Top 10 Mind Games that Narcissists Play to Throw You Off Balance and Control You

i'm in the relationship understanding narcissism Feb 20, 2024

Are you in a relationship where things never seem to add up? Do you come away from conversations feeling like you were manipulated, but not sure how? Does the relationship seem like a maze of confusion, leaving you questioning your own thoughts and emotions? If so, you are not alone. You may have had the unfortunate experience of meeting someone with an uncanny ability to manipulate–a signature characteristic of narcissism. 

In this blog, I’m going to dive into the top 10 mind games that narcissists play to throw you off balance and gain control. These mind games can leave you feeling disoriented and emotionally drained.

#1: Gaslighting

The first mind game is the dark art of manipulating reality: we call it gaslighting. Gaslighting involves a series of calculated tactics designed to make you doubt your thoughts, feelings, and memories. It's a form of psychological warfare, that can leave you in a perpetual state of confusion and self-doubt.

Narcissists excel at gaslighting, and with time can use it to undermine your sense of reality, leaving you questioning your own sanity. The narcissist may start with subtle lies, creating a version of reality that suits their agenda. They may deny events or conversations that you distinctly remember. Perhaps even more destructive than the narcissist’s denial of reality is their use of shame to instill self-doubt. Over time, these tactics escalate, making you question your own judgment and grasp on reality.

What gaslighting looks like: 

  • Persistent Denial: The narcissist denies things they've said or done, even when there's clear evidence.
  • Contradictory Statements: They may say one thing today and vehemently deny it tomorrow, leaving you confused.
  • Projecting Their Actions: Narcissists might accuse you of behaviors or motives that align more with their own actions.
  • Isolation: Gaslighting often involves isolating you from others who might challenge the narcissist's version of events.

Why they do it:

Why do narcissists resort to gaslighting? It's a powerful tool for control. By destabilizing your perception of reality, they can mold your thoughts and actions to align with their desires and their false narratives. Gaslighting is about rewriting history to fit the narcissist's narrative while eroding your self-confidence in the process. If you've ever felt like you're losing your grip on reality in a relationship, gaslighting might be at play. 

#2: Projection

Have you ever been accused of something that is completely out of character for you? Chances are, that was projection. Projection happens when someone attributes their own negative traits, behaviors, or feelings to you. 

What projection looks like: 

  • Accusations without Basis: The narcissist makes baseless claims about your character, often things they're guilty of themselves.
  • Moral High Ground: They may paint themselves as morally superior while casting you as the one with flaws.
  • Deflection of Criticism: When confronted, the narcissist deflects criticism by focusing on the flaws they perceive in you in order to steer the attention away from their own behavior and wrongdoing.
  • Shifting Responsibility: Instead of the narcissist taking responsibility for their actions, they lay blame on the things, people, and circumstances around them. They never take responsibility.

Why they do it:

This is a manipulation technique narcissists use to shift blame and maintain their self-image. This works like a psychological smoke screen, diverting attention away from their shortcomings and redirecting it toward you. This mind game is designed to keep their insecurities hidden while making you question your own integrity. Recognizing projection is the first step to breaking free from its grip. Trust your instincts and maintain a clear understanding of your own values.

#3: Triangulation

Have you ever felt like there was someone else in the shadows, subtly influencing the dynamics of your relationship? If yes, triangulation might be at play.

Triangulation is a mind game where the narcissist introduces a third party into the relationship dynamic. This could be a friend, a family member, or even an ex-partner. The narcissist’s goal in bringing this third person is to create a sense of competition, jealousy, or insecurity within you. None of this is accidental.

How they use it:

  • Create competition: By the narcissist creating a sense of competition between you and the third person, the narcissist creates an environment in which you feel you are vying for their attention and approval. This is done subtly so that you do not realize it is their deliberate strategy. 
  • Instil jealousy: Narcissists may strategically make you aware of their interactions with others to incite jealousy. The whole purpose is to cause you emotional turmoil and put you in this position of having a desperate desire to prove your worth to the narcissist.
  • Undermine confidence: Triangulation also erodes your confidence by making you feel inadequate or less valued compared to the third party. 

