flattery, attention, or flirting. It seems they lost interest in you and that you need to change or prove that you’re worthy of their attention. At this point, you will get criticism, insults, rage, and a lot of frustration thrown at you. All their behaviour shows they can be nice and loving to others but you have become the negative exception.
A narcissist delivers hot and cold treatments, also called intermittent or partial reinforcement. This dynamic consists of very unpredictable behaviour and it thereby creates insecurity, fear, self-doubt, and uncertainty within the victim. The inconsistency can result in a trauma bond and encourage the victim to ‘persevere’.
Additionally, ghosting could be used in the love-bombing phase to create more insecurity and confusion. The narcissist then suddenly disappears for some reason and simply assumes the relationship to resume where things were left off.
The idealization and devaluing dynamic is the core of narcissistic abuse and the narcissist’s manipulation tactics.
After managing to break the cycle, a narcissist could try to suck you back into the abusive/unhealthy relationship and thereby trying to start the cycle over again. This game of manipulation is called hoovering. Hoovering is thus trying to trick or bait you into breaking no contact and re-engaging with the narcissist.
A narcissist’s hoovering attempts can be categorized into:
– Positive hoovering: telling you exactly what you want to hear and do kind things. They could use love bombing, give gifts, and declare their love for you. They might apologize and say that they have changed.
– Negative hoovering: (ab)using your vulnerabilities, pity, and other negative emotions in order to get a response. They could try to provoke you, use your children, pretend as if nothing happened, fake injury, triangulate and hoover by proxy in order to get attention.
– Random hoovering: using random attempts/tricks that seem small and meaningless to get some attention. These could be small messages, random questions, or ‘accidental’ calls/texts.
Any engagement will be narcissistic supply. It’s essential the keep the door closed and not re-engage with them. You can read more about hoovering in my in-depth article about why and how narcissists hoover and how to deal with a hoovering narcissist.
3. Communication tactics
There are quite some manipulation tactics within communication that narcissists frequently use. Clearly, narcissists love to label and judge people. They lie, act, tell half-truths, make empty promises, deny, withhold information and create an unending amount of drama. Here are shortly some examples of tactics within communication narcissists use.
Black and white behaviour
Whether consciously or unconsciously, black and white behaviour or thinking is very common for narcissists. You are either on their positive or negative side. Persons on the negative side could be smeared, humiliated, and/or dehumanized. On the positive side, they could use false flattery, praise, and compliments. Whether positive or negative, it’s unnatural, exaggerated, and without nuance.
You can recognize these extremes in the idealizing/devaluing and hot/cold dynamic and the tendency to overgeneralize. Common examples are statements such as ‘you’re always so sensitive’ or ‘you’re always trying to create problems’.
Another example is that a narcissist could try to force you to choose whether you are ‘with them or against them’. It’s using force to ’choose sides’ and not allowing for any nuance. Clearly, this is very unhealthy behaviour to do this as it’s using pressure and force to control someone.
Game of proof
A narcissist will put the burden of proof upon others. They feel entitled and have their own truth, so others would have to prove them wrong. Clearly, this can’t be done because if someone attempts to prove them wrong, a narcissist will deny it, dismiss it, change the subject, and so forth. It’s thus an unending game of avoidance and dodging responsibility or blame.
This is a technique in which the narcissist leaves no space for another person in a conversation. A narcissist can intentionally use this to confuse/gaslight/silence you. They will talk and you will not be able to respond because there simply is no entrance to do so.
It’s thus a monologue of useless/unconnected information and they could use your silence (or confusion) as agreement and continue their story. It could be used as well to distract, tire, and confuse you. The result is the other person eventually giving up the conversation and the narcissist will feel like the ‘winner’.
– Belittling: Using sarcasm and a belittling/patronizing tone to degrade you.
– Playing it personal: Name-calling and targeting you as a person instead of going into the argument itself.
– Reframing thoughts and feelings: A narcissist could reframe your thoughts and feelings to prove your irrationality or flaws. They use something you say, draw their own false conclusions from it and then attack you on the false conclusion they accuse you of. It’s a form of escalation that distracts/confuses the victim and changes the subject into what the victim did ‘wrong’. The victim never said anything close to their accusation but is pushed in the position of having to defend themselves.
– Generalization and labeling: Generalizing what you say and making empty statements. A narcissist will take out any nuance of what you say and draw their own conclusions. They will use empty statements or label you to dismiss your perspective. Labels could be, for example, that you’re oversensitive or never satisfied.
4. Forms of silent treatment
A commonly used manipulation method by narcissists is the silent treatment and several forms of silent treatment such as stonewalling and a lack of affection. The silent treatment is a passive-aggressive tactic that is about gaining a sense of control by avoidance, silence and/or disempowerment. It’s very unhealthy behaviour and can be very frustrating for the victim.
Stonewalling is a specific form of silent treatment, where a conversation is completely shut down and the narcissist refuses to address your concerns. It’s withdrawing to avoid conflict. Another example of the silent treatment is a lack of affection, which can be seen as a form of physical silent treatment.
