20 dirty psychological tricks that narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths use to manipulate us
Manipulators use many distractions designed to misinform the victim and shift responsibility for what is going on. These psychological tricks are used by narcissistic individuals such as psychopaths and sociopaths to avoid taking responsibility for their actions.
- Infernally Meaningless Conversations
- Generalizations and unsubstantiated statements
- Dliberate perversion of your thoughts and feelings to the point of absurdity
- Nagging and changing the rules of the game
- Changing the subject to avoid responsibility
- Hidden and overt threats
- Slander and harassment
- Love bombing and devaluation
- Preemptive Defense
- Lure and pretend innocence
- Testing boundaries and vacuuming tactics
- Aggressive jabs under the guise of jokes
- Condescending sarcasm and patronizing tone
MegaHarbor lists twenty not-so-clean techniques by which inadequate people humiliate others and shut them up.
Gaslighting is a manipulative technique, most easily illustrated by these typical phrases: “It wasn’t like that,” “You imagined it,” and “Are you crazy?” Gaslighting is perhaps one of the most insidious techniques of manipulation because it seeks to distort and undermine your sense of reality; it corrodes your ability to trust yourself, and as a result you begin to doubt the validity of your complaints about insults and mistreatment.
When a narcissist, sociopath or psychopath uses these tactics against you, you automatically side with them to settle the resulting cognitive dissonance. Two irreconcilable reactions are fighting in your mind: either he/she is wrong or my own feelings. The manipulator will try to convince you that the former is completely out of the question, while the latter is pure truth, indicative of your inadequacy.
To successfully confront gaslighting, it is very important to find a footing in your own reality: sometimes it is enough to write down what is happening in a diary, tell friends or share with a support group. The value of support from the outside is that it can help you break out of the manipulator’s distorted reality and look at things for yourself.
One sure sign of destructiveness is when a person is chronically unwilling to see their own shortcomings and uses everything in their power to avoid responsibility for them. This is called projection. Projection is a defense mechanism used to displace responsibility for one’s own negative character traits and behavior by attributing them to another. In this way, the manipulator avoids admitting guilt and responsibility for the consequences.
Although we all resort to projection to one degree or another, projection often becomes a form of psychological abuse for narcissists.
Instead of admitting their own faults, flaws and misdeeds, narcissists and sociopaths prefer to blame their own vices on their unsuspecting victims, and in a most unpleasant and violent manner. Instead of admitting that they could do with taking care of themselves, they prefer to shame their victims into taking responsibility for their behavior. In this way, the narcissist causes others to feel the bitter shame they feel for themselves.
For example, a pathological liar might accuse his/her partner of lying; a needy wife might call her husband “clingy” in an attempt to make him look dependent; a bad employee might call his boss inefficient in order to avoid talking truthfully about his own performance.
Narcissistic sadists love to play the “blame game.” The goals of the game are: they win, you lose, the bottom line is that you or the world at large is to blame for everything that happened to them. So, you have to coddle their fragile ego, and in return you get pushed into a sea of insecurity and self-criticism. That’s a cool idea, isn’t it?
The solution? Don’t “project” your own sense of compassion or empathy onto the destructive person and don’t take their toxic projections onto yourself. As manipulation expert Dr. George Simon writes in his book In Sheep’s Clothing (2010), projecting your own conscience and value system onto others can encourage further exploitation.
Narcissists at the extreme end of the spectrum tend to be completely uninterested in introspection and change. It is important to cut all relationships and ties with destructive people as soon as possible so that you can lean on your own reality and begin to value yourself. You don’t have to live in a cloaca of other people’s dysfunctions.
Infernally Meaningless Conversations
If you’re hoping for a thoughtful conversation with a destructive person, you’re in for a disappointment: instead of a considerate interlocutor, you get an epic brain clog.
Narcissists and sociopaths use stream-of-consciousness, circle talk, personalization, projection, and gaslighting to confuse you whenever you disagree or challenge them. This is done to discredit, distract and upset you, to lead you away from the main topic and to make you feel guilty that you are a living person with real thoughts and feelings that dare to be different from their own. In their eyes, the whole problem is your existence.