In addition to these dynamics, the narcissists may sow tension by creating a smear campaign in which they report to you that the third party says negative things about you, and similarly tell the third party that you have said negative things about them. 

What triangulation looks like: 

  • Unexplained Involvement: Notice if the narcissist involves others in your relationship without a clear reason.
  • Constant Comparisons: Be aware of constant comparisons between you and the third party that are intended to create insecurity.
  • Feelings of Competition: Pay attention to any subtle or direct cues that make you feel like you're in competition for the narcissist's favor.

Why they do it:

Why do narcissists resort to triangulation? It serves to keep you on edge, seeking validation and approval from the narcissist. The emotional turmoil created by this mind game reinforces the narcissist's control over the relationship. Narcissists have no qualms about using this kind of emotional turbulence to gain leverage over others. If this happens, turn to God and be comforted that He hates this kind of thing with a passion. He has your back, and He has a way of vindicating you. The narcissist is no match to God. The Bible is clear that God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6), so do not hesitate to humbly approach Him for help. 

#4: Love-bombing

Narcissists often operate through a cycle of manipulative tools in order to draw people into relationships, and then take control through the relationship. Love-bombing often functions as the very beginning phase, where a narcissist showers you with excessive affection, compliments, and attention. They make you feel like the center of their universe, creating an emotional high that's hard to resist. The narcissist aims to become your confidant, your biggest supporter, and seemingly the answer to your dreams. In non-romantic relationships, this may come in the form of mentorship, references, introductions, and other ‘professional’ favors.

However, this euphoria is often short-lived. In the devaluation phase, the narcissist abruptly withdraws their affection and favor. They may criticize, belittle, or even ignore you. It's a calculated move to create dependency and confusion and can leave you bewildered and emotionally battered. 

Why they do it: 

Love-bombing establishes an emotional connection and dependency, making it difficult for you to see the warning signs. Devaluation serves to maintain control. By alternating between extreme affection and sudden withdrawal, the narcissist keeps you on an emotional rollercoaster. This tactic reinforces their power dynamic, leaving you questioning your worth and desperately seeking their approval.

What love-bombing looks like: 

Intense Affection: Look out for rapid, intense expressions of love and admiration early in the relationship.

Abrupt Withdrawal: Be wary if the affection suddenly wanes, and the narcissist becomes critical or distant.

Emotional Turmoil: Notice how the cycle of love-bombing and devaluation creates emotional turmoil and confusion.

Understanding love-bombing and devaluation is a massive first step in breaking free from the cycle of narcissistic manipulation.

#5: The Silent Treatment

Have you ever experienced a sudden, unexplained withdrawal of communication from someone you care about? This could be a manifestation of the silent treatment, a potent tool for control in narcissistic dynamics.

The silent treatment involves a deliberate and prolonged period of silence from the narcissist, where communication is abruptly halted. This can include ignoring calls, texts, and even physical withdrawal.

What the silent treatment looks like: 

  • Unexplained Withdrawal: Notice abrupt and unexplained periods of silence or avoidance from the narcissist.
  • Lack of Communication: If attempts to communicate are consistently ignored or met with coldness, you may be experiencing the silent treatment.
  • Emotional Impact: Be aware of the emotional toll it takes on you – the anxiety, confusion, and feelings of isolation.

Why they do it:

  • Emotional Punishment: The primary purpose of the silent treatment is to punish. When the narcissist feels slighted or challenged, they employ this tactic to exert control and establish dominance. By doing this repeatedly, they teach you that behaviors they do not like will have unpleasant consequences.
  • Creating Anxiety: The uncertainty and lack of communication during the silent treatment create anxiety for the victim. The emotional distress becomes a form of manipulation, reinforcing the narcissist's control.
  • Power Dynamics: By withholding communication, the narcissist aims to make the victim feel powerless and dependent, emphasizing their dominance in the relationship.

Why do narcissists use the silent treatment? It's a strategic move to manipulate emotions, maintain control, and punish perceived wrongs. Victims often find themselves desperately seeking resolution, apology, or acknowledgment, unknowingly reinforcing the narcissist's control.

