A person with narcissistic personality or narcissistic traits frequently uses manipulation tactics to influence and control others. Common examples of this include gaslighting, triangulation, love bombing, and many others. If you are experiencing these behaviors in one of your relationships or friendships, there are healthy ways to deal with it, or professional treatment options are available to help you heal.
What Is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?
According to the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder is defined by a grandiose sense of self, limited capacity for empathy, and a need for excessive admiration.1 Because of this, a true look at this condition shows us that these people are capable of inflicting manipulation or cruelty on another person–and frequently do just that.
9 Narcissistic Manipulation Tactics
There are many ways someone with narcissistic traits may try to manipulate a person. This manipulation is often done to get something that they want from a relationship, to make themselves look good, or to fulfill their narcissistic supply. This can include emotional abuse, gaslighting, and many others. These manipulation tactics can be discrete, or they can sometimes be blatant and obvious.
Below are nine common narcissistic manipulation tactics:
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. Phrases such as “it wasn’t that bad,” “you must be losing your mind,” and “it didn’t happen like that” are common statements employed to make you deny your truth. These 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.
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.
This manipulation tactic is particularly effective for 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. This is also common in the workplace, 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.2
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 narcissistic projection is usually accused of doing the very same things that the individual is doing themselves.3
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.2
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.
6. Smear Campaign
A narcissistic 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 oftentimes 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 ones causing the problems.2
7. Revenge Seeking
When someone with NPD 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.
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 another, 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.
How to Deal With Narcissistic Manipulation Tactics
Dealing with narcissistic manipulation tactics can feel confusing and exhausting. But there are ways to deal with these individuals, depending on whether they are romantic partners, coworkers, family, or friends.
Here are some ways to deal with narcissistic manipulation tactics:
- Set healthy boundaries: When interacting with a narcissist, setting healthy boundaries can be essential to making sure that you have the strength and emotional space to reduce the opportunities for them to manipulate you.
- Avoid unnecessary communication: Try to avoid contact with a narcissist when possible. But when you do need to talk to them, such as in cases of shared custody or family members who you can’t avoid, communication should be limited to brief and essential interactions.
- Choose your battles: Pick and choose what to react to. If they are making complaints about your employment that threatens your job, this is worth addressing. If they are bashing your style of clothing, ignore it.
- Cut ties when able: If you do not have to have contact with the person, it is sometimes wise to cut contact for safety reasons, especially after breaking up with a narcissist. This will decrease the chances they have to manipulate you.
- Practice self-compassion: When dealing with a manipulative person, it is normal to feel frustration, confusion, sadness, and other negative feelings. Self-acceptance can be crucial in learning how to love yourself and best support yourself after experiencing a difficult situation.
When to Seek Professional Help
Even when you have a plan to help deflect or avoid their manipulation tactics, dealing with a narcissist can be difficult and tiring–especially if they are seeking revenge towards you. If you are unable to cope with the effects of their actions, or are dealing with associated trauma, seeking therapeutic support is encouraged.
Keep in mind that if you are currently focusing on repairing a relationship with a partner or family member, couples or family therapy is not advised. This is because a narcissist may use information discussed in session against the other person. However, a therapist who has experience working with couples in which one or both partners has NPD may be beneficial in these cases. Still, seeking individual support and therapy is recommended, rather than couples therapy.
Therapy options for addressing narcissistic manipulation tactics include:
- Emotionally focused therapy: This form of therapy investigates the relationship between feelings and emotions, and how they relate to or influence decision making.
- Attachment-based therapy: Attachment-based therapy explores attachments, and what triggers anxiety or avoidance reactions from people in relationships. This form of therapy can be useful in identifying what makes someone scared to leave or end a bad relationship.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is great for learning how thoughts affect behaviors, and is good for exploring any negative or self-limiting thoughts that develop in relationships.
- Online therapy: This form of therapy can be beneficial for those with busy schedules, or who work and live in areas where there are not a lot of opportunities for mental health support. Many people also prefer online or telehealth to a traditional therapy setting.
- Group therapy: Group therapy can be helpful for people who have experienced relationship trauma, as they can learn from the support and advice of others who have been in their shoes.
- Somatic therapy: Somatic therapy explores the relationship between past traumas and how the trauma is stored and experienced in the body. This method is useful for healing in the aftermath of trauma.
Narcissists will often employ manipulation tactics to gain additional power and control, or get what they want. Many people who have experienced these behaviors report feeling confused and scared–please know that this is a normal reaction. Seeking validation and support in the aftermath of a manipulative relationship is essential to healing.