Anyone can be a victim of a narcissist or psychopath.
In fact, narcissists and psychopaths manipulate everyone in their social worlds to some degree.
Sometimes, however, a narcissist meets someone who is a prime target, and when the narcissist learns more about that person’s background and personality, it all combines into a perfect storm for the unfortunate victim.
If you are recovering from a relationship with a narcissist– or trying to leave one– these may be five of the most important questions you may ever ask yourself. Together, they may help you to see how you were drawn into the narcissist’s web so that you can find your way out.
1. What Did I Provide or Have That the Narcissist Desired?
Narcissists want people in their lives not because of who they are, but for certain characteristics they have or physical items that they possess and for what those qualities or things can do to elevate them or make them feel powerful: status, sex, money, affection, support, a home, a cover of normalcy, adoration, or anything else, tangible or intangible.
It is worth considering if there were any signs from the narcissist about what it was that he or she wanted from you. Also, did they make odd comments about others in their lives that they claimed to care about that seemed insensitive or self-serving?
The narcissist either found out that we possessed these qualities or had these things and they made us a desirable target. Understanding this helps us realize that it was not our fault: we were targeted from the beginning.
It also helps to make it clear that it was not personal. When we think about the people the narcissist keeps around or their string of past lovers, it becomes easier to see that this is an unfortunate pattern that belongs to the narcissist in which we became unwittingly involved.
2. What Personality Characteristics Do I Have That the Narcissist Used Against Me?
Some personality characteristics are highly sought after because the qualities themselves are desirable to the narcissist. For example, if someone seems to enjoy taking care of people, a narcissist may realize that they are bound to get a lot of admiration and attention with little effort.
There is another more sinister reason why the narcissist seeks certain personality characteristics. Survivors of narcissistic abuse are often asked to consider what it is about themselves that would allow a person to treat them as the abuser has done. Qualities that narcissistic abusers can easily manipulate include:
- easily forgiving
- willing to give others the benefit of the doubt
Most people– people who are not disordered– give people the emotional space to be themselves. A manipulative person such as a narcissist, however, can erode the boundaries of a person with these qualities over time and use them to control that person.
Through tactics such as gaslighting, projecting, and blameshifting, narcissists can turn these strengths into weaknesses a millimeter at a time, and make it look as if our own character is to blame for our predicament.
Now all of a sudden, instead of the characteristics above, they become distorted by the narcissist’s application to this deceptive relationship until they are benefiting the narcissist and hurting us. We are manipulated into exhibiting the shadow sides of those beautiful qualities that the narcissist wanted.
After months of narcissistic abuse: Instead of:
- easily forgiving, we are a “pushover”
- willing to give others the benefit of the doubt, we are “in denial”
- easygoing, we are willing to take the blame for what goes wrong in the relationship
- nurturing, we are enabling
- empathetic, we are weak
- compassionate, we are gullible
These personality characteristics at the outset are, without a doubt, positive ones, but narcissists use them against us in order to get away with their bad deeds. It was never us that was the problem.
The narcissist uses the same tactics on everyone, however, these qualities are especially helpful for a narcissist because they may be eroded by someone who is deceptive with their intentions and allow the narcissist to control us.
3. What Beliefs Did I Have That Made Me Blind to What Was Happening in the Relationship?
In addition to personality characteristics, we also have views about the world, ourselves, relationships, and probably even psychopaths and narcissists that keep us from either recognizing the red flags, understanding that abuse is taking place, or believing what is happening once we come to understand that something is wrong.
These may be beliefs such as:
- I could never be in an abusive relationship; I know what abuse looks like.
- S/he really loves me and didn’t mean to hurt me.
- If you love someone, you should keep trying to work things out with them.
- S/he must really love me, or s/he wouldn’t still be here after everything s/he has done to me.
- I could never meet a psychopath; that would never happen to me.
- Everyone will do the right thing if given the chance.
- Everyone has some good in them.
- If I just keep telling him/her how much this hurts me, s/he will stop doing it.
As with personality traits, narcissists manipulate them to their advantage. They will find out what our core beliefs are and use words that trigger our most deeply-held ideals again and again when they have done something wrong or when we feel like pulling away from them, as if they too believe the same things, in order to keep us tied to the relationship.
4. What Experiences Have I Had (Especially Recently) That Made Me Vulnerable?
There are two types of experiences that can make us vulnerable.
First, is childhood trauma, especially regarding parental figures. Second, is recent traumatic experiences that might have caused an identity disturbance, such as a divorce or recent move.
The first type of trauma is often what people think of when they consider people in abusive relationships, however, what is less focused on is more recent experiences. Recent losses can make us vulnerable if we become distracted or confused.
Narcissists seek to find our wounds and soothe them, but unless dealt with in therapy, childhood trauma can program us for this type of abuse. In addition, recent trauma can make it easier to groom us for narcissistic abuse even if we have not been through childhood trauma (see next question).
5. What Were My Unmet Emotional Needs That the Narcissist Was Able to Fill?
Narcissists groom their victims by learning what it is that they are seeking and then becoming that very thing.
Sometimes, we don’t even realize we have these unmet needs; narcissists have a way of getting unbelievably close to us and learning enough about us to know exactly what it is we want.
Knowing what we want enables them to know where we are the most vulnerable emotionally. It allows them to control us. They can give whatever it is we need to us as if they are gods or goddesses, and then take it away on a whim.
Once we have had it filled– maybe for the first time– we would do anything to get it back.
* * * * *
The answers to these five questions will paint a portrait. The portrait will be different for each of us.
Imagine a dial with five different spinnable rings. Each ring represents one question, and there is an infinite number of possibilities represented on each: experiences, character traits, qualities/possessions, beliefs, emotional needs. When each ring on the dial is spun, there is an infinite number of possible combinations.
Some people are in the wrong place at the wrong time.
- are an attractive or high-status man or woman or have something obvious to offer
- show signs of being an easygoing and caring person
- have just been through a traumatizing experience
- believe the world is generally a good place where most people will do the right thing
- have an unmet need for attention or acceptance
Then you are a sitting duck for a psychopath. Especially, if you had childhood trauma as well. You are the perfect storm.
And yet maybe these don’t all line up perfectly.
But we all have things that narcissists might want. We all have some traits narcissists can manipulate. We all occasionally go through traumatizing experiences. We all have some beliefs– about ourselves, love, friendship, people or the world– a narcissist can manipulate. And we all have some unmet needs– we might not even be aware of them.
There isn’t one type of person that can be a victim of narcissistic abuse.
But asking yourself these five questions can help you become more aware of the narcissists around you and how thinly-veiled their attempts to control you using these things can really be.