Ten minutes into an argument with a narcissist is enough, and you’re already wondering how you got into it in the first place. All you’ve done is express disagreement with his/her ridiculous assertion that the sky is red, and now your entire childhood, family, friends, career, and lifestyle are mixed with mud. This is because your disagreement contradicts his/her false belief that he/she is omnipotent and omniscient, which leads to what is called narcissistic trauma.
Remember: destructive people are not arguing with you, they are in fact arguing with themselves, you are just an accomplice in a long, exhausting monologue. They love drama and live for it. Trying to find an argument to refute their ridiculous assertions is just adding fuel to the fire. Don’t feed the narcissists—rather, feed yourself the realization that the problem is not you, but their abusive behavior. Stop communicating as soon as you feel the first signs of narcissism, and spend that time doing something nice.
Generalizations and unsubstantiated statements
Narcissists do not always boast of outstanding intelligence—many of them are not used to thinking at all. Instead of taking the time to consider different points of view, they make generalizations based on anything you say, ignoring the nuances of your reasoning and your attempts to consider different opinions. And it’s even easier to label you, which automatically crosses off the value of any statement you make.
On a larger scale, generalizations and unsubstantiated claims are often used to devalue phenomena that do not fit into unfounded societal prejudices, schemes, and stereotypes; they are also used to maintain the status quo. In this way, one aspect of an issue is inflated to such an extent that serious conversation becomes impossible. For example, when popular personalities are accused of rape, many will immediately cry out that such accusations are sometimes false. And while false accusations do happen, they are quite rare, and in this case one person’s actions are attributed to the majority, while the specific accusation is ignored.
Such everyday microaggressions are typical of destructive relationships. For example, you tell a narcissist that his/her behavior is unacceptable, and he/she immediately responds by making unsubstantiated assertions about your hypersensitivity or generalizations like, “You’re always unhappy with everything” or “You’re not happy with anything,” instead of paying attention to the real problem. Yes, you may be oversensitive at times, but it’s just as likely that your abuser is insensitive and callous most of the time.
Don’t retreat from the truth and try to confront unfounded generalizations, for these are just a form of completely illogical black and white thinking. Behind destructive people throwing around unsubstantiated generalizations is not the wealth of human experience, only their own limited experience coupled with an inflated sense of self-worth.
Dliberate perversion of your thoughts and feelings to the point of absurdity
In the mind of a narcissist or sociopath, your differences of opinion, justified emotions, and real experiences turn into character flaws and proof of your irrationality.
Narcissists make up all sorts of innuendo, paraphrasing what you say to make your position seem absurd or unacceptable. Say you point out to a destructive friend that you don’t like the way he/she talks to you. In response, he/she twists your words, “Oh, so you’re perfect?” or “So you think I’m bad?”—even though all you did was express your feelings. This gives them the opportunity to invalidate your right to think and emotion about their inappropriate behavior and instills guilt in you when you try to set boundaries.
This common distraction is a cognitive distortion called “mind reading.” Destructive people believe as if they know your thoughts and feelings. They regularly jump to conclusions based on their own reactions instead of listening to you carefully. They act accordingly based on their own illusions and delusions and never apologize for the harm they cause as a result. Great masters of putting words in other people’s mouths, they make you out to be the bearer of absolutely wildest intentions and opinions. They accuse you of thinking they are inadequate before you even make a comment about their behavior, and this, too, is a form of preemptive defense.
The best way to draw a clear line with someone like that is to simply say, “I didn’t say that,” ending the conversation if they continue to accuse you of something you didn’t do or say. As long as the disruptive person has the ability to shift blame and take the conversation away from their own behavior, they will continue to shame you for daring to disagree with them.
