If you’ve ever wondered whether someone is playing games with you, you’re not alone. Experts explain the reasons behind it and suggest tips to cope.
You might have met someone and finally thought: This is “the one.” The roses, the love letters, the flirty texts — all of which have just reinforced this feeling.
Then all of a sudden, it all stops, and you‘re left asking yourself, “What happened?”
It can be painful, confusing, or frightening to be on the receiving end of these games. But if the person has narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), these games — and other behaviors — may be nothing new to you.
If these behaviors are commonplace, you may be wondering how you‘ll know when it’s really over.
Knowing the reasons behind these games and how to identify them will help you determine your next steps.
At times, it may appear that the goal of someone living with NPD is to get their needs met, which may involve other people who consciously and unconsciously help them achieve that end, says Dena DiNardo, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
“I advise against using the term ‘games’ when talking about narcissism,” she says. “I think it makes an already difficult situation sound much worse, much more malicious than it is usually intended to be.
“These ‘games’ are strategic manipulations,” she adds. “Often, they’re completely unconscious. People having trouble with this level of narcissism are usually in such deep pain that their ability to empathically connect with the pain of others is low.”
Those who live with NPD often have low self-esteem.
As a result, many relationship games they play may revolve around maintaining a sense of control, so they don’t have to be confronted with the shame that they may feel inside.
“People with narcissistic personality disorder tend to use strategies to gain power and control over the individual in order to assert superiority and/or dominance over them,“ says Rahmah Albugami, a licensed professional counselor in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. “In this way, they get their needs met to boost their egos, value, and self-esteem.“
Some common games someone with narcissistic personality disorder might engage in include:
While these games may be common for someone with NPD, not everyone who plays them will have this condition or another personality disorder.
Becoming more familiar with these games may help you spot them in action and set appropriate personal boundaries.
As the name suggests, this happens when someone compliments you, showers you with affection or grand gestures, or moves things too far too quickly. This may be to achieve a sense of emotional intimacy or security.
“I actually think people love bomb out of guilt,“ says DiNardo. ”Wanting so badly to be ‘in love,‘ wanting to experience positive reception from the object of the love bomb.”
She adds, “Everything is in service of feeling good, feeling important, feeling unique, and increasing self-esteem. Often, no matter the cost and at the expense of other people’s thoughts and feelings.”
What love bombing looks like
On the first date, your date hires a limo to pick you up. They take you to a five-star restaurant, surprise you with gifts, and spend all night telling you how amazing you look.
Playing the victim
People with NPD often have a strong sense of entitlement. They might believe that they deserve special attention or treatment.
They may play on your empathetic personality to manipulate you into helping them or going easy on them. You may find it difficult to abandon someone who seems consistently down on their luck.
What playing the victim looks like
Each time you call a loved one for help, she has a story ready to go. She can’t show up because she’s having another personal crisis, like a sprained ankle or breakup. But if she needs you, she may expect you to drop everything and help.
Gaslighting refers to denying the truth of a situation as you saw or heard it, which can confuse your sense of reality. They may be trying to avoid getting caught for something by turning it back around on you.
“One of the most common things to look out for are if you’re constantly questioning yourself,” says Albugami.
What gaslighting looks like
Your gut instinct tells you that your boss is covering up something you read in a report. But your boss may say, “That never happened. Maybe you should see a therapist. I’m worried about you.”
Triangulation is a way to isolate you from friends or family. It can take many forms.
One way is to get you to turn against other people or other people to turn against you. This can be done with a smear campaign — attacking someone’s reputation behind their back.
The hope is that you’ll side with them instead of the other person, who they may view as competition for your attention.
What triangulation looks like
You’ve been spending a lot more time with ”the girls“ lately. Your partner says, “I know you love your best friend, but I heard her talking badly about you behind your back at the party the other night.”
Ghosting may occur when someone no longer feels that you can supply them with something they perceive as valuable. They may cease contact as part of the “devaluation and discard” pattern of behavior.
There are many reasons you might be ghosted. The person may have lost interest in you or just want to see how much you really care about them. No matter the reason, this power move may be another manipulation tactic to try to control the relationship.
What ghosting looks like
Your sister calls and speaks as if you’re very close (even though you’re not). She mentions that she’s buying a house and needs a co-signer. You tell her you’re saving money, so you’ll pass, but you’d love to have dinner sometime. You may not hear from her again after that until she needs another favor.
Having a fragile sense of self is not uncommon for someone with NPD.
If you call them out on their behaviors, it may create a narcissistic rage or injury. Rather than sit with the difficult emotion and self-reflect, they may instead externalize the agony they feel in the form of revenge.
What revenge looks like
You interview a potential employee for a new role at work. Your gut instinct tells you to go in a different direction. When you decline to give them an offer, they send numerous complaints to your boss in an attempt to get you fired and threaten to file a lawsuit for discrimination.
If you’re in a relationship with someone with NPD, the first step is to own your wounds, says DiNardo.
“Realize the manipulations,“ she says. ”Feel the pain, but don’t stop there. Don’t drop an anchor. Being angry at someone who manipulated you is not a recipe for getting healthy or breaking the pattern.”
Instead, remove the focus from their behaviors and instead on your responses. You may find it helpful to ask yourself these questions:
- How did this happen?
- How did I end up in this connection?
- What beliefs may have led to this?
- Where do those come from?
You don’t have to do this tough inner work alone, by the way. You may find it helpful to work with a mental health professional to help process what you’re feeling.
If someone with narcissistic personality disorder appears to be playing games with you, it’s common to feel hurt.
Keep in mind that this is a complex mental health condition and that the person behaving this way may or may not be conscious of their behaviors.
Still, that doesn’t mean you have to engage in these games or behaviors. You may find it helpful to work with a mental health professional on setting boundaries and educating yourself about narcissistic personality disorder.
“Therapy can help in many ways,“ says Albugami. ”You can learn healthy coping mechanisms, identify red flags, build self-esteem, and self-trust.“
“It’s empowering to know that you’re not ’stuck‘ in that relationship and that you can find the support and guidance you may need through therapy,” she adds.