Some of the most destructive things that happen to us in our relationships with narcissists happen in our conversations with them.
Their conversational tactics are known as “word salad.” The narcissistic abuse dictionary defines word salad as:
“Circular language tactics narcissists use to ensure that conversations with others never have satisfactory resolutions for the other party; can include projection, stonewalling, blameshifting, sympathy ploys, bringing up something the partner did, bringing up unrelated issues, starting the conversation over, and others.”
The purpose of word salad is to use our words against us. By using these circular conversational tactics, they manage to both convince us and others that we are at fault for what’s going wrong in the relationship and they manage to deprive us of a voice.
How is that even possible?
They do it by denying us to our right to have an opinion, emotion or thought that is a reaction to anything they have done.
Every interaction is designed to distract, punish, or demean us until we give up and accept their version of reality using a combination of these emotionally abusive methods.
Over time, the more often we do this, the more compliant we become until the narcissist can get away with anything.
Conversations From Hell: The Basic Set-Up
It goes like this.
Perhaps you have questions or concerns. When you bring them to the narcissist, you are not given straight answers or you are lied to directly.
If you continue to request a respectful conversation in which you are given the answers you deserve, the narcissist may escalate the conversation using multiple forms of distraction or deflection, or even tell you the topic is off-limits.
Or perhaps it is the narcissist who starts the conversation.
He or she may say something inflammatory out of the blue. Maybe you just said or did something the narcissist didn’t like or he or she made something up out of thin air and started a fight with you over it that you’ll never be able to win.
In either example, the narcissist refuses to engage in a rational discussion with you about it and nothing you say seems to matter.
For example, if you defend yourself or ask them to stop, they use it as proof that you’re guilty.
No matter who started the conversation, the narcissist doesn’t seem to care what you have to say and has no interest in coming to a mutually satisfying resolution.
But it’s not over.
You have insisted on having rational conversation about it and treated with respect. You are understandably confused and cannot accept the narcissist’s version of reality. It’s baffling!
Shannon Thomas, a trauma therapist who treats narcissistic abuse survivors, says in her book Healing from Hidden Abuse:
“When a survivor tries to talk to a psychological abuser about their negative behaviors, a favorite maneuver of toxic people is to simply not reply… When a survivor asks why they didn’t reply, the toxic person will spin the situation and say something like, “I am not going to argue with you.” Can you see what just happened? The survivor was blamed for causing drama, or an argument, and the toxic person never addressed their behaviors.”
Because you wanted to have a rational discussion, because you would not accept their version of events, you are blamed by the narcissist for causing conflict. You would not “let it go.”
The narcissist punishes until you back down and agree that you did something wrong or let them tell you that you are a bad person–or whatever it was they accused you of during the course of the discussion.
Often, if you do just give up and agree, the narcissist begins to shower you with love once again.
As the relationships go on, partners of narcissists learn to walk a line that language divides. Conversations become the flashpoint for keeping the peace.
We can either adopt a pathological worldview in which we are to blame for causing problems by “talking,” yet the narcissist is not at fault for wrongdoing– or we can continue to speak up and be further shamed, threatened and abused.
Tactics Used in Word Salad
Below are a few of the tactics you may recognize if you find yourself in one of these conversations. It’s important to recognize and name the type of emotional abuse that you encounter.
The definitions for these terms come from the narcissistic abuse dictionary.
- Blameshifting. This is the act of avoiding responsibility for an act of wrongdoing by claiming that the act would not have occurred but for the actions of someone else (or something else, such as alcohol, youth, stress, or other external factors).
- Crazy-making. A general term used to describe tactics used that over time cause self-doubt, confusion and that result in the victim questioning reality. Examples of how it can occur are when the narcissist’s actions don’t match his or her words, when he or she gaslights or lies about his or her actions or what has been said, and when he or she refuses to discuss problems in the relationship in a constructive manner.
- Dosing. The act of providing morsels of positive attention after the cruel phase has begun to keep the victim strung along.
- Double standards. Narcissists often have two sets of rules: one for themselves and one for everyone else, as they think they are entitled to special treatment. They will often have high standards for honesty and fidelity among those they choose for partners but have no intentions of adhering to these standards themselves.