It’s essential to recognize the toxicity of this type of behaviour. The silent treatment is a childish method of manipulation used by an adult. It shows the lack of empathy and lack of emotional development of a narcissist. A healthy person will let you know if they need some time to gather thoughts. The narcissist, however, uses silence to gain control and this can be very powerful when there is inequality within a relationship.
A narcissist could use this method for several reasons, such as regaining power/control, devaluing you, avoiding responsibility, and/or gaining narcissistic supply. Another reason could be ‘punishing’ you and teaching you a lesson. This could be, for example, a response to when you try to set a boundary or you disagree with something. You might see the similarity between this behaviour and a child being mad/silent about not getting what he/she wants.
It thus really is a lack of healthy communication and it can be a draining experience. In my in-depth article about the silent treatment, I go deeper into the silent treatment and how to deal with it. I recommend reading it if you’re the victim of someone using a form of silent treatment on you.
Using groups and external pressure
In this category, the narcissist uses the power of external pressure. A narcissist tries to create a web of control with the use of flying monkeys and wants to isolate the victim from their support system. As a result, the victim becomes more dependent on the narcissist. You can read more about how a narcissist tries to do this in my article about the narcissist’s web of control.
A manipulation tactic that a narcissist loves to use is triangulation. In this form of manipulation, one person doesn’t communicate directly with another person, but rather uses a third person for communication to the second person, thereby forming a triangle. It exists in many forms and has similarities to more common unhealthy behaviour such as gossiping, comparing to others, and bad-mouthing others.
Narcissistic triangulation is used for abusive purposes such as having control, gaining narcissistic supply, and devaluing/smearing victims.
A few examples of triangulation are:
– Love triangle: The narcissist brings in another lover/ex to create a situation in which the victim and this other person compete against each other for the narcissist’s attention and love. A narcissist loves the drama and uncertainty/jealousy evoked by this.
– Gaslighting triangle: A narcissist seeks validation for their truth and seeks support from others to put more outside pressure on their victims.
– Triangle of comparison: This is when the narcissist is idealizing someone else in order to devalue the victim. It’s a way of showing conditional love/validation to others and thereby discarding the feelings and importance of their partner.
– Creating a distance or driving a wedge: The narcissist tries to create a distance between you and someone close to you such as a friend or family member.
– Bandwagon: An attempt to create pressure to go along with something by claiming everybody agrees or ‘everybody is doing it’.
Triangulation is thus disturbing behaviour and results in negative energy. It’s used a lot by narcissists. The victim can become stuck in a negative vicious circle of gossiping, comparing, and feeling envious. You can read more about triangulation and how to deal with it in this article explaining triangulation.
6. Smear campaign
One of the more brutal manipulation tactics of a narcissist is the smear campaign. The person you once loved is now brutally attacking you with all kinds of (public) blaming, lies, half-truths, and false allegations. The narcissist will portray you in an untruthful manner and create a fake persona of you that matches their own fake persona of being a victim or hero. They could claim you’re crazy, insane, unstable, an addict, a narcissist, bipolar, toxic, a stalker, and so forth.
It’s all done in order to manipulate, control and/or devalue the victim. A narcissist could use the smear campaign as a form of damage control in order to protect their created identity. They will additionally try to gather an army of flying monkeys (other people under their control) to support their web of lies.
A narcissist will try to find their support before the actual smear campaign starts in order to create a head start and isolate their victim from their support system. They create numerous lies, exaggerations, suspicions, and half-truths about you and your behaviour. By trying to mirror the situation they will likely try to play the victim themselves.
The smearing is thus very personal and it’s clearly a very brutal form of manipulation. It’s heartbreaking. A narcissist will frame any normal/natural response to being smeared as being abnormal and proof for their story, which can create a feeling of being stuck within the victim.
Your energy will likely be drained when you’re the victim of a smear campaign. It can create a lot of anxiety, frustration, fear, and anger within victims. For victims, it’s necessary to learn more about the smear campaign and more importantly how to deal with it. You can learn more about this in my in-depth article about the narcissist’s smear campaign.
Games of truth
The following manipulation tactics revolve around the narcissist’s truth versus your own truth. This setup can create a lot of anxiety and self-doubt for the victim. The discomfort of cognitive dissonance plays an important part in the following tactics.
Gaslighting is one of the finest art forms of manipulation of some narcissists and is very abusive behaviour. It’s ongoing manipulation and brainwashing to cause the victim to have ever-increasing self-doubts and eventually lose their sense of perception, identity, and self-worth.
It happens slowly and can be hard to recognize. Some examples of what a narcissist could repeatedly say are:
– ‘You are crazy, that never happened. You’re imaging it.’
– ‘It’s all in your head, you’re just making things up randomly all the time!’
– ‘Are you sure about that? Your memory isn’t always that great.’
There are many gaslighting techniques that could be used:
– Lying with certainty and sticking with it.
– Denying and demanding proof.
– Using tricks to confuse you such as hiding stuff in the house.
– Not taking criticism or admitting any flaws.
