Have you ever felt like a target in someone else’s game — one you didn’t even see coming? Recognizing manipulation tactics can help you create boundaries.
Maybe you were in a whirlwind romance, only to have the object of your affection bolt without warning. Or perhaps you found out one of your friends intentionally pitted you against someone else.
It’s natural to feel devastated and confused after this type of experience.
And if you happen to be in any type of relationship with someone with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), you may feel this way often.
Are they the bad guy? Not really. They’re living with a mental health condition that’s complex and often stigmatized. Nevertheless, understanding this doesn’t always make it easier for you.
But learning to identify the games people with narcissistic personality might play — and other frequent behaviors — can help you establish some necessary boundaries.
Someone with this disorder may appear to you as a person with strong self-esteem. However, behind an attitude of superiority, there’s often someone who’s vulnerable and might even feel powerless.
As a result, they may seek external validation and status and have a strong need to be in control.
In this process, they may develop very elaborate self-defense mechanisms, including manipulation tactics.
People with NPD also tend to have low empathy and have difficulty getting emotionally invested in others. This might also lead them to use manipulation tactics and not be aware or interested in the consequences for you.
Low empathy doesn’t mean no empathy, though. So, not everyone with the disorder will necessarily use manipulation tactics.
For people with narcissistic personality disorder, relationships are often about getting their own needs fulfilled. This may involve a need to constantly feel admired and powerful.
If this external validation isn’t received, there’s not much to fall back on for them.
A person with NPD may feel the urge to maintain control at all costs — even if it’s at your expense.
Just remember this isn’t a personal choice they make. These are characteristics of the condition they live with.
Of course, not everyone who plays these relationship games has narcissistic personality disorder. In fact, you might have used some of these tactics yourself at some point.
Anyone can use manipulation tactics or any of the games listed here and not have a narcissistic personality disorder.
The difference is that for someone with NPD, these behaviors aren’t rare or situational. They’re the way someone functions in relationships all the time.
Here are some common manipulation games someone with NPD might engage in:
You’ve probably heard of gaslighting since the term has gotten quite a bit of attention in the last few years.
It’s actually based on an old movie called “Gaslight,” wherein the husband tries to make his wife feel like she’s losing her mind.
Indeed, this is the core idea behind gaslighting.
Gaslighting is a form of severe emotional manipulation where the goal of the gaslighter is to sow seeds of confusion. This aims to make you doubt your own thoughts, emotions, or reality.
Narcissistic gaslighting is typically a long-term, gradual technique. The ultimate intention is to keep you under tight control and dependent on them.
For example, during breakfast, you ask your partner to pick up milk from the store on their way home. When the time comes, they arrive with no milk. When you point this out, their answer is, “You never told me to! You’re imagining it.”
The thing is, the more someone gaslights you, the more you begin to doubt yourself and wonder if they’re right.
More common ways to gaslight someone? “I did it because I love you,” “You’re too sensitive,” and “Nobody has ever done for you what I have.”
If you ever thought it was way too soon for someone to love you that much, it probably was. And it was also probable they love bombed you.
Love bombing can take many forms, but it’s usually a person pushing too far too soon.
For example, it’s someone saying “You’re amazing” or “I’ve never met anyone like you before,” when they actually hardly know you at all.
It might also include showering you with expensive gifts, flowers, fancy dinners, and together-forever conversations.
And it can even involve more extreme behaviors like stalking and jealousy fits.
Being love bombed can sometimes feel extremely flattering. Because of this, you might feel inclined to respond to all these romantic gestures.
Before you do, though, consider doing two things:
- Go beyond their words and gestures and focus on how much they really have to base all this love on.
- Ask yourself if you’re increasingly feeling committed to this person or obligated to correspond when you wouldn’t be interested otherwise.
Love bombing is someone hunting for your attention and dependency. Once this goal has been met and you’re engaged, a love bomber is likely to lose interest and, in most cases, take advantage of what you now feel for them.
Examples of someone love bombing you can include a combination of behaviors:
- Giving almost an “obsessive” type of attention and not accepting no for an answer.
- Trying to make you feel guilty for not having the same feelings.
- Disapproving of your friends or other people in your life.
- Planning your entire lives around their dreams and fantasies.
- Repeatedly showing up unannounced or making plans for you both without asking first.
- Demanding more affection and attention from you in the name of them giving you so much.
- Saying “I love you” or claiming you as their soul mate after knowing you for a very short period of time.