Nagging and changing the rules of the game
The difference between constructive and destructive criticism is the lack of personal attacks and unattainable standards. These so-called “critics” do not have the slightest desire to help you become a better person—they just like to nag, humiliate, and make a scapegoat out of you. Narcissistic sadists and sociopaths resort to a sophism called “game-changing” to ensure that they have every reason to be constantly dissatisfied with you. This is when, even after you have provided all sorts of evidence to back up your argument or taken all possible steps to satisfy their request, they make a new demand on you or want more evidence.
Do you have a successful career? The narcissist will nag you about why you are still not a multimillionaire. Have you been “babysitting” the narcissist around the clock? Now prove that you can remain “independent.” The rules of the game will constantly change and may even contradict each other; the only purpose of the game is to get your attention and approval from the narcissist.
By constantly raising or replacing expectations, destructive manipulators can instill in you a pervasive sense of worthlessness and a constant fear of inadequacy. By singling out one minor episode or failure and inflating it to gigantic proportions, the narcissist forces you to forget about your own strengths and instead worry all the time about your weaknesses or shortcomings. This forces you to think about the new expectations that you now have to meet, and as a result, you go out of your way to meet any of their demands—and it turns out that they treat you just as bad.
Don’t be fooled by nagging and game-changing—if the person prefers to go over and over about a minor issue and ignore all of your attempts to be correct or meet their demands, then he or she is not driven by a desire to understand you. They are driven by a desire to instill in you the feeling that you must constantly strive to earn their approval. Appreciate and approve of yourself. Know that you are a whole person, and should not constantly feel ungrateful or unworthy.
Changing the subject to avoid responsibility
This is a maneuver I call the “What-about-you?” syndrome. It is a literal digression from the currently discussed topic in order to shift attention to an entirely different one. Narcissists don’t want to discuss their personal responsibility, so they steer the conversation in the direction they want. Are you complaining that he doesn’t make time for his children? He will remind you of the mistake you made seven years ago. This maneuver removes the limits of timeline or theme and often begins with, “Remember what you did…?”
On a public level, these techniques are used to derail discussions that challenge the status quo. A conversation about human liberties, for example, can be disrupted simply by one of the participants bringing up another pressing issue, diverting everyone’s attention from the original dispute.
As Tara Moss, author of Speaking Out: A 21st Century Handbook for Women and Girls, points out, it takes specificity to properly address and resolve issues—that doesn’t mean that the other topics raised aren’t important, it just means that there is a time and a context for each topic.
Don’t get distracted; if someone is trying to substitute concepts, use the “broken record” method, as I call it: keep repeating the facts persistently without going off topic. Go back to the current topic, say “That’s not what I’m talking about right now. Let’s not get distracted.” If it doesn’t help, stop the conversation and direct your energy in a more useful direction—for example, find a companion who is not mentally stuck at the level of a three-year-old toddler.
Hidden and overt threats
Narcissists and other destructive individuals feel very uncomfortable when their belief that the whole world owes them, a false sense of superiority or enormous ego are questioned by someone. They tend to make unreasonable demands on others—and in doing so, punish you for not conforming to their unattainable expectations.
Instead of maturely resolving disagreements and seeking compromise, they try to deprive you of the right to your own opinion, seeking to teach you to fear the consequences of any disagreement with them or non-compliance with their demands. They respond to any disagreement with an ultimatum, their standard response being “do this or I will do that.”
If in response to your attempts to draw a line or express a different opinion you hear an orderly tone and threats, whether it’s veiled hints or detailed promises of punishment, it’s a sure sign: this is a person who believes that everyone owes him or her, and such person will never compromise. Take the threats seriously and show the narcissist that you’re not kidding: document them if possible and report them to the proper authorities.
Narcissists proactively make a big deal out of nothing if they feel their sense of superiority is threatened in the slightest. As they see it, they are the only ones who are always right, and anyone who dares to say otherwise inflicts narcissistic trauma on them, leading to narcissistic rage. According to Dr. Mark Goulston, narcissistic rage is not the result of low self-esteem, but rather a confidence in one’s own infallibility and a false sense of superiority.
