This is how narcissists play mind games.
They call it “morally equivalent,” the things they incite in the dramatic production they’re scripting off-stage while we wander through the storybook they dropped us into, wondering how things veered so sharply off-course.
Or worse, the imaginary things, the shadows they project onto us of their own behavior. The cheating. The lying. The stalking. The abusive and predatory actions. The contradictions. The controlling manipulations. The jealous attitude.
They manufacture emotions that look and feel like monstrosities in our own repertoire, then call us monsters for reflecting back to them what they wanted to incite or expected to see all along.
They create worlds for themselves in which no one can be trusted by acting themselves in an untrustworthy manner, and then trapping you into reacting to being betrayed.
These are all just narcissist mind games.
Everything they say, everything they do, ends up making you wonder if you are the one to blame, if there is something wrong with you, if you are no different than he or she is.
Narcissist Mind Game Examples
What are some of the things they do to keep us under control? To incite drama and manufacture emotions? To make us doubt ourselves and keep us off guard? Most importantly, how do they get us to question whether we are, indeed, the ones to blame for the demise of the relationship?
How do they twist reality to make us believe that we are the narcissistic ones?
Love-bombing is a particularly insidious form of abuse, although often not recognized as such because it feels so good when you’re in the middle of it. It can consist of excessive praise and adoration, mirroring, lavish gifts and grandiose promises, fast-tracking intimacy, over-the-top sexual escapades, and lots and lots of attention and time spent together. The result can be that a partner who has been target will more easily drop his or her guard and become very trusting early, believing that the narcissist has good intentions and is very much like him or her.
Love-bombing is a mind game used in order to manipulate someone into easily trusting early, and believing a narcissist has good intentions. A partner believes so strongly that the narcissist is similar to him or her and believes in the goodness he or she sees, because we would never behave in the deceptive way that will come later. We believe it’s real–why shouldn’t we?
Narcissists often set the stage for triangulation early without partners realizing it by bringing up exes, friends, people who are “distantly” known or used to be in the picture. The mentioned person is often described as having wronged the narcissist in some way or at least in negative terms. This description is made in order to ensure that the new partner will not be suspicious of that other person.
In my situation, my ex-boyfriend had all kinds of people swirling in his orbit that he explained in a variety of ways: exes who had wronged him; a girl his parents wanted him to marry that he “found unappealing,” never talked to, and that there was no chance that it was ever going to happen; women he claimed he found unattractive who pursued him; women he “went to high school with” who “kept bothering him.” There was even an ex he claimed to feel sorry for because she now had a new boyfriend that supposedly abused her, so he kept in contact with her.
Do any of these sound familiar or sound similar to something you may have encountered?
Triangulation occurs later in the relationship once the love-bombing begins to slide into more degrading interactions. Narcissists may begin to use all of those people they once spoke unfavorably of in comparative ways.
“My ex would never have acted that way.”
“My ex always did that for me.”
“If I married [x], I know she would never leave me.”
“Other girls I know would never wear that.”
“At least she never got jealous like you.”
These mind games cause us to believe that there is something wrong with us for not tolerating their bad behavior, or that if we don’t put up with it, they will have no problem with switching us out for someone who will.
Gaslighting makes us question ourselves and is probably the most important way that narcissists actually modify our behavior to get us to do what they want us to do. By manipulating us into slowly taking on their view of the world and accepting it as true–or at least not questioning it–they change not only our behavior but the way we think.
We begin to doubt our own memory and sanity. Did we actually see what we saw or hear what we heard?
It becomes easier to just let it go than to face the wrath of the narcissist or to be punished in other ways when they walk out, make threats, verbally abuse us, or engage in other forms of betrayal.
It’s not just a mind game, it’s mind control.
4. Intermittent Reinforcement
Intermittent reinforcement is the occasional positive behavior we see from the narcissist after being subjected to days or weeks of negative treatment, seemingly with no rhyme or reason. No matter what we do, there seems to be nothing we can do to predict what will suddenly cause the narcissist to react to us positively again.
This cycle can keep us on edge, tied to them psychologically due to a form of Stockholm Syndrome known as a trauma bond.
Narcissists know how to push our buttons because they learned all of our secrets early on when we decided to trust them. They know exactly what sets us off and have no problem waiting until we are in front of others before making a comment that will cause us to react in a way that can make it look as if we are the problem. Because they can remain calm and detached and because they are the ones who have been engaging in outrageous, inexplicable behavior, we may explode or react in ways in which we would not normally react.