- Gaslighting. A form of manipulation where the narcissist denies, provides conflicting information or outright lies over and over again in direct contradiction to what another person can blatantly perceive using his or her own five senses.
- Intermittent Reinforcement. This is a pattern of behavior in which the narcissist randomly intersperses kindness between acts of cruelty. Psychological research demonstrates this is an especially powerful tactic. Because the partner never knows when the narcissist will show kindness, the randomness of the benevolence is one of the most critical forces that keep him or her tied to the relationship, hoping each time that the cruelty has come to an end for good.
- Pathological lying. Lying that is done compulsively out of habit. It may not always seem to personally benefit the liar. It is known to be a common characteristic of many narcissists, psychopaths, and sociopaths. Sometimes, it is thought that they may engage in the lying for control or even enjoyment, in what is known as “duper’s delight.”
- Projection. This is a defense mechanism narcissists commonly use to avoid their own feelings of shame caused by their negative behaviors. It occurs when they accuse partners of the things they themselves have done.
- Silent Treatment. A period of non-responsiveness in which the narcissist disappears and treats the partner as if he or she doesn’t exist. The narcissist implements it as a form of punishment if a partner engages in a behavior that the narcissist doesn’t like.
- Stonewalling. Refusal to engage in a conversation or provide information or other resources as a form of punishment for bringing up topics that a narcissist doesn’t like.
- Victim-Blaming. The act of blaming or partially blaming the victim for the act of harm that has befallen him or her. Narcissists often use blameshifting statements to avoid taking responsibility for their abuse, such as stating that their partner was not caring or understanding enough, or was critical or reacted in a certain way, or left or did not give him or her a chance to change.
What makes these tactics particularly difficult to deal with is that the narcissist will not just choose one and stick with it. He or she will alternate back and forth between them seamlessly in the same conversation as you ask different questions.
This is what makes the conversation even more mind-boggling and irrational.
This is why you eventually give up — you’re exhausted.
Psychopath Free: Recognizing Word Salad
Jackson MacKenzie, a renowned author on the topic of narcissistic abuse, explains in his book Psychopath Free that conversations are a primary method narcissists use to erode the identities of their partners.
These conversations condition their partners that they are not allowed to speak about the behavior of the narcissists or even normal relationship concerns without horrendous repercussions and threats to end the relationship.
I believe that his book contains the origin of the term “word salad” as it is applied to abusive relationships with narcissists. He lists the following nine warning signs that you’re in one of these dialogues.
As you will notice, some of them correspond with the tactics narcissists use. They also go beyond them, however, to describe the interactions themselves.
They describe the narcissist’s body language, how you may feel as the conversation is taking place, and the types of things you may find yourself saying.
1. Circular Conversations
You feel as if you’ve resolved something in the conversation, and then a few minutes later you’re talking about it again as if the narcissist didn’t hear any of the arguments you made. They argue their own same points again and again as if they’re in their own reality where they can’t hear you or your words don’t register.
2. Bringing Up Your Past Wrongdoings and Ignoring Their Own
If you mention any of their bad behavior, they will bring up something you have done to distract you and put you on the defensive. It may or may not even be relevant. This is a form of distraction in the conversation.
3. Condescending and Patronizing Tone
They will remain calm during the conversation. Yet you will become increasingly confused and bewildered as the circular conversation devolves into irrational territory and they act as if they don’t hear you or acknowledge what you’re saying.
When you react in exasperation, they respond as if you’re being unreasonable and use your reaction against you, claiming you’re out of control or escalating things.
4. Accusing You of Doing Things That They Themselves Are Doing.
As the conversation starts to escalate, the narcissist will start to project their bad behavior onto you. Once you have to spend time defending yourself, suddenly the spotlight is off of what they have done.
5. Multiple Personas
The narcissist will use a variety of tactics and show a variety of sides. You may see anger and insults, tenderness, or they may play the victim card.
All of these tactics, regardless of whether the narcissist acts in a friendly, neutral or hostile way toward you, all serve the interests of the narcissist.
Even if the narcissist appears conciliatory, it’s because that’s what the narcissist perceives will work at the time and may change their behavior again at any moment.
6. The Eternal Victim
The narcissist will often offer reasons for their behavior that lead back to something bad that’s happened to them.
