Narcissistic Behaviors That Distort Your Reality

* I generally write using the pronouns he/him when referring to narcissists, but females are just as likely to be narcissists or exhibit narcissistic traits. So please don’t think just because article uses the word him or he that it could not a woman in that same role.

Narcissists engage in behaviors that are harmful to everyone they meet.

Below are the tactics they use to distort your reality and their motivations behind them. These are classic narcissistic behaviors in a nutshell:

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1. Gaslighting

Gaslighting can be described in different variations of three words:

“That didn’t happen,”

“You imagined it,”

and “Are you crazy?”

It is one of the most insidious manipulation tactics because it works to distort and erode your sense of reality. It eats away at your ability to trust yourself and inevitably disables you from feeling justified in calling out abuse and mistreatment.

When a narcissist gaslights you, you try to reconcile the cognitive dissonance with two conflicting beliefs: “Is this person right?” or “Can I trust what I experienced?”

The narc will try to convince you that the first is the truth, while the second is a sign of your own dysfunction.

In order to resist gaslighting, it’s important to be grounded in your own reality.

Sometimes writing things down as they happened or telling a friend your experience can help counteract the gaslighting effect.

The power of having a validating community can redirect you from the distorted reality of a narcissist back to your own inner guidance.

2. Projection

Projection is when a person is unwilling to see their own shortcomings and does everything in their power to avoid being held accountable.

It is a defense mechanism used to displace the responsibility of one’s own negative behavior by attributing it to someone else. It ultimately acts as a digression to avoid ownership and accountability.

A narcissist’s projections are psychologically abusive.

Rather than acknowledge their own flaws and wrongdoings they dump them on their victims in a way that is excessively painful and cruel. Instead of admitting that self-improvement may be in order, they prefer that their victims take responsibility for their bad behavior.

They may engage in pathological lying and accuse their partner of fibbing. They may be needy and call their partner clingy. Narcissists love to play the “blame shifting game.” Their objective is they win, and you lose, and you are blamed for everything wrong with them.

Solution? Don’t “project” your own compassion or empathy onto them and don’t own any of their toxic projections onto you either. They have no interest in changing. It’s important to cut ties and end interactions with the narcissist as soon as possible so you can get centered in your own reality and validate your identity.

3. Nonsensical conversations.

Narcissists use word salad, circular conversations, ad hominem arguments, projection and gaslighting to disorient you and get you off track if you disagree or challenge them in any way. They do this to discredit and frustrate you and distract you from the main problem.

They make you feel guilty for having thoughts and feelings that differ from theirs. In their eyes you are the problem.

Spend ten minutes arguing with a narcissist and you’ll find yourself wondering how the argument began. You disagreed with them and now your childhood, family, friends, career and lifestyle are under attack.

Narcissists don’t argue with you, they argue with themselves and you become privy to their draining monologues. Every time you try to make a point that counters theirs, you feed them supply.

Don’t feed them and instead supply yourself with the confirmation that their abuse is the problem. Cut the interaction short as soon as you see it escalating and use your energy on self-care instead.

4. Blanket statements and generalizations.

Narcissists aren’t intellectual masterminds, they are intellectually lazy. Rather than take the time to consider a different perspective, they generalize everything you say.

They do this to invalidate your reality of the situation.

If you bring up their unacceptable behavior they will make blanket statements such as “You are never satisfied,” or “You’re always too sensitive” rather than address the real issue.

When this happens hold onto your truth realize they are illogical thinkers with limitations and an overinflated sense of self.

5. Deliberately misrepresenting your thoughts and feelings.

A narcissist will take your differing opinions, legitimate emotions and past experiences and translate them into character flaws and evidence of your irrationality.

They will reframe what you’re actually saying as a way to make your opinions look absurd or heinous.

If you bring up that you’re unhappy with the way they are speaking to you they may respond with, “ So now you’re perfect?” or “So I am a bad person now?” when all you’ve done is express your feelings.

This enables them to invalidate your right to have thoughts and emotions about their behavior and instill a sense of guilt when you attempt to establish boundaries.

Another form of diversion and cognitive distortion that they used is known as “mind reading.”