Again, this is a way of manufacturing an emotion–but they are doing it in front of others. This has the effect of making them look like a victim or making them look justified in some of their actions.
In this video, psychotherapist Dr. Les Carter breaks down what these mind games and more may look like over time as they come out in the narcissist’s everyday actions.
How Narcissists Play Mind Games with False Comparisons
As evident from the mind game examples above, they are designed to twist negative thoughts, emotions and behavior back onto you when without what the narcissist did in the first place, you would not have had those reactions.
They stab us and then blame us for bleeding.
Our behavior can sometimes look like theirs. Here are five ways our behavior may look narcissistic, but when the causes, motivations, and effects are examined, they are not.
False Comparison #1: “I must be narcissistic because narcissists need excessive attention and the narcissist’s love-bombing worked on me and I really miss his/her attention.”
If narcissists are so self-absorbed and use people to boost their self-esteem, you may wonder: Am I no different than the narcissist, since the excessive love-bombing that he or she used was so effective on me?
The tactics that they used to love-bomb you are intentionally designed to make you vulnerable and will psychologically elicit love, appreciation, trust and a sense of obligation from anyone. They used they on you to elicit that love from you for themselves.
They are the same tactics used by cults to indoctrinate. In fact, the very term “love-bombing” was originally used by the Unification Church (the “Moonies”), although they insisted it is genuine and it was critics of religious “love-bombers” who insist there are ulterior motives.
Either way, you are not a narcissist for responding psychologically to the way tactics such as “mirroring” naturally entice someone to like you. There is even a popular book out now called The Science of Likeability that discusses some of the same techniques that narcissists happen to use and why they work.
Narcissists use them during the idealization phase of the relationship under intense conditions in a very short period of time to encourage strong bonding. The fact that you were susceptible to them does not make you a narcissist– it makes you human.
In contrast, Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a disorder in which the criteria indicate that narcissists have a sense of entitlement and expect constant, excessive admiration. People who have this disorder have a need for this admiration which drives them to deceive and manipulate in order to receive it.
In addition, you actually loved him or her, or at least the person they presented to you. You likely put all of your trust, commitment and care into the relationship and your feelings were real.
Narcissists do not love people– they love how people make them feel or what people can do for them. The narcissist implemented these tactics with the goal of getting you to return the emotions so they could feel self-validated. You had no ulterior motive or goal.
False Comparison #2: “I must be selfish and deceitful just like the narcissist because I snuck around and invaded his or her privacy to find out what was really going on, made accusations, and monopolized conversations about what he or she was doing.”
Narcissists are notorious for having double lives, and in addition, they gaslight and are pathological liars. At some point, you may have found yourself checking up on their stories, playing detective, asking around, looking back through their social media, searching the Internet for clues, anything to find out what was really going on when things just didn’t add up.
You may have kept it quiet and deceived him or her yourself that you were doing these things, or you may have not let on that your feelings were starting to change.
When someone consistently lies, misleads, gaslights you, abuses your trust and purposefully tries to keep information from you, it leads you down a path where you are questioning your own judgment. You may have discovered partial truths or you may have been concerned that you were wrong and you didn’t want to jump to conclusions.
What may be confusing about this is that the narcissist may have also done a lot of checking up on you. Narcissists are very curious about what goes on in your life and like to ask you questions about who else you’re seeing, who else you’re talking to, and who all of the people are that are following your social media accounts. They ask where you’re going and who you are with. Maybe they go through your phone or your messages.
The difference between what you did and what your partner did, however, is that the narcissist monitored you to control your behavior and maintain power over you, your whereabouts or other aspects of you. He or she feels entitled to pry into your life or violate your boundaries for no other reason other than to gain this control over you.
In contrast, you turned to other methods of learning the truth, protecting yourself from further exploitation, clearing up mental confusion purpose generated by the person who may claim you’re the one trying to control or stalk them.
It’s pure projection. But for his or her actions, you would have no reason to engage in this behavior and you probably never acted this way before you got into this relationship.
When you began to ask the narcissist about what you found out or describe what it made you feel, the narcissist turned the conversation back onto you and accused you of starting arguments or being selfish because you “wouldn’t let the past go,” even as his or her behavior continued.
Your behavior was not narcissistic. You were not getting answers. You were being shut down. You were being gaslit.
It was a bait and switch on your own sanity.
False Comparison #3. “I must be as unstable as the narcissist because I keep leaving and going back to the relationship just like the narcissist does when he or she discards then hoovers.”
