What are common narcissistic manipulation tactics to look out for? How do narcissists keep their victims from leaving them?
The main goal of a narcissist is to gain adoration from others, which reinforces their feeling of superiority. In Power, Shahida Arabi describes the tell-tale signs of a narcissist trying to manipulate you into giving them that attention.
Keep reading to understand these tactics so you can be better equipped to deal with narcissists in a relationship.
1. A Pattern of Building You Up and Tearing You Down
A common narcissistic manipulation tactic is a repeating pattern of showering you with love, compliments, and affection to suck you into a relationship, only to then tear you down psychologically through covert and direct insults. Arabi says that this tends to end with the narcissist abandoning you in a cruel way, though they are likely to try to maintain control and start the pattern all over again with false promises of changing their behavior. Arabi refers to this as the “Idealize-Devalue-Discard” cycle.
This tactic is effective because at the neurological level, it establishes a biochemical addiction to the narcissist. The narcissist’s false charm and over-the-top expressions of love (what Arabi calls “love-bombing”) tend to make you invested in them quickly, and it leads to high amounts of the brain chemical dopamine that makes you feel good.
Arabi then says that when the narcissist begins to turn on you and withhold that affection, you’ll strive to please them to get back to that level of dopamine. By erratically flip-flopping between love and cruelty, the narcissist creates what psychologists call an “intermittent reward” that makes the dopamine rush even more intense when they finally treat you well. Arabi compares this to when people play slot machines, and they can’t stop playing because of the randomness of the occasional earnings.
The next common manipulation tactic of a narcissist is gaslighting, in which the abuser makes you feel like the abuse isn’t actually happening or that your negative reaction to their abuse is unwarranted. Arabi says they might achieve this with blatant denial, like “That never happened,” or by feigning innocence and implying that you’re overly sensitive. For example, they might use statements like “I didn’t know you would get so upset about that—I didn’t mean any harm,” even when they intentionally hurt and triggered you.
Arabi explains that this tactic is highly damaging because it makes you question whether the abuse is really happening and makes you feel ashamed for being too sensitive or critical. This ultimately gives the narcissist more ammunition to harm (an additional insecurity to target) and reduces your ability to call them out or hold them accountable.
(Shortform note: The term “gaslighting” comes from a 1944 film called Gaslight. In the movie, a man tries to manipulate his wife into feeling like she’s going insane by changing things around their house—including dimming and flickering gas lights in the attic—and then denying that anything happened. Since then, it’s been popularized as a term for this common type of manipulation. Experts assert that the people most likely to use this tactic are those with NPD, borderline personality disorder, and sociopathy. However, anyone can gaslight, even without an underlying mental illness, and people can also gaslight others without realizing what they’re doing.)
3. Drawing You Back Into the Relationship
Another manipulation strategy narcissists use to fulfill their incessant need for attention is a psychological term called “hoovering”—or sucking you back into the relationship. Arabi explains that narcissists will try to draw you back in not because they have any genuine remorse for their actions or love for you but because they want more from you. It’s a way of testing your boundaries—how far can the narcissist push you and still be able to continue the abuse?
In one form of this tactic, once you’ve distanced yourself from the narcissist or after the narcissist abandons you, they’ll lure you back with apologies, lies about their remorse, and promises to go back to the way things were at the beginning of the relationship. Arabi says the narcissist may also prey on your compassion or guilt you into returning through methods such as threatening self-harm.
(Shortform note: In the case of someone threatening self-harm, it’s important to seek advice from professionals who can determine whether the person is at risk and provide support. In other cases, if someone’s trying to manipulate you back into a relationship, there are several strategies that might be helpful to resist these tactics. In Attached, Amir Levine and Rachel Heller provide advice for ending toxic relationships, such as getting friends and family to support you through the process, making a list of all the reasons you ended the relationship, and making sure you have a new safe and cozy place to stay if you were living with the ex-partner.)
Arabi warns that if you’ve ended things with the narcissist, they might stalk you after the breakup as a way of intimidating you, exerting control over your life, and provoking some kind of response. (Shortorm note: One piece of advice from experts is to contact law enforcement if a stalker threatens to hurt you or themselves. Other strategies for dealing with a stalker (even if they’re not a narcissist) are changing your routine and changing the locks on your doors if necessary, telling friends and family about it so they can act as witnesses, documenting any evidence of the stalking, and blocking and reporting the stalker on social media. It’s also important to avoid contact with the stalker since they’ll perceive any contact as encouragement.)
The Difference Between Narcissists and Emotionally Immature People
Arabi acknowledges that some of the manipulation tactics described in this section may seem similar to the behaviors of people who don’t have NPD. There are many people who string their partners along and dump them in inconsiderate ways, or are self-absorbed and don’t treat others with respect. Although some of these qualities overlap with emotionally immature people who don’t have NPD (who Arabi refers to as “toxic”), Arabi recommends simply walking away from anyone who demonstrates a pattern of these behaviors.
(Shortform note: Similar to Arabi, many resources for potential abuse victims focus on behaviors that serve as warning signs to leave an abusive relationship rather than determining a diagnosis for the abusive partner, which only psychologists can do. For example, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence provides a list of warning signs and common traits in abusers. In Why Does He Do That?, Bancroft goes a step further by saying that even if a person isn’t considered abusive, it’s best to end a relationship if you ever feel chronically mistreated, controlled, or silenced.)
Arabi adds that the key distinction between someone with NPD and someone who’s emotionally immature is that the narcissist is not just inconsiderate but incapable of feeling compassion, and they’re unlikely to want to change because they’re getting what they want by abusing other people. An emotionally immature person, on the other hand, does have the capacity to grow and evolve, especially when they come to terms with how their actions affect others.
|Treatment for NPD
As Arabi suggests, many experts assert that NPD is difficult to treat because a narcissist is unlikely to think that anything’s wrong with them, and they often interact negatively with a therapist—either by manipulating them or lashing out at them.
One expert says that to change their behavior, a narcissist has to fulfill three requirements. They have to: 1) realize they have a serious problem and understand how it negatively affects others, 2) be motivated to improve their behavior because of the threat of consequences (such as losing their job or losing contact with their family), and 3) stay committed to therapy and the effort to change.
However, this expert writes that even if someone with NPD expresses a willingness to change, the attempt usually doesn’t last because they won’t engage in genuine self-reflection and take responsibility for their flaws.
Despite these challenges, one research article says that NPD patients can benefit from medications such as antipsychotics, mood stabilizers, and antidepressants as well as long-term therapy that examines the relationship between the patient and the therapist.
On the other hand, experts suggest that unlike those with NPD, people who are emotionally immature have the capacity to change their behavior through self-reflection and working to control their reactions and improve their communication.
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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Shahida Arabi's "Power" at Shortform.
Here's what you'll find in our full Power summary:
- A look at the severe condition called Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)
- How to avoid or end relationships with narcissists
- Advice for healing after narcissistic abuse