This is when they presume to know what you’re thinking and feeling. They chronically jump to conclusions based on their own triggers rather than stepping back to evaluate the situation mindfully.

They act based on their own delusions and make no apologies for the harm they cause as a result. Notorious for putting words in your mouth, they depict you as having an intention or viewpoint you didn’t possess.

They accuse you of thinking of them as toxic – even before you’ve gotten the chance to call them out on their behavior. This also serves as a form of preemptive defense.

Simply stating, “I never said that,” and walking away if they continue to accuse you saying or doing something you didn’t serves to help set a boundary in this type of interaction.

As long as they can blame shift and digress from their own behavior, they have succeeded in convincing you that you should be “shamed” for giving them any realistic feedback.

6. Nitpicking and moving the goal posts.

The difference between constructive criticism and destructive criticism is the presence of a personal attack and impossible standards.

The narcissist does not want to help you, they just want to nitpick and scapegoat you in any way that they can. Narcissists are great at “moving the goal posts” in order to ensure they have every reason to be dissatisfied with you.

This is where, even after you’ve provided all the evidence to validate your argument or taken action to meet their requests, they will set up another expectation of you or demand more proof from you.

By doing this narcissists are able to instill in you a pervasive sense of unworthiness and of never feeling quite “enough.”

By pointing out one irrelevant fact or thing you did wrong and hyperfocusing on it, narcissists get to divert from your strengths and pull you into obsessing over flaws or weaknesses instead.

They get you thinking about the next expectation you’re going to have to meet until you’ve bent over backwards trying to fulfill their every need – but it never changes the way they treated you.

If they choose to rehash something irrelevant and they aren’t acknowledging the work you’ve done to validate your point or satisfy them, then their motive isn’t to better understand you, its to have you prove yourself over and over again.

Know that you are enough and you don’t have to constantly be made to feel deficient or unworthy.

7. Changing the subject to evade accountability.

This tactic is called the “What about me” syndrome.

It is a literal digression from the actual topic that works to redirect attention to a totally different issue.

Narcissists don’t want to be held accountable for anything, so they will reroute the discussion to benefit them.

For example they will point out a mistake you made years ago and say something like.. “What about the time when…” These diversions work to derail discussions that challenge the status quo and they do it to distract you from the main argument.

If the narcissist pulls a switcheroo on you, you can exercise whats called the “broken record” and continue stating the facts without giving in to their distractions.

Redirect them by saying, “That’s not what I am talking about. Let’s stay focused on the real issue.”

If they’re not interested, disengage and spend your energy on something more constructive like not having a debate with a toddler.

8. Covert and overt threats.

Narcissistic abusers and otherwise toxic people feel very threatened when their excessive sense of entitlement, false sense of superiority and grandiose sense of self are challenged in any way.

They are prone to making unreasonable demands on others – while punishing you for not living up to their impossible to reach expectations.

Rather than tackle disagreements or compromises maturely, they set out to divert you from your right to have your own identity and perspective by attempting to instill fear in you about the consequences of disagreeing or complying with their demands.

To them, any challenge results in an ultimatum and “do this or I’ll do that” becomes their daily mantra.

If someone’s reaction to you setting boundaries or having a differing opinion from your own is to threaten you into submission, whether it’s a thinly veiled threat or an overt admission of what they plan to do, this is a red flag of someone who has a high degree of entitlement and has no plans of compromising.

Take threats seriously and show the narcissist you mean business; document threats and report them whenever possible and legally feasible.

Narcissistic Behaviors

9. Name-calling.

Narcissists preemptively blow anything they perceive as a threat to their superiority out of proportion.

In their world, only they can ever be right and anyone who dares to say otherwise creates a narcissistic injury that results in narcissistic rage.

Narcissistic rage does not result from low self-esteem but rather a high sense of entitlement and false sense of superiority.

The lowest of the low resort to narcissistic rage in the form of name-calling when they can’t think of a better way to manipulate your opinion or micromanage your emotions. Name-calling is a quick and easy way to put you down, degrade you and insult your intelligence, appearance or behavior while invalidating your right to be a separate person with a right to his or her perspective.