#6: Future Faking

Have you ever found yourself swept away by promises of a future that never materializes? Future faking is a powerful tool in the narcissist's arsenal. It is a manipulation technique where the narcissist makes grand promises about the future without any genuine intention of fulfilling them. It's like painting a beautiful picture of a shared life, only to leave you disillusioned when those promises remain unfulfilled.

How it works:

  • Creating False Hopes: The narcissist weaves a compelling narrative of a shared future, using dreams, plans, and promises to create a sense of security and commitment.
  • Emotional Investment: By engaging in Future Faking, the narcissist gets you to emotionally invest, and when you are emotionally invested, then this creates a deeper and stronger connection and dependency on the narcissist. 
  • Postponing Reality: However, when the time comes to turn those promises into reality, the narcissist often finds excuses, delays, or simply ignores the commitments made.

What future-faking looks like: 

  • Grand Promises: Pay attention to grand promises about the future that seem too good to be true.
  • Consistent Delays: If there's a pattern of consistent delays or avoidance when it comes to fulfilling promises, it may be future faking.
  • Mismatched Actions: Notice when the narcissist's actions don't align with their words, leaving you feeling betrayed and disappointed.

Why they do it:

Future faking is designed to keep you invested and hopeful in the relationship. The grand promises create a false sense of security and commitment, making it harder for you to see the red flags or consider ending the relationship.

#7: Playing the Victim

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where, despite the evidence, the narcissist portrays themselves as the one suffering? Let's delve into the art of playing the victim.

Playing the victim is a manipulative strategy where the narcissist paints themselves as the one who is suffering or being wronged, regardless of their own actions or responsibility in the situation. It's a cunning way to garner sympathy, deflect blame, and manipulate others into feeling sorry for them.

This tactic reminds me of 2 Corinthians 11:14, which warns that 'Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.' Narcissists, in their victim-playing, often deceive and manipulate, portraying themselves as angels of light while they are actually walking in darkness. 

How it works:

  • Twisting Narratives: The narcissist skillfully twists narratives, presenting themselves as the injured party even when they are the ones causing harm.
  • Seeking Sympathy: By portraying themselves as victims, narcissists elicit sympathy and support from those around them, creating a protective shield against accountability.
  • Deflecting Blame: Playing the Victim allows the narcissist to deflect blame onto others, making it challenging for anyone to challenge or confront their behavior.

What playing the victim looks like: 

  • Consistent Martyrdom: If the narcissist consistently positions themselves as the one suffering, regardless of the situation, it may be a sign of playing the victim.
  • Shifting Focus: Notice how the focus shifts away from the actions or issues at hand, replaced by a narrative of the narcissist's suffering.
  • Seeking Validation: Playing the Victim often involves seeking validation and sympathy from others, and creating a support network to reinforce their version of events.

Why they do it:

Why do narcissists play the victim? This is a move to escape accountability, maintain a sympathetic audience, and keep the focus away from their own actions. Victims of this manipulation often find themselves in the position of defending against accusations rather than addressing the real issues.

#8: Hoovering

Hoovering is a strategy employed by narcissists to re-engage with someone after a period of separation or silence. Much like a vacuum cleaner, the narcissist attempts to suck you back into the relationship, often using various tactics to re-establish control.

How it works:

  • False Remorse: The narcissist may feign remorse, apologize profusely, and promise change, creating a false sense of hope for a healthier relationship.
  • Love-Bombing: Hoovering often involves a resurgence of love-bombing – showering you with affection, compliments, and attention to rekindle emotional attachment.
  • Gaslighting: The narcissist may downplay past issues, revise history, or deny harmful behavior during hoovering, making it challenging for you to resist their advances.

What hoovering looks like: 

  • Unexpected Contact: If the narcissist unexpectedly reaches out after a period of silence, it could be a hoovering attempt.
  • Promises of Change: Be cautious if there are sudden promises of change or improvements in behavior that seem too good to be true.
  • Intense Affection: Notice a sudden surge of affection or attention designed to reawaken emotional ties.

Why they do it:

Why do narcissists hoover? It serves various purposes, such as regaining control, satisfying their ego, or using you as a source of validation. The narcissist may return when they feel their previous source of supply is no longer readily available

#9: Exploiting Empathy

Exploiting empathy is a calculated strategy where the narcissist takes advantage of your compassionate nature to meet their own needs. It involves manipulating your emotions, kindness, and understanding for their personal gain.