The narcissist’s actions generate some serious cognitive dissonance in our brains. You may have been attempting to resolve their contradictory actions, to figure out whether they love you or not, and do it on top of the trauma and chemical bonds that usually develop in an abusive relationship.
Partners of narcissists tend to develop a trauma bond with them. The intermittent kindness they provide temporarily eases the pain they themselves cause, and clinging to these kindnesses because of the immense relief they cause is a way to cope with the extreme psychological stress. It’s similar to Stockholm Syndrome, and each time, it creates a new hope that the pain will come to an end.
The trauma bond is almost always supplemented by a chemical bond to the narcissist as well. The cycle between cruelty and kindness dysregulates the neurochemicals dopamine and oxytocin in your brain. Dependence and withdrawal symptoms similar to drug addiction can keep drawing you back in.
Yet narcissists, on the other hand, break up or discard you and then hoover you back to control you because they are the ones with the issues. If you have trouble not going back to them, or if you break up with them only to return a few days later, it isn’t because you’re trying to control them!
It’s because you’ve been manipulated by their actions to be unable to act in your own best interest and stay away. Your actions may be currently inconsistent, but they do not make you inherently unstable. Your actions are a response to being abused.
False Comparison #4: I must be cruel and sadistic like the narcissist because I lashed out and was mean.
Let’s be clear: reacting to an abusive environment generated over a long period of time does not make you cruel and sadistic.
Narcissists generate an abusive environment from day one by using false narratives about themselves, love-bombing, isolation, and other tactics to control you. Then they slowly begin to abuse you in other ways.
In an environment in which the purpose was always to dominate you and extract as much attention and affection from you as possible, you were vulnerable from the beginning.
There is a term called “reactionary abuse” when the target of abuse reacts to a pervasive pattern of abuse by eventually getting angry and lashing out. Narcissists love using these reactions to argue that they are the ones being harmed in the relationship, that it is you who is the cruel, abusive one, or at least that they are no worse than you are if after months or years of abuse you become defensive and react.
Again, you were likely not like this before the relationship began– it is situational and generated by the circumstances that the narcissist has placed onto you and that he or she wants to happen.
He or she is hurting you to be cruel. Any reaction you may have to that cruelty is human– not because you have a sadistic streak.
This is not to argue that any actions and words are acceptable as long as they are from you and not the narcissist. Rather, it is to make the point that, as with the love-bombing, you were reacting as anyone would under the circumstances.
Your behavior was being purposely manipulated to result in a particular outcome.
False Comparison #5: I must be as self-absorbed and unempathetic as the narcissist because I feel detached from other people and find it hard to get close to or care about anyone else.
Have you found it difficult to focus on other people or care as much about their problems? Maybe you have felt guilty for feeling more self-absorbed than usual.
Perhaps you’ve felt selfish for not being there as much as you used to be for your friends or for feeling less patient than you used to be, or even for withdrawing and flaking on plans.
Am I turning into a narcissist? You may think.
No, you are most certainly not.
People who feel guilt and shame, who are conflicted by their actions, who are worried about how other people feel because of how they are behaving are usually not narcissists.
People who have been abused may end up with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or Complex-Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They may be coping with severe anxiety or depression, may not have the emotional energy to devote to others that they once did. They may feel drained or irritable.
This doesn’t make you a narcissist. It makes you traumatized. When you are able to heal, you will return to your baseline, engaged self.
“Am I a Narcissist?”
“See, you’re just like me.”
Narcissists play a confidence game where they can not only extract what they want from you, they can also make you believe you were responsible for it.
Playing mind games with a narcissist is how they steal your consent, blatantly abuse your trust and willingness to forgive, drain your positive energy, shame you for wanting the fundamental human needs required for emotional safety and psychological well-being, and then blame you for the very reactions they generate when those things are not forthcoming.
It is rare if you are able to leave a relationship with a narcissist without doing one or more of these things described above, such as “playing detective,” falling for hoovers, or reacting to their abuse.
You did these things because your relationship never took place on an equal playing field. They are reactions to something that the narcissist has done to you within the relationship, something that they have done either to manipulate or directly harm you.
Making you forget that there was nothing wrong with you before you met them is just one more mind game they play.
Don’t forget to check out these resources:
- Taking Your Life Back After a Relationship With a Narcissist – Free Recovery Toolkit
- Comprehensive Narcissistic Abuse Dictionary
- The Best Resources for Narcissistic Abuse Recovery
Do you want to tell your story and have it published? Go here to learn more.