7. You Begin Explaining Basic Human Emotions
You may find yourself having to describe how doing the things they have done hurt you and why, and the basic foundations of a relationship like respect and honesty. You think if you can communicate these things, they will stop.
The narcissist almost always blames others for the things they do or makes other excuses. They may blame alcohol, their youth, unfair or biased treatment from others, or you.
Yet they will not and cannot just own up to what they have done, express genuine remorse and correct course.
9. “What in the World Just Happened?”
You leave the conversations feeling drained and as if nothing was accomplished, or as if you accepted a mediocre answer or you are being diminished as the time goes on because you can’t seem to get anything resolved.
Over time, you dread asking about anything because you know it will open up one of these conversations in which you may be attacked–or even that the relationship may suddenly end without warning.
You’ve been conditioned.
A Word Salad Example in Conversation
Studying exactly what these conversations look like can help to shed light on the tactics they use to try to avoid giving partners what they want in the conversations: answers, validation, acknowledgment, apologies, concessions, or promises.
I offer the example below of a conversation that my ex-boyfriend and I had over text messages at one point.
In this conversation, I was confused about why he kept coming back to hoover me into a relationship with him only to then treat me so horribly not long afterward.
This was not long before we went no contact, but the fact that his actions did not match his words was really difficult for me to grasp and I wanted to understand his motivations.
Because of the different ways that he responded to what I asked, it took over two hours to have this conversation. I feared the entire time that he would suddenly get angry and begin insulting me or cut off the conversation.
I had a feeling of anxiety and dread in my body the entire time, but I needed answers so badly, I had to ask.
* * * * *
Me: Can I ask a question? A serious one that I really want to know the answer to… Why do you still want to see me? What do you feel like you get out of it?
Him: Peace. Happiness. It makes me alive n happy. Why do u wanna see me and what do u get out of it? Ur the love of my life Kristen believe it or not.
Me: You say I’m the love of your life and yet you’re so mean sometimes about petty things… and you walk out or act unkind for such small reasons. How does that cherish our time together? How does that make you happy?
Him: I haven’t done that in a while.
Me: Well like three weeks. And we’ve only seen each other like twice since the last time it did happen.
Him: Yes cuz I don’t drive and u know that, so it’s hard to come see u more than once a week. U haven’t seen me either and haven’t answered my question. I can ask u the same thing. Why didn’t you come to see me?
Me: No you missed the point. You said you hadn’t done it in a while and my point was that there were only two opportunities that we have even been together for it to happen. What do you mean I haven’t seen you either?
Him: You have seen me 3 times in the past 2 weeks not 2.
Me: I don’t think so but it doesn’t matter. Two or three doesn’t change my point overall.
Him: Yes I get the point. Yes we haven’t had opportunities for me to walk out.
Me: Okay so why do you say so many things to tell me how much you love me and want to be around me but your actions don’t match it? That’s why I wanted to know what you get out of it. That’s all I was trying to say.
Him: Yeah. Your actions don’t either sometimes.
Me: No, but I never start anything though.
Him: Yeah. Can we not argue please? I’m really tired tonight after all this training.
Me: I’m fine with that.
Him: Okay thanks.
Me: To avoid an argument you shouldn’t change the subject so we don’t get off on tangents instead of just responding to what I said.
Him: Well I have answered my question why don’t you answer now? I have already admitted my actions don’t match so what else am I avoiding?
Me: Like I asked you a question and your response was “Your actions too sometimes.” Okay, that can be discussed, but that’s not what I asked. That is an example.
Him: I have already answered your questions you asked when you asked them the first time and now you’re asking me more and more and I don’t want to answer any more of your questions cuz I’m really tired and still in the car trying to go home and shower and stuff. You asked 2 questions and I have answered them. And on the other hand you didn’t answer mine. 🙂
Me: You didn’t actually answer my question. I didn’t ask anything about admitting actions. My question is still the same because your answer didn’t fit with reality. What you said you got out of our time together didn’t make sense.
Him: Yes it’s the answer believe it or not
Me: I asked you why do you say so many things to tell me how much you love me and want to be around me but your actions don’t match it?
Him: Now I know you think I don’t love u or care about u 🙂
Me: In other words, I’m asking how can you get peace and happiness out of being with me when the reality is that your actions make it hard for either of us to have peace or happiness… why wouldn’t you avoid doing things that would put an end to those things or make me think you didn’t care? I don’t know what to think.