How it works:

  • Playing the Victim: The narcissist portrays themselves as a victim, evoking feelings of sympathy and compassion in others.
  • Feigned Helplessness: They may act helpless or in need, creating a situation where you feel compelled to come to their aid.
  • Guilt Tripping: Exploiting empathy often involves guilt tripping – making you feel responsible for their well-being or happiness.

What exploiting empathy looks like: 

  • Consistent Victimhood: If the narcissist consistently positions themselves as the one suffering, regardless of the situation, it may be a sign of exploiting empathy.
  • Emotional Manipulation: Be aware of tactics that play on your emotions, making it difficult for you to resist their requests or demands.
  • Pattern of Dependency: Notice if the narcissist establishes a pattern of dependency on your empathy to fulfill their needs.

Why they do it:

It's a strategic move to ensure that your focus remains on meeting their emotional needs, fostering a sense of control and dependency. By manipulating your compassion, the narcissist can ensure that their desires take precedence. 

#10: Narcissistic Rage

Narcissistic rage is an explosive and disproportionate reaction to a perceived threat or injury to the narcissist's ego. It's an intense outburst of anger, aggression, or even violence aimed at maintaining control and dominance.

How it works:

  • Threats to Ego: Narcissistic rage is triggered by perceived threats to the narcissist's inflated sense of self-worth. Anything that challenges their superiority can lead to explosive reactions.
  • Manipulative Intimidation: The purpose of narcissistic rage is often to intimidate and manipulate others into submission. The narcissist uses the fear of their anger to control those around them.
  • Eruption of Emotions: The rage can manifest as verbal abuse, physical aggression, or other emotionally charged reactions. It's a way for the narcissist to reclaim a sense of power and dominance.

What narcissistic rage looks like: 

  • Disproportionate Response: The reaction is often disproportionate to the perceived offense, with intense anger or aggression that seems out of context.
  • Lack of Empathy: During narcissistic rage, the narcissist displays a complete lack of empathy for the impact their outburst has on others.
  • Manipulative Intent: The rage is not just an emotional release but a calculated move to regain control and instill fear in those around them.

Why they do it:

Why do narcissists engage in narcissistic rage? It serves as a powerful tool to assert dominance, quash any challenges to their superiority, and maintain control over their environment. The explosive nature of the rage often leaves others feeling helpless and subservient.

Conclusion

Being aware of these 10 mind games is so important. Knowledge is power, and knowledge can be a life-saver.  The Bible says that, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6). Without awareness and knowledge, we become vulnerable to manipulation, losing sight of reality in the labyrinth of narcissistic tactics. These different mind games can mess with you deeply, and if you are around someone who uses them, I'm sure you resonate with Proverbs 4:23, which says, "Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it." Understanding narcissistic mind games allows us to guard our hearts and maintain emotional well-being amidst the storm of manipulation.

Even in the face of manipulation, God has protection for you. Ephesians 6:11 urges us to 'Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.' Recognizing narcissistic mind games is part of putting on spiritual armor because once we understand what we are dealing with, we can use the armor God has given us to protect ourselves from the schemes of those who seek to control and manipulate. As you continue on your journey, remember the words of 2 Corinthians 2:11: "...in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes." Similarly, by being aware of these narcissistic mind games, we can avoid being outwitted and reclaim the peace and authenticity that God desires for our lives.

Related Resources:

Watch the video version of this blog here.

Gaslighting

  • Healing from Gaslighting in a Narcissistic Relationship [Read] [Watch] [Download]
  • How God Deals with a Gaslighter [Watch] [Read]
  • Five Forms of Gaslighting and How to Resist Them [Watch]

Withstanding Manipulation

  • How to Be Empowered to Deal with a Narcissist When No-Contact is Not Possible [Read] [Watch]
  • 10 Powerful Phrases to Stand Your Ground Against the Narcissist. [Watch]
  • How to Stay Your Course in the Face of Manipulation [Watch]

Find more resources in our topic-based catalog

Downloadable Resources 

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