Have you ever played the victim? If so, do you remember the emotional need you were trying to fulfill or express while doing so?
It can be challenging for you to think of a person with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) as the victim or someone who feels like one.
After all, someone with NPD is often thought of as a person with a grandiose sense of self and an unlimited need for power.
So, what does it mean when someone with the condition plays the victim?
Is it on purpose? Is it a manipulation tactic? Do they truly believe they’re being victimized?
NPD is a complex mental health condition and never a personal choice. This is why experts suggest a few reasons someone may feel or act this way.
Research from 2003 suggests that people high in narcissism may see themselves as victims of interpersonal transgressions more often than people not living with the disorder.
In a 2020 qualitative study, relatives of people with NPD reported that their loved ones often showed a victim mentality.
Whether they really feel like a victim or just play the victim to tweak social interactions to their benefit isn’t always clear.
If you’ve ever been in a relationship with someone with narcissistic personality disorder, you may have noticed that they lack both self-awareness and self-reflection.
In general, people with NPD have a difficult time being aware of their behaviors and how these affect others. They might not be able to “see it” even when you point it out to them.
This is why they might feel attacked when you contradict them or tell them they’ve done something wrong. This just doesn’t align with their inflated sense of self.
This is part of the complexity of narcissistic personality disorder.
The tendency to have low introspection combined with an exaggerated sense of superiority may leave them unable to see the situation in a way that doesn’t fit their worldview.
As a result, they may “play the victim” in some scenarios.
A few reasons to play this role may be directly connected to the symptoms of NPD:
- sense of entitlement
- delusions of grandeur
- need for control
- narcissistic rage
- low empathy
Not everyone who plays the victim has NPD. Not everyone with NPD plays the victim.
A person with narcissistic personality disorder may have a strong sense of entitlement. This means they might believe they’re inherently worthy of special treatment, recognition, and privileges.
When things don’t go their way, they might react with anger and feel the need to blame others for “messing things up.”
A sense of entitlement might also lead someone with NPD to think anything they do for you is just the greatest.
If they feel they don’t get enough praise and recognition for this action, they might act like the victim: “I can’t believe you act this way after all I’ve done for you!”
In this instance, someone with NPD might go from playing the hero to playing the victim.
Everyone uses defense mechanisms in different circumstances and for different reasons. We’re not usually aware when a defense mechanism is activated but it serves a purpose.
Sometimes, it protects us from remembering painful experiences; other times, it might help us cope with perceived threats to our identity, integrity, and sense of self.
People with narcissistic personality disorder may also use specific defense mechanisms to protect themselves.
Some people with narcissistic personality disorder live with delusions of grandeur. These are false beliefs about themselves that may make them feel they’re nothing short of a superhero and invincible.
Grandiosity is a similar defense mechanism where someone has a sense of power and self-importance, often not based on actual facts.
People with NPD may have developed these beliefs to compensate for painful childhood experiences.
Because of this, self-esteem based on these false beliefs might be what clinicians call fragile. This means it’s likely to change according to external factors.
If someone with either delusions of grandeur or grandiosity faces a situation where they’re not the hero they think they are, they might justify it by saying someone else is trying to harm them.
This “bad guy” versus “victim” train of thought may work to soothe their distress.
For example, they might believe they’re the smartest and ablest member of the team. But if someone else gets the raise or promotion they believe they deserve more, they might explain it as jealousy from the boss.
“They’re just nervous I’ll eventually get promoted to their position, so they’d rather sabotage me and help someone else instead.”
Another common defense mechanism is projection. This is when someone unconsciously “projects” their own feelings or reality onto another person. “It’s not me — it’s them.”
For example, you might feel threatened in some way by a co-worker, but you perceive the situation as them being jealous of you.
Projection isn’t something you fake or pretend. You really believe it. And in the case of people living with NPD, projection may sometimes explain why they play the victim.
For example, if someone with NPD is highly competitive to the point of sabotaging someone else to get ahead, they might believe it’s the other person who’s trying to sabotage them.
For them, a difference of opinion expressed during a work meeting with the boss might be interpreted as a co-worker’s attempt to hurt them. In that scenario, they may believe they’re the victim of someone else’s bad intentions.
Some people with NPD have a high need to have control, and sometimes, playing the victim can serve this purpose.
If you’re having an argument with someone who’s feeling attacked, you’re likely to back off and soften your stance.
You might also be more flexible about some things if the other person is saying you’re not being fair or kind to them.
If someone with NPD plays the victim, they might have developed this tactic to protect themselves and retain control whenever other avenues fail them.
It’s also probable — according to 2014 research — that emotionally intelligent people with NPD know how to better regulate their emotions and read other people’s. This would make it easier for them to play a role (like the victim) that they know might “get to you.”
It can sometimes be difficult for people with narcissistic personality disorder to take criticism or rejection. This might make them react in several ways — one of them is rage.
In this case, experts refer to it as narcissistic rage.
One aspect of rage is feeling like the victim of someone else’s attacks. “I’m enraged because you attacked me.”
Another aspect is that even when someone doesn’t feel like somebody else’s victim, they may recognize that playing this part may take away what enraged them in the first place.
In other words, if you feel someone’s doing something you don’t like, and that makes you mad, playing the victim can make the other person change their ways.
Every person will respond differently. Some people with NPD may attack you or treat you in a vindictive way whenever they feel rage, while others play the victim instead.
Guilt is a human emotion that tends to keep us in check. When balanced, guilt may act as a deterrent for antisocial behavior.
Low empathy also makes it difficult for someone with NPD to understand where you’re coming from. This might lead them to believing you’re attacking them.
For example, if you’re expressing how hurt you feel for something they’ve done, they might not see it your way. They might not understand why that behavior would hurt you. For them, you could be complaining and treating them unfairly.
In that scenario, they may think of themselves as the victim, even if you’re just saying you’re hurt or upset.
Low empathy might also lead them to use manipulation tactics — like playing the victim — to get what they want, even if you get hurt.
Even if you understand that NPD is a complex mental health condition and not a personal choice, it can feel overwhelming to have someone frequently feeling or acting like a victim.
You might hope they change or grow out of it. You may even try to convince them to change their ways. While this might work with someone without the condition who plays the victim, it won’t likely work for someone with NPD.
Some people with NPD do develop new social skills with the help of a mental health professional. However, it can often be challenging for them to stay in therapy.
In the meantime, learning to recognize games they might play, and setting clear boundaries can help you cope.
Here are a few tips to consider:
- Try not to take it personally. This is never easy, but with practice you can do it.
- Don’t take the bait. If possible, walk away every time they treat you like the bad guy.
- Don’t internalize it. They might say a few hurtful things when they’re playing the victim, but those words don’t define you.
- Don’t idealize them. It’s natural to second-guess yourself and consider if you’re really mistreating them. Trust their actions more than their words.
- Don’t engage. It’s not uncommon to react in the same way someone is treating you. However, avoid the need to play the victim with them, even if they really aren’t being fair to you.
There are many reasons why anyone could play the victim. It’s the same for people with NPD, though they may play the victim more often than others.
Playing the victim or feeling like a victim may stem from lower self-esteem, low empathy, or a need for control.
In every case, because NPD is a mental health condition, this behavior is linked to the symptoms that define the disorder and not to a personal choice.
Understanding this may be a first step toward coping with this behavior. In other instances, it might be necessary for you to set clear boundaries or walk away from the relationship.