Name-calling can also be used to criticize your beliefs, opinions and insights. A well-researched perspective or informed opinion suddenly becomes “silly” or “idiotic” in the hands of a malignant narcissist or sociopath who feels threatened by it and cannot make a respectful, convincing rebuttal.

Rather than target your argument, they target you as a person and seek to undermine your credibility and intelligence in any way they possibly can. It’s important to end any interaction that consists of name-calling and communicate that you won’t tolerate it.

Don’t internalize it: realize that they are resorting to name-calling because they are deficient in higher level methods.

10. Destructive conditioning.

Toxic people condition you to associate your strengths, talents, and happy memories with abuse, frustration and disrespect.

They do this by sneaking in covert and overt put-downs about the qualities and traits they once idealized as well as sabotaging your goals, ruining celebrations, vacations and holidays.

They may even isolate you from your friends and family and make you financially dependent upon them. Like Pavlov’s dogs, you’re essentially “trained” over time to become afraid of doing the very things that once made your life fulfilling.

Narcissists, sociopaths, psychopaths and otherwise toxic people do this because they wish to divert attention back to themselves and how you’re going to please them.

If there is anything outside of them that may threaten their control over your life, they seek to destroy it. They need to be the center of attention at all times. In the idealization phase, you were once the center of a narcissist’s world – now the narcissist becomes the center of yours.

Narcissists are also naturally pathologically envious and don’t want anything to come in between them and their influence over you.

Your happiness represents everything they feel they cannot have in their emotionally shallow lives. After all, if you learn that you can get validation, respect and love from other sources besides the toxic person, what’s to keep you from leaving them?

To toxic people, a little conditioning can go a long way to keep you walking on eggshells and falling just short of your big dreams.

11. Smear campaigns and stalking.

When toxic types can’t control the way you see yourself, they start to control how others see you; they play the martyr while you’re labeled the toxic one.

A smear campaign is a classic narcissistic behavior that is a preemptive strike to sabotage your reputation and slander your name so that you won’t have a support network to fall back on lest you decide to detach and cut ties with this toxic person.

They may even stalk and harass you or the people you know as a way to supposedly “expose” the truth about you; this exposure acts as a way to hide their own abusive behavior while projecting it onto you.

Some smear campaigns can even work to pit two people or two groups against each other. A victim in an abusive relationship with a narcissist often doesn’t know what’s being said about them during the relationship, but they eventually find out the falsehoods shortly after they’ve been discarded.

Toxic people will gossip behind your back (and in front of your face), slander you to your loved ones or their loved ones, create stories that depict you as the aggressor while they play the victim, and claim that you engaged in the same behaviors that they are afraid you will accuse them of engaging in.

They will also methodically, covertly and deliberately abuse you so they can use your reactions as a way to prove that they are the so-called “victims” of your abuse.

The best way to handle a smear campaign is to stay mindful of your reactions and stick to the facts. This is especially pertinent for high-conflict divorces with narcissists who may use your reactions to their provocations against you.

Document any form of harassment, cyberbullying or stalking incidents and always speak to your narcissist through a lawyer whenever possible.

You may wish to take legal action if you feel the stalking and harassment is getting out of control; finding a lawyer who is well-versed in Narcissistic Personality Disorder is crucial if that’s the case.

Your character and integrity will speak for itself when the narcissist’s false mask begins to slip.

12. Love-bombing and devaluation.

Toxic people put you through an idealization phase until you’re sufficiently hooked and invested in beginning a friendship or relationship with you. Then, they begin to devalue you while insulting the very things they admired in the first place.

Another variation of this is when a toxic individual puts you on a pedestal while aggressively devaluing and attacking someone else who threatens their sense of superiority.

Narcissistic abusers do this all the time – they devalue their exes to their new partners, and eventually the new partner starts to receive the same sort of mistreatment as the narcissist’s ex-partner.

Ultimately what will happen is that you will also be on the receiving end of the same abuse. You will one day be the ex-partner they degrade to their new source of supply. You just don’t know it yet. That’s why it’s important to stay mindful of the love-bombing technique whenever you witness behavior that doesn’t align with the saccharine sweetness a narcissist subjects you to.

Slowing things down with people you suspect may be toxic is an important way of combating the love-bombing technique. Be wary of the fact that how a person treats or speaks about someone else could potentially translate into the way they will treat you in the future.

