If someone in your life has a pattern of playing the victim, it may feel confusing and frustrating. You’re not alone and there are ways you can cope.
Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a complex mental health condition, often linked with a “victim mentality.”
While it’s possible for a person with NPD to do this consciously to manipulate others, it often goes deeper than that.
Someone may firmly believe that they’re the victim and operate from that place, even when the evidence suggests otherwise.
With a few expert-backed strategies, it’s possible to navigate this difficult terrain.
In part, it’s how people with narcissistic patterns view interpersonal interactions.
Research from 2018 suggests that a sense of victimhood or entitlement is a common trait of NPD.
Narcissistic defenses (like all defenses) operate unconsciously, says Dr. Ramani Durvasula, a clinical psychologist based in Los Angeles and author of two books on narcissism.
A 2020 study suggests that people who live with NPD often carry a sense of victimhood.
“Victimhood is a form of blame-shifting,” Durvasula says. “It allows the ego to remain intact, to blame the world, and in some cases to get validation perhaps from other aggrieved people, or people who want to rescue them.”
It may be helpful to think of the “victim card” as a defense mechanism to help someone get their needs met.
A victim stance can help someone:
- acquire resources
- confuse who is at fault
- garner sympathy from others
- maintain a sense of control
- prevent someone from leaving
There are many ways that victimhood can play out in relationships.
One of the symptoms of NPD is a belief that someone is superior to others and should be given different or special treatment.
In victim mode, says Durvasula, this can sound like, “The reason things haven’t worked out for me is that I wasn’t born with a trust fund, everyone else has connections, and I have to make things work on my own.”
The DARVO strategy can muddle the details of an interaction.
It works like this:
- D: deny the behavior
- A: attack you
- R: reverse
- V: victim and
- O: offender
For example, a spouse may deny that kissing counts as cheating (D), feel hurt by your unwarranted jealousy (A), and insist that you apologize (RVO).
When faced with difficulties, some people project their emotions onto others.
For example, a spouse may accuse you of wanting to leave when they’re actually the one thinking of leaving. Seeing their distress, you may find yourself apologizing and making amends, believing you are somehow in the wrong.
Someone with NPD may deny or minimize behaviors, leaving you questioning your sense of reality. This is known as gaslighting.
This could sound like:
- “It’s your fault I did this.”
- “You’re the one who started it.”
- “I didn’t do it. What’s wrong with you?”
- “You knew this when you married me.”
To preserve their reputation and gain sympathy from others, someone may talk badly about you or accuse you of things you didn’t do.
For example, a boss may insist that they came up with a concept first and that you’re trying to steal their idea.
It may take some practice, but it’s possible to empower yourself in these situations.
Try to practice detachment
If possible, try to avoid the temptation to go down the rabbit hole of defending yourself, says Durvasula. “They’re likely accusing you of something that isn’t true, so there’s no point,” she says.
Instead, try to detach from the situation and hold onto your reality.
“Just because someone else tells you the grass is purple doesn’t make it so, and you don’t have to defend the green grass that is there,” she explains.
Document your experience
When someone consistently takes on the victim role and refuses to take accountability for their actions, it’s not uncommon to feel like you’re imagining things, says Sybil Cummin, a licensed professional counselor in Arvada, Colorado.
“If you’re starting to doubt your own experiences because of the responses you’re getting, start journaling your experiences. Document or note any patterns,” she says.
Consider setting healthy boundaries
You may find it helpful to set boundaries around what behaviors you will tolerate, Cummin explains.
For example, she says this can sound like:
- “Your statement about X doesn’t fit the facts of what happened.”
- “Your previous experiences don’t give you permission to treat me this way.”
- “It’s clear that we’ve reached an impasse of opinion.”
“If they become angry about your boundaries or refuse to respect them, it’s likely that you’ll need to start changing your level of contact with them to ensure your mental health and self-worth can remain intact,” she says.
Try the grey rock method
In essence, going “grey rock” means becoming as neutral as possible. The purpose is to protect your emotional well-being, says Dr. Nakpangi Thomas, a licensed professional counselor in Detroit.
“It involves only necessary contact and the removal of your emotions,” she explains. “You only provide someone with information that’s essential.”
Thomas outlines four basic steps you can try, including:
- avoiding small talk and interactions
- keeping interactions short
- giving brief answers
- communicating using only the facts
Consider the no-contact approach
If this relationship is interfering with your emotional well-being — or it’s toxic, abusive, or dangerous — it may be time to consider making an exit plan and ceasing contact.
“[Battling] someone with NPD may be tiring, and no one wins,” says Thomas. “In some cases, the best way to respond is no-contact. This includes calls, texts, social media, and events. Involving the authorities may be necessary to obtain an order of protection.”
If you want more information, you can check out our article about how to leave an abusive person with NPD.
People with NPD often have a sense of victimhood. This can present you with many challenges, but it’s possible to cope.
If possible, try to document patterns, set healthy boundaries, and limit your interactions.
Some useful books may include:
- “Stop Caretaking the Borderline or Narcissist: How to End the Drama and Get on with Life” by Margalis Fielstad
- “‘Don’t You Know Who I Am?’: How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility” by Dr. Ramani Durvasula
- “The Covert Passive Aggressive Narcissist: Recognizing the Traits and Finding Healing After Hidden Emotional and Psychological Abuse” by Debbie Mirza