Him: OK I get it… lol don’t think
Me: You get what? Why are you laughing?
Him: Cuz it’s funny how u don’t think I love u that’s why
Me: I said I didn’t know what to think. There’s a difference. And no it isn’t funny…
Me: I’m dead serious when I tell you if you want people to know you love them you don’t hurt them unprovoked or make them feel unimportant.
Him: Yes, I did some f***ed up things and they weren’t right. Now I’m sorry but what I feel for you is real or else I’d be gone.
Me: Okay. Why do you still do them? Like lie and yell and say mean things? If you love me so much. That’s what I always wanted to know.
Him: Yelling and saying mean things when I’m drunk… you have done things drunk too.
Me: Please don’t change the subject. And anyway yes sometimes you do them when you’re drunk but sometimes not.
Him: I’m not changing no subject.
Me: It isn’t ever right of me to retaliate but I don’t just start things.
Him: Look did I only do bad things to you? We aren’t together anymore and I think about the good times only. That’s why I sent you that song last night but I think you just don’t think I ever did anything good.
Me: Yes I do. I wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t. Who would stick around just for someone to mistreat them? It’s the fact that you also treated me well that keeps me here. So the fact that there was both makes it so confusing and that’s what I’m trying to talk to you about.
Him: Well I think I did more for you than any other girlfriend I had.
Me: Yes I believe that. That’s what your friends and some of your exes told me too. Maybe you don’t know why you did what you did. Maybe because you never trusted me and still don’t.
Him: My past that’s why. Can we stop arguing?
At this point in the conversation, I was exhausted.
As I said, I had also feared he would explode at any moment and stop talking to me and perhaps even end our interactions altogether over me asking a question.
I accepted his statement from him that the reasons why his actions and words didn’t match was because he had a past that led him not to trust people, although it was me who had brought it up and his past about being a victim of cheating, I had learned, was questionable.
Why Narcissists Never Give You What You Want in Conversations
H.G. Tudor, a self-aware narcissist who writes about relationships from a narcissist’s point of view, explains how narcissists think about these conversations differently than we do in his article, “Why Are the Arguments Never Resolved?”
When we as non-narcissists get the word salad in these conversations, we attempt to align our narratives with the narcissists to settle on a version of reality that mirrors what we have experienced.
For example, we may wish to have the narcissist acknowledge something or apologize or stop doing something. This is what happens when two non-narcissists have conversations–they are attempting to come to an agreement.
“The victim does not know that they are in a romantic entanglement with a narcissist… Both have entirely different aims,” Tudor says.
Narcissists have no interest in coming to a resolution that benefits both people, because:
- It would be giving up superiority and control to admit a wrong.
- They can’t openly admit their cruel behavior was executed without any thoughts about how it would hurt us or even that it was intentionally done to hurt us because it doesn’t benefit them to show us their remorselessness.
- They gain narcissistic supply from our confusion and pain.
If they started the argument to gain supply– perhaps by accusing you of something that didn’t happen–when they have had enough, they will end it abruptly by a change of subject or something else.
If it was us who started the conversation by asking a question, such as in my example above, the narcissist will use deflection tactics hoping that we will end the conversation.
Those tactics often won’t work because they don’t align with our reality or achieve the goals of the conversation we set out to achieve.
The narcissist is not agreeing that any statements we are making have truth to them so we can then build on them to have a conversation. Instead, he or she has crazy-making verbal interactions with us so nothing is ever settled.
“Even when the narcissist’s aims are achieved and he halts the manipulation, the victim still understandably believing the matter to be unresolved, keeps going. This causes the narcissist to respond to the challenge and then the narcissist sees the victim as maintaining an argument unnecessarily,” Tudor says.
Narcissists, not interested in our goals as non-narcissists within the conversation, will then find a way to end it, usually by stonewalling or even leaving.
Conversations with narcissists are like being in a maze where you try to stay on the right path toward the exit, however, the narcissist constantly drags you down one more dead-end hoping you’ll get lost and give up.
The way to fight back is to understand that we can never get what we need out of these conversations.
Instead, we can refuse to give up our own reality and use our voices to speak our truth, while knowing that we don’t need the narcissist to validate it.