In the lowest members of this type, narcissistic rage takes the form of insults when they cannot otherwise influence your opinions or emotions. Insults are a quick and easy way to hurt, humiliate, and ridicule your mental abilities, appearance, or behavior, while depriving you of your right to be a person with an opinion of your own.
Insults can also be used to criticize your beliefs, opinions and ideas. A valid point of view or cogent rebuttal suddenly becomes “ridiculous” or “idiotic” in the hands of a narcissist or sociopath who feels insulted but is unable to argue anything of substance. Unable to find the strength to attack your arguments, the narcissist attacks your personality, seeking to undermine your credibility and question your intelligence in every way possible. As soon as an insult is launched, you should cut off further communication and make it clear that you do not intend to tolerate it. Don’t take it personally. Keep in mind that they only use insults because they don’t know any other way to make their point.
Destructive people teach you to associate your strengths, talents and happy memories with abuse, disappointment and disrespect. To this end, they casually make derogatory remarks about your qualities and attributes that they themselves once admired, sabotage your goals, and ruin your vacations and weekends. They may even isolate you from your friends and loved ones and make you financially dependent on them. You are essentially “trained” like Pavlov’s dogs, developing a fear of doing all the things that once made your life fulfilling.
Narcissists, sociopaths, psychopaths and other destructive personalities do this to divert all attention to themselves and see how you can meet their needs. If any external factor can prevent them from having complete and total control over your life, they seek to destroy it. They need to be the center of attention all the time. At the idealization stage, you were the center of the narcissist’s world—and now the narcissist wants to be the center of your world.
In addition, narcissists are pathologically jealous by nature and can’t stand the thought of anything even slightly shielding you from their influence. For them, your happiness represents everything that is unavailable to them in their emotionally meager existence. After all, if you find that you can receive respect, love and support from someone non-destructive, what’s going to keep you from breaking up with them? In the hands of a destructive person, “training” is an effective way to make you tiptoe and always stop halfway to your dreams.
Slander and harassment
When destructive personalities cannot control how you perceive yourself, they begin to control how others perceive you; they take on the role of martyr by making you look destructive. Slander and gossip are a preemptive strike designed to destroy your reputation and tarnish your name so that you have no support left in case you do decide to end the relationship and leave your destructive partner. They may even stalk and harass you or someone you know, supposedly to “expose” you; such “exposure” is just a way to hide their own destructive behavior by projecting it onto you.
Sometimes, gossip turns two or even groups of people against each other. A victim in a destructive relationship with a narcissist often doesn’t know what is being said about him/her while the relationship lasts, but usually the whole truth comes out when it collapses.
Destructive people will gossip behind your back (and to your face, too), say mean things about you to yours or their loved ones, spread rumors that make you the aggressor and them the victim, and attribute to you exactly the behaviors they fear the most from your side. In addition, they will methodically, covertly, and deliberately insult you so that they can then cite your reactions as proof that they are the “victim” in your relationship.
The best way to counteract slander is to always keep your cool and stick to the facts. This is especially true for conflicting divorces with narcissists who may purposely provoke you so they can then use your reactions against you. If possible, document any form of harassment, intimidation and abuse (including online), and try to communicate with the narcissist only through your attorney. If harassment and intimidation are involved, it is worth contacting law enforcement agencies; preferably, find a lawyer who is well-versed in narcissistic personality disorder. Your honesty and sincerity will speak for themselves when the narcissist’s mask begins to slip.
Love bombing and devaluation
Destructive people take you through an idealizing phase until you take the bait and become friends or romantically involved with them. Then they devalue you by expressing contempt for everything they were originally attracted to you. Another typical case is when a destructive person puts you on a pedestal and aggressively devalues and humiliates someone else who threatens their sense of superiority.
Narcissists do this all the time: they berate their exes in front of new partners, and over time they begin to treat new ones with the same disdain. Eventually, any partner of a narcissist will experience the same things as the previous ones. In such a relationship, you will inevitably become the next ex who is likely to be berated in front of his/her next partner. You just don’t know it yet. So, don’t forget the love bombing method if your partner’s behavior with others contrasts sharply with the luscious sweetness he or she displays in their relationship with you.