13. Preemptive defense.

When someone stresses the fact that they are a “nice guy” or girl, that you should “trust them” right away or emphasizes their credibility without any provocation from you whatsoever, be wary.

Toxic and abusive people overstate their ability to be kind and compassionate.

They often tell you that you should “trust” them without first building a solid foundation of trust. They may “perform” a high level of sympathy and empathy at the beginning of your relationship to dupe you, only to unveil their false mask later on.

When you see their false mask begins to slip periodically during the devaluation phase of the abuse cycle, the true self is revealed to be terrifyingly cold, callous and contemptuous.

Genuinely nice people rarely have to persistently show off their positive qualities – they exude their warmth more than they talk about it and they know that actions speak volumes more than mere words. They know that trust and respect is a two-way street that requires reciprocity, not repetition.

To counter a preemptive defense, reevaluate why a person may be emphasizing their good qualities. Is it because they think you don’t trust them, or because they know you shouldn’t? Trust actions more than empty words and see how someone’s actions communicate who they are, not who they say they are.

Narcissistic Behaviors

14. Triangulation.

Bringing in the opinion, perspective or suggested threat of another person into the dynamic of an interaction is known as “triangulation.”

Often used to validate the toxic person’s abuse while invalidating the victim’s reactions to abuse, triangulation can also work to manufacture love triangles that leave you feeling unhinged and insecure.

Malignant narcissists love to triangulate their significant other with strangers, co-workers, ex-partners, friends and even family members in order to evoke jealousy and uncertainty in you. They also use the opinions of others to validate their point of view.

This is a diversionary tactic meant to pull your attention away from their abusive behavior and into a false image of them as a desirable, sought after person. It also leaves you questioning yourself – if Mary did agree with Tom, doesn’t that mean that you must be wrong? The truth is, narcissists love to “report back” falsehoods about others say about you, when in fact, they are the ones smearing you.

To resist triangulation tactics, realize that whoever the narcissist is triangulating with is also being triangulated by your relationship with the narcissist as well. Everyone is essentially being played by this one person. Reverse “triangulate” the narcissist by gaining support from a third party that is not under the narcissist’s influence – and also by seeking your own validation.

15. Bait and feign innocence.

Toxic individuals lure you into a false sense of security simply to have a platform to showcase their cruelty.

Baiting you into a mindless, chaotic argument can escalate into a showdown rather quickly with someone who doesn’t know the meaning of respect.

A simple disagreement may bait you into responding politely initially, until it becomes clear that the person has a malicious motive of tearing you down.

By “baiting” you with a seemingly innocuous comment disguised as a rational one, they can then begin to play with you.

Remember: narcissistic abusers have learned about your insecurities, the unsettling catchphrases that interrupt your confidence, and the disturbing topics that reenact your wounds – and they use this knowledge maliciously to provoke you.

After you’ve fallen for it, hook line and sinker, they’ll stand back and innocently ask whether you’re “okay” and talk about how they didn’t “mean” to agitate you.

This faux innocence works to catch you off guard and make you believe that they truly didn’t intend to hurt you, until it happens so often you can’t deny the reality of their malice any longer.

It helps to realize when you’re being baited so you can avoid engaging altogether.

Provocative statements, name-calling, hurtful accusations or unsupported generalizations, for example, are common baiting tactics. Your gut instinct can also tell you when you’re being baited – if you feel “off” about a certain comment and continue to feel this way even after it has been expanded on, that’s a sign you may need to take some space to reevaluate the situation before choosing to respond.

16. Boundary testing and hoovering.

Narcissists, sociopaths and otherwise toxic people continually try and test your boundaries to see which ones they can trespass. The more violations they’re able to commit without consequences, the more they’ll push the envelope.

That’s why survivors of emotional as well as physical abuse often experience even more severe incidents of abuse each and every time they go back to their abusers.

Abusers tend to “hoover” their victims back in with sweet promises, fake remorse and empty words of how they are going to change, only to abuse their victims even more horrifically. In the abuser’s sick mind, this boundary testing serves as a punishment for standing up to the abuse and also for being going back to it.

