Who among us can say that they haven’t sat in front of a computer screen for hours, playing armchair psychologist while trying to diagnose a friend, lover, family member—or themselves—with some kind of mental illness?
As humans, we love to categorize and to pathologize, but while every individual may contain traces of a number of diagnosable personality disorders, this doesn’t mean they actually have the disorder.
Personality disorders exist on a spectrum, and psychiatric professionals define these conditions with characteristics that everyone possesses to different degrees. As such, diagnosis is a difficult process best left to the professionals.
That said, it’s smart to know how to identify the signs that you’re being jerked around by someone with a disorder that blunts their capacity to experience empathy or treat you like a human being—for example, a narcissist.
As is the case with other personality disorders, narcissism exists on a spectrum. “At one end of this ‘self-loving’ spectrum is the charismatic leader, who is capable, has friends and family, but whose main vice is his or her inflated sense of self,” says psychologist and certified family law specialist David Glass, CFLS, PhD. “At the far other end of the spectrum reside individuals who have been diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).”
The only way to win is not to play.
“The NPD person is extremely manipulative to the people around him/her, and don’t truly think of these people as ‘humans’ but rather as ‘objects’ that they can move around to meet their needs,” Glass tells Urbo.
How do you avoid this type of manipulation? For starters, if you feel like someone is treating you badly, pay attention to that feeling, and to the ways someone may be orchestrating your breakdown.
That’s easier if you know the tactics that manipulative people use on their friends, family, and colleagues. For example:
The term “gaslighting” typically refers to psychological manipulation intended to make someone question their perception of reality.
Many cite the 1944 Hollywood film Gaslight, about a husband who chips away at his wife’s mental security by repeatedly suggesting that she is imagining things, as the origin of the term.
In 2017, the Los Angeles Review of Books ran a piece pointing out that the term’s origin story often relies on a misunderstanding of the way gaslights operate in the film, and the play on which the film is based—but murky semantics aside, anyone who has been the victim of a narcissist’s mind-bending can attest to the reality of this phenomenon, and its effectiveness in calling into question the sense of self.
Gaslighters might claim that something didn’t happen, or that the accuser imagined some elements of her story. It’s an extremely damaging tactic, since it can compel a person to question her sense of reality.
To respond to gaslighting, try not to engage. Remain as calm as possible and cultivate an awareness; by understanding what the narcissist is trying to do, you can respond more effectively.
Perhaps most importantly, know that you don’t have to convince the narcissist or win the argument. Maintain your perspective and give yourself credit; you’re not making this up, and your feelings are certainly valid.
This classic manipulation technique is also one of the most damaging. While the method may seem obvious, it can be quite subtle if carried out by a narcissist whom you trust and adore.
The implication is that the narcissist is more mature and has developed beyond the level of the other person.
As Christine Hammond, MS, LMHC, points out at Psych Central, there are a number of ways that narcissists use shame to diminish their victims, including speaking style. For example, Hammond lists “baby talk” as one way a narcissist might break you down.
“In any narcissistic relationship, the narcissist wants to be seen as the adult and the other person as the child,” she writes. “This belittlement is done in several condescending ways such as literally talking down, calling the other person immature, and saying the other person needs to grow up. The implication is that the narcissist is more mature and has developed beyond the level of the other person.”
Similarly, the narcissist may “talk over” the other person, using authority to diminish her. Physical posturing can be a part of this process.
Don’t respond in kind; widening your vocabulary, calling the other person immature, or listing your academic credentials won’t strengthen your position with a narcissist.
It can be frustrating when someone changes the subject in the middle of a conversation, but when a partner does this to avoid taking responsibility for their actions, diversion can be downright dangerous. Narcissists use this tactic to derail conversations that may lead to an unpleasant result.
“If the non-narcissistic person ever starts to get close to the core of any argument, or to the core of the narcissist’s deep, true lack of self-regard, the narcissist will go into overdrive to “divert” them away from the topic at hand,” says Glass.
An example of this would be someone turning the conversation to “crazy/off-track topics, or “escalating” the discussion to something more personal.
Instead, insist on keeping the topic of the conversation out in front. Resist the urge to respond to personal attacks; remain calm and focused, and you’ll be able to maintain control.
To make themselves seem more credible—and to dismiss their partner’s feelings—narcissists may bring another person into the mix in an attempt to “stack the deck” in their favor.
They might say, ‘Well it’s not only me who thinks this way.’
This is an especially insidious technique when the narcissist uses someone you personally trust or admire to diminish you.
‘They might say, ‘Well it’s not only me who thinks this way. Did you know that Mary said the same thing? In fact, she told me that she had reason not to trust you because…’ and so on,” Glass tells Urbo.
The narcissist may also use a third person who could be a threat to you—an ex-lover, for instance—in an effort to force you into submission. You may feel forced to compete with the third person.
Projection is the act of taking your own thoughts, feelings, or behaviors and pushing them onto others.
For example, a boyfriend who is highly suspicious of his girlfriend and who repeatedly accuses her of cheating, despite her having given no evidence to support his suspicions, may be projecting his own wandering eye or sexual indiscretions onto his S.O.
There are several different kinds of projection—neurotic, complementary, and complimentary. And while most people project on occasion, narcissists frequently employ projection as a means of psychological abuse.
This is another way in which the narcissist avoids addressing their own imperfections; rather than taking responsibility for their behaviors, they force their victims to assume that responsibility.
Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you—except when they do. Because they really do! Narcissists have caught onto this fact and will use it to their advantage.
Of course, there’s something undeniably childish about resorting to name-calling, and that’s typically not the approach you would expect from someone who has spent their life refining manipulation tactics.
Turns out, though, that this form of belittling is not too low for even the most sophisticated of toxic humans. And, in fact, there is something sophisticated about this tactic; it can be a powerful reminder of past bullying, pulling you back into a fearful, vulnerable mind space that you may have only associated with childhood.
A bad nickname affects your self esteem, and studies show that name-calling affects compliance. The narcissist may or may not be aware that he’s using this form of manipulation, but the malicious intent is usually clear to everyone (except, perhaps, the victim).
How to Get Out
If any of these situations are familiar, you might be dealing with a manipulative person. When that person is your partner, you may need to get out of the relationship.
That is, of course, easier said than done. Emotional manipulation can be extraordinarily difficult to overcome, and it’s much more common than most people know; one 1999 survey showed that 35 percent of women reported emotional abuse from a partner or spouse.
However, severe situations require immediate action. Realize that you cannot change or reason with an extreme narcissist, and that any attempts can lead to them working themselves back into your life.
If you decide to end a relationship with an extreme narcissist, Glass recommends making a clean break if possible.
“It’s the exact opposite of how they sell the lottery,” he says. “The only way to win is not to play.”
Use your support system and don’t allow the conversation to continue. Block the narcissist’s number and email address and cut off any communication outlets. While this might seem harsh, it’s the only way to truly keep them out of your life.
“You should rely on one or two close friends or family members. Tell them all that the narcissist has been doing to you,” says Glass. “Warn them that the narcissist will likely contact them to try to convince them that you are the person causing the problems.”
We should note that the suggestions in this article don’t apply to every situation, and severely abusive relationships often need to be handled differently to ensure your safety.
If you or someone you know is encountering abuse, visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline website or call 1-800-799-7233.