As personal growth instructor, Wendy Powell advises, a good way to resist love bombing from someone who seems potentially destructive to you is to take your time. Keep in mind: the way a person reviews others may foreshadow how he or she will one day treat you.
When someone makes a big deal about being a “nice guy” or “nice girl” and tells you that you should “trust him or her,” or out of the blue assures you of his or her honesty, beware.
Destructive and violent people exaggerate their ability to be kind and compassionate. They often tell you that you should “trust” them, without first building a strong foundation for that trust. They may skillfully “disguise” themselves by portraying a high level of sympathy and empathy at the beginning of your relationship, only to reveal their true identity later. When the cycle of abuse reaches the depreciation stage, the mask begins to slip and you see their true nature: terrifyingly cold, callous, and dismissive.
Genuinely good people rarely have to constantly boast about their positive qualities—they exude warmth rather than talk about it, and they know that actions are much more important than words. They know that trust and respect are a two-way street, requiring reciprocity rather than constant suggestion.
To counter preventive defense, think about why a person emphasizes his or her good qualities. Is it because they think you don’t trust them or because they know they’re not trustworthy? Judge not by empty words, but by actions; it is the actions that will tell you whether the person in front of you is what he or she claims to be.
Referring to an opinion, point of view, or threat to bring an outsider into the current communication is called “triangulation.” A common technique for asserting the rightness of a destructive individual and devaluing their victim’s reactions, triangulation often leads to love triangles in which you feel defenseless and unbalanced.
Narcissists love to triangulate their partner/partner with strangers, coworkers, ex-spouses, friends, and even family members to make them jealous and insecure. They also use the opinions of others to validate their point of view.
This maneuver is designed to distract your attention from the psychological abuse and present the narcissist in a positive image of a popular, desirable person. Plus, you begin to doubt yourself: Since Jane agrees with Alex, am I wrong after all? In fact, narcissists are happy to “retell” nasty things said about you by others, even though they themselves say nasty things behind your back.
To resist triangulation, remember: whoever the narcissist triangulates you with, that person is also triangulated by your relationship with the narcissist. In fact, the narcissist is in charge of all roles. Respond to him or her with your own “triangulation”—find the support of a third party beyond their control, and remember that your position has value, too.
Lure and pretend innocence
Destructive people create a false sense of security to make it easier for them to demonstrate their cruelty. Once such a person drags you into a meaningless, random argument, it will quickly escalate into a showdown because they have no sense of respect. A petty disagreement can turn out to be bait, and even if at first you hold back as a matter of courtesy, you will quickly realize that he or she is guided by a malicious desire to humiliate you.
“Baiting” you with a seemingly innocent comment disguised as a rational argument, they begin to play with you. Remember: narcissists know your weaknesses, unpleasant phrases that undermine your self-confidence, and sore topics that open old wounds—and they use this knowledge to provoke you. After you swallow the bait, the narcissist will calm down and innocently ask if you’re “okay,” assuring you that he or she “didn’t mean” to hurt you. This feigned innocence catches you off guard and makes you believe that he/she really didn’t mean to hurt you, until it starts happening so often that you can no longer deny their obvious malice.
It is advisable to realize at once when they are trying to lure you, so that you can end the communication as soon as possible. Common luring techniques are provocative statements, insults, hurtful accusations or unfounded generalizations. Trust your intuition: if a certain phrase seemed to you “suspicious,” and this feeling has not disappeared even after the conversation partner explained it—perhaps it’s a signal that it is worth taking your time to think through the situation before you react.
Testing boundaries and vacuuming tactics
Narcissists, sociopaths and other destructive personalities are constantly testing your boundaries to see which ones can be violated. The more violations they can commit with impunity, the further they will go.
This is why survivors of emotional and physical abuse often face even more abuse whenever they decide to return to their abusers.