When narcissists try to press the emotional reset button, reinforce your boundaries even more strongly rather than backtracking on them.

Remember – highly narcissistic manipulative people don’t respond to empathy or compassion.

They respond to consequences.

17. Aggressive jabs disguised as jokes.

Covert narcissists enjoy making malicious remarks at your expense. These narcissistic behaviors are usually dressed up as “just jokes” so that they can get away with saying appalling things while still maintaining an innocent, cool demeanor. Yet any time you are outraged at an insensitive, harsh remark, you are accused of having no sense of humor. This is a tactic frequently used in verbal abuse.

The contemptuous smirk and sadistic gleam in their eyes gives it away, however – like a predator that plays with its food, a toxic person gains pleasure from hurting you and being able to get away with it.

After all, it’s just a joke, right? Wrong. It’s a way to gaslight you into thinking their abuse is a joke – a way to divert from their cruelty and onto your perceived sensitivity. It is important that when this happens, you stand up for yourself and make it clear that you won’t tolerate this type of behavior.

Calling out manipulative people on their covert put-downs may result in further gaslighting from the abuser but maintain your stance that their behavior is not okay and end the interaction immediately if you have to.

18. Condescending sarcasm and patronizing tone.

Belittling and degrading a person is a toxic person’s forte and their tone of voice is only one tool in their toolbox. Sarcasm can be a fun mode of communication when both parties are engaged, but narcissists use it chronically as a way to manipulate you and degrade you. If you in any way react to it, you must be “too sensitive.”

Forget that the toxic person constantly has temper tantrums every time their big bad ego is faced with realistic feedback – the victim is the hypersensitive one, apparently.

So long as you’re treated like a child and constantly challenged for expressing yourself, you’ll start to develop a sense of hypervigilance about voicing your thoughts and opinions without reprimand.

This self-censorship enables the abuser to put in less work in silencing you, because you begin to silence yourself.

Whenever you are met with a condescending demeanor or tone, call it out firmly and assertively. You don’t deserve to be spoken down to like a child – nor should you ever silence yourself to meet the expectation of someone else’s superiority complex.

19. Shaming

“You should be ashamed of yourself” is a favorite saying of toxic people.

Though it can be used by someone who is non-toxic, in the realm of the narcissist or sociopath, shaming is an effective method that targets any behavior or belief that might challenge a toxic person’s power.

It can also be used to destroy and whittle away at a victim’s self-esteem: if a victim dares to be proud of something, shaming the victim for that specific trait, quality or accomplishment can serve to diminish their sense of self and stifle any pride they may have.

Malignant narcissists, sociopaths and psychopaths enjoy using your own wounds against you – so they will even shame you about any abuse or injustice you’ve suffered in your lifetime as a way to retraumatize you.

Were you a childhood abuse survivor?

A malignant narcissist or sociopath will claim that you must’ve done something to deserve it, or brag about their own happy childhood as a way to make you feel deficient and unworthy.

What better way to injure you, after all, than to pick at the original wound? As surgeons of madness, they seek to exacerbate wounds, not help heal them.

If you suspect you’re dealing with a toxic person, avoid revealing any of your vulnerabilities or past traumas. Until they’ve proven their character to you, there is no point disclosing information that could be potentially used against you.

20. Control.

The most important Narcissistic Behaviors that they are always working towards is to maintain control over you in whatever way they can.

They isolate you, maintain control over your finances and social networks, and micromanage every facet of your life. Yet the most powerful mechanism they have for control is toying with your emotions.

That’s why abusive narcissists and sociopaths manufacture situations of conflict out of thin air to keep you feeling off center and off balanced.

That’s why they chronically engage in disagreements about irrelevant things and rage over perceived slights. That’s why they emotionally withdraw, only to re-idealize you once they start to lose control.

That’s why they vacillate between their false self and their true self, so you never get a sense of psychological safety or certainty about who your partner truly is.

The more power they have over your emotions, the less likely you’ll trust your own reality and the truth about the abuse you’re enduring.

Knowing the narcissistic behaviors and manipulative tactics and how they work to erode your sense of self can arm you with the knowledge of what you’re facing and at the very least, develop a plan to regain control over your own life and away from toxic people.

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