– Statements in order to confuse, trivialize, and so forth.
– Feigning innocence (narcissist pretending to be very innocent and harmless).
– Gaslighting by proxy.
The narcissist’s denial is an important part of gaslighting and it’s very hard for victims not to seek answers within themselves. A narcissist tries to convince you their truth is definitely true and that the belief about your experience or memory, therefore, must be wrong. Your mind might eventually make up that you remembered wrong to reduce the discomfort of cognitive dissonance of having two conflicting beliefs.
Victims of gaslighting are basically forced by the narcissist to keep questioning their own thoughts and perception of reality. Mostly, the victim starts feeling like they are ‘not enough’ and might start apologizing even when they don’t feel like they should. They eventually might feel like going crazy, being confused all the time, and slowly lose sanity. Gaslighting drains your energy and slowly disconnects you from yourself.
It’s a continuous sick game of the narcissist’s truth versus your truth and if you recognize the above examples you might want to read my article about gaslighting and my in-depth article about cognitive dissonance.
A narcissist will use a lot of projection both consciously and unconsciously. It’s very toxic behaviour. A narcissist doesn’t take any responsibility for their behaviour if it’s perceived as negative. Any criticism or honest attempt to give feedback is perceived as an attack on their persona and therefore they use projection as a defence mechanism.
It’s basically shifting the responsibility towards someone else. It can be very hard to deal with in combination with other manipulation methods. It forces the victim to look within themselves and can create an unhealthy dynamic within a relationship.
In my article about the toxic attraction between an empath and a narcissist, I go into the dynamics of this specific relationship. If a narcissist uses a lot of projection and the victim starts to only seek answers within themselves it can grow into a very unhealthy dynamic. The victim will apologize, feel guilty/ashamed, and question themselves a lot.
9. Emotional appeal
Narcissists love to use an emotional appeal in which they try to trigger your emotions such as guilt, fear, or loyalty. This could be done by using rage or act very theatrical or dramatic.
A narcissist can act as being baffled, astonished, perplexed (and so forth) by your normal behaviour or something you said. They can act like it’s unbelievable what’s happening. Some will use threats/intimidation/rage combined with behaviour such as shaming, blaming, projecting, and silent treatments.
For example, the following could be a response to setting a healthy boundary: ‘How dare you even say that! I can’t believe it. After everything I’ve done for you!’.
Narcissists can use a guilt trip as a form of intimidation. They will state that the victim doesn’t care/love enough or is being selfish. The aim is that the victim feels bad about themselves and is pushed in the submissive position in the relationship.
Projecting the blame (blameshifting)
Shaming and projecting the blame are methods continuously used in order to make the victim feel unworthy, full of self-doubts, and ashamed. Shaming can be quite subtle by the use of tone of voice, facial expressions, rhetorical questions, and sarcasm. A victim could become ashamed for even daring to challenge the narcissist or simply being around.
When projecting the blame a narcissist mostly projects their own thinking onto the victim. A narcissist has the ability to blame the victim for their own lies and could, for example, claim the victim forced them to lie. They might even add that the victim ‘deserves to be treated that way’ or ‘should feel guilty’.
The narcissist has a very strong own truth and doesn’t take any responsibility for problems. It sadly leaves the victim as the one to blame (as the scapegoat).
All this behaviour follows from the narcissist’s disturbed truth. Their truth of being superior and feeling entitled results in very unhealthy dynamics. A narcissist, sadly, sees their victim as an object in order to gain narcissistic supply. It’s all about control.
If you recognize a lot of negative feelings and emotions within yourself, this could be a warning to yourself. You can read more about the rollercoaster of emotions narcissists can cause in my article about 8 negative feelings and emotions narcissists cause/emphasize by manipulating and what human characteristics they abuse.
Focus on yourself and trusting your own truth and intuition
Clearly, it’s quite a disturbing list of manipulation tactics. It’s useful to learn about narcissistic behaviour, but eventually it’s more important to shift the attention to yourself again. When dealing with a narcissist, it’s necessary to learn to trust your own truth and intuition. As a victim, it can be very hard to do this as emotional abuse can have a severe impact on your thoughts and emotions.
It’s important to keep asking yourself questions about what’s going on. Observe and focus on actions and not on words. What is normal behaviour and what manipulative behaviour? The actions of a narcissist will always reveal the truth.
Emotional abuse is a brutal experience and it would be great to start to counterbalance the effects a narcissist has on you and slowly restore your energy. Know that all small steps in the right direction are great!
If you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, you could use the grey rock method first in order to try to create emotional detachment. In general, methods such as conscious breathing, mindfulness, or meditation can help to create detachment as well. Recognizing/acknowledging your thoughts, emotions, and feelings could help in gaining clarity and thereby seeing things more clearly.
You can find a lot of articles on this website about dealing with narcissists and more importantly working on your self-worth and your energy. You deserve your own love and compassion!
I believe you have the strength to bring yourself back to your inner nature of peace, harmony, and love. I hope this article and my website can be helpful to you in your process and wish you strength and kindness.
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