Abusers often resort to “vacuuming tactics,” as if “sucking” their victim back in with sweet promises, fake remorse, and empty words about how they will change, only to subject them to more abuse. In the abuser’s sick mind, this testing of boundaries serves as punishment for trying to resist the abuse, and for returning to it. When the narcissist tries to start “from scratch,” strengthen the boundaries even more, rather than retreating from them.
Remember: manipulators do not respond to empathy and sympathy. They respond only to consequences.
Aggressive jabs under the guise of jokes
Hidden narcissists love to tell you nasty things. They pass them off as “just jokes,” as if they reserve the right to make nasty comments while remaining innocently calm. But once you get angry with rude, nasty remarks, they accuse you of having no sense of humor. This is a common technique in verbal abuse.
The manipulator reveals a contemptuous smirk and a sadistic glint in their eyes: like a predator playing with its prey, the manipulator takes pleasure in the fact that he or she can hurt you with impunity. It’s only a joke, isn’t it? It’s not. It’s a way of suggesting to you that their insults are just a joke, a way of shifting the conversation from their cruelty to your supposed hypersensitivity. In such cases, it is important to stand your ground and make it clear that you will not tolerate such treatment.
When you draw the manipulator’s attention to these hidden insults, they may easily resort to gaslighting. Continue to defend your position that their behavior is unacceptable, and if that doesn’t work, stop communicating with the manipulator.
Condescending sarcasm and patronizing tone
Belittling and humiliating others is a “strong” point of a disruptive person, and tone of voice is just one of the many tools in their arsenal. Exchanging sarcastic remarks can be fun when it’s mutual, but the narcissist resorts to sarcasm solely as a way to manipulate and humiliate. And if you’re hurt by it, then you’re “oversensitive.”
Not that they themselves throw tantrums every time someone dares criticize their inflated egos—no, it’s the victim who is “oversensitive.” When you are constantly treated as a child and challenged on every point you make, you develop a natural fear of expressing your feelings without fear of reprimand. This self-censorship saves your abuser from having to shut you up, because you do it yourself.
When confronted with a condescending demeanor or patronizing tone, make it clear. You don’t deserve to be spoken to like a kid, and you certainly don’t have to be silent for the sake of someone else’s delusions of grandeur.
“Shame on you!” is a favorite saying of destructive people. Although it can also be heard from quite normal people, in the mouth of a narcissist and psychopath, shaming is an effective method of dealing with all sorts of views and actions that threaten their undivided power. It is also used to destroy and nullify the victim’s self-esteem: if the victim dares to be proud of something, shaming them for that particular attribute, quality, or achievement can lower their self-esteem and strangle all pride to the ground.
Narcissists, sociopaths and psychopaths love to use your wounds against yourself; they can even get you to feel ashamed of the hurt or abuse you have suffered, causing you further psychological trauma. Did you experience abuse as a child? A narcissist or sociopath will insinuate that you somehow deserved it, or brag about their own happy childhood to make you feel inadequate and worthless. Can you think of a better way to hurt you than by picking at old wounds? As a doctor to the contrary, a destructive person seeks to deepen your wound, not heal it.
If you suspect you are dealing with a destructive person, try to hide your vulnerabilities or long-standing traumas from them. Until they prove you can trust them, don’t give them any information that can then be used against you.
Most important: Destructive people want to control you in any way they can. They isolate you, control your finances and social circle, control every aspect of your life. But the most powerful tool in their arsenal is playing on your feelings.
That’s why narcissists and sociopaths create conflicts out of nothing, just to make you feel insecure and unstable. That’s why they constantly argue over the smallest things and get angry at the slightest thing. That is why they are emotionally withdrawn, and then again rush to idealize you as soon as they feel that they are losing control. That’s why they waver between their true and false selves, and you never feel psychologically safe because you can’t understand what your partner is really like.
The more power they have over your emotions, the harder it will be for you to trust your feelings and realize that you are a victim of psychological abuse. By learning about manipulative techniques and how they undermine your confidence in yourself, you can understand who you are up against and at least try to regain control of your own life and stay away from destructive people.