- Getting upset when you ask for space or have your own plans without them.
Why does love bombing happen?
A person with NPD may have trouble forming healthy attachments.
This doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy excitement and romance. But, once this excitement wears off and they’ve caught you, they typically decide to go elsewhere.
It’s the possibility of winning that keeps them interested. This responds to their need for attention and superiority. They want to feel they’re able to get you — that they have the upper hand.
What comes after love bombing? It’s usually ghosting.
Ghosting happens when someone suddenly stops communicating with you without warning. It can happen in any relationship but more typically in a dating scenario.
You’ve finally accepted to date this person who has inundated you with attention for the last few weeks. And then, one day after a date, you try to check their Instagram profile and find out… you’ve been blocked.
This has to be a mistake of some kind. So, you text them. Nothing. Hours later, you try calling them. Nothing.
You’ve been ghosted.
The act of ghosting is a power move that someone with NPD may use.
There are many reasons why someone might ghost you. It may be because they lost interest and want to avoid the conflict of telling you this personally. It may be they want to see your reaction and how much you care.
Often, it’s just another manipulation tactic — a break-up game — they use to feel they had the last word and all control in the relationship.
Do narcissists come back after ghosting you? Not likely, but they might if they want to gain something from it.
Now, remember, not everyone who ghosts you has a personality disorder. This tactic can be used by anyone in many circumstances and it’s not a sign of a mental health condition every time.
Triangulation is another way a person with NPD might feel like they can maintain the upper hand.
In sum, triangulation is getting a third person involved in your communication channels. In other words, it’s when you send your message through a third person or justify an action with “this third person” told me.
Triangulation can also take many forms.
A common one is trying to get you jealous and to compete for their attention by incessantly comparing you — directly or indirectly — with a third person.
Other times, triangulation works as a divide and conquer tactic.
Say that your best friend is jealous of one of your most recent friendships. They may say to you, “I don’t know why, but Alexis said some really rude things about you the other night. I defended you, of course.” And then, they might go to Alexis and say the same thing about you.
Triangulation may also be about getting you involved in their conflict with someone else.
Maybe they ask you to defend them publicly and make you feel guilty if you don’t. Maybe they tell you to intervene on their behalf to do something that could be embarrassing for them to do.
Playing the victim
People with NPD often experience emotions more intensely, or are highly reactive to any form of criticism.
Because it’s difficult for them to engage in self-reflection, they may need to justify themselves when things aren’t going their way.
This often means putting the blame on others when their life isn’t panning out.
For example, they might justify not meeting their goals at work by whining about all the times you were late to work this month. You coming to work late might have something to do with it, or it might have nothing to do with it.
Either way, they’re playing the victim to justify something that was otherwise in their hands.
And then maybe you get a promotion they were after. They might explain this to their co-workers or family by saying you achieved it by “kissing up” to the boss. Obviously, they deserved it more, they say.
Blaming others for the disappointment feels better than internalizing the idea that they might not be qualified for the promotion.
In romantic relationships, playing the victim may get you to back off.
For example, your partner gets really defensive after you tell them they forgot to pick up milk on the way home. Then they start saying how exhausted they are, how much they needed to come home to get some peace, and how you manage to ruin it for them every time.
This makes you back off and leave them alone. Maybe you’ll get the milk yourself. Mission accomplished.
If a person with NPD feels they’ve been embarrassed, rejected, or treated unfairly, it can provoke an intense sense of shame, humiliation, and rage.
This is often called narcissistic rage or rage injury.
Sometimes, these overwhelmingly negative feelings can lead the person with NPD to become extremely vindictive.
Narcissistic rage may lead them to unleash an all-out campaign to “ruin” you if they now perceive you as the enemy.
They might even come up with a long-term plan to get revenge. This revenge tactic could include slander, abuse, property destruction, and in some extreme cases, physical violence.
People with narcissistic personality disorder may engage in a variety of games or manipulation tactics. This is so they fulfill their need to be or appear superior and powerful.
Although it might be tempting to retaliate, seek an apology, or even try to “fix” them, a person with NPD usually has a hard time being aware of how their behaviors affect others.
This isn’t by personal choice, though. It’s part of living with a complex mental health condition.
Manipulation tactics are not always a symptom of a mental health condition, though. Also, not everyone with NPD will use these tactics.
If you’re engaged in a relationship where you feel others are manipulating you constantly, despite your efforts for them to stop, consider taking a step back, setting boundaries, or even letting go.