Getting into your head: 7 deceptive strategies of a cunning narcissist

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Ever felt like someone had an almost magnetic pull, drawing you into their world before you realized it’s a place you didn’t want to be? 

That happened to a close friend of mine. 

She thought she’d found her Prince Charming, but quickly discovered he was far from it. 

What’s worse, she later met another of his exes, and they pieced together a chilling pattern. 

This guy wasn’t just bad news; he was a cunning narcissist who knew how to get into your head. 

Here are the 7 deceptive strategies he used, so you can spot the red flags before getting ensnared.

1) Love bombing

When my friend first met this guy, it was like a whirlwind romance straight out of a fairy tale. 

He showered her with attention, compliments, and gifts, making her feel like the most special person in the world. 

Texts poured in day and night — adorable memes, sweet “good morning” messages, and intimate late-night conversations. He seemed head over heels in love, and she couldn’t help but feel the same.

However, this phase didn’t last. It was just his way of love bombing — a deceptive strategy that narcissists often use to make their target feel indispensable and secure in the relationship. 

It’s so intoxicating that you start to ignore or dismiss any red flags that might pop up.

When she compared notes with his other ex, they realized he had done the same thing to her. Gifts, overwhelming attention, and grand gestures were all part of his playbook. It wasn’t special; it was calculated.

By the time you start noticing things are a bit off, you’re already emotionally invested, making it that much harder to just walk away. 

Love bombing is a powerful tool in a narcissist’s arsenal, designed to hook you in while blinding you to their less savory traits

2) Casual criticism

Just as my friend was getting comfortable, basking in the afterglow of all the love and affection, something shifted. 

The compliments turned into subtle jabs — nothing overtly harsh, but enough to make her second-guess herself. 

He’d say things like, “That dress is nice, but wouldn’t you look better in something more form-fitting?” or while eating her cooking, “Nobody makes a better lasagna than my mom.”

These casual criticisms were sprinkled into conversations so seamlessly that she started questioning her own judgment. She felt the need to try harder, to be “better” for him. 

His other ex had experienced the same thing. Remarks about her career, her appearance, or even her laugh started to creep into their conversations. 

Some of them were even framed as if he were doing them a favor, helping them become a better person.

The danger in this is twofold: First, it erodes your self-esteem, making you more dependent on their approval. Second, it establishes a dynamic where you’re constantly seeking their validation, leaving you vulnerable to further manipulation. 

In other words, these casual criticisms are another layer of control, masked as care and concern.

3) Conversational hogging

As time passed, my friend began to notice that their conversations were becoming oddly one-sided

Whether they were chatting over dinner or texting during the day, he always steered the conversation back to himself. His work, his dreams, his problems — everything revolved around him. 

She found herself listening more and talking less, her own thoughts and feelings sidelined.

When she talked to his other ex, it was like hearing her own story echoed back to her. They both realized how this conversational hogging had a deeper, more manipulative purpose. 

By dominating the dialogue, he was subtly training them to prioritize his needs over their own, all while giving the illusion of companionship.

This tactic may not seem as harmful as some of the others, but don’t underestimate its impact. 

When someone monopolizes your conversations, they’re essentially telling you that your feelings, thoughts, and experiences don’t matter. And if you start to believe that, they gain even more control over you.

4) Transactional affection

At some point, my friend noticed a troubling pattern: his affection seemed to come with conditions. 

Whenever she did something that pleased him — like agreeing with his opinions or canceling plans to spend time with him—she was rewarded with affection and attention. 

But the moment she did something he disapproved of, the warmth evaporated, replaced by cold indifference or aloofness.

This transactional approach to love is like a rollercoaster of highs and lows. You find yourself doing more and more to earn their approval just so you can experience that intoxicating high of feeling wanted and valued.

A simple disagreement could turn into a cold war, thawing only when you make some kind of “peace offering,” whether it is a favor or an apology. 

You become so invested in meeting their ever-changing criteria that you may not even realize how much of yourself you’re sacrificing in the process. 

It’s a subtle form of manipulation that can lead to a toxic dependency.

5) Gaslighting

There were times when my friend would call out her then partner on his inconsistencies or questionable behavior, only to be met with responses that made her second-guess her own perception. 

“You’re too sensitive,” he’d say, or “You’re overreacting, that never happened.” Soon, she began to doubt her own memory and even her sanity. 

She and his other ex had both been subjected to this insidious form of manipulation called gaslighting. 

It’s a tactic that undermines your sense of reality, making you question your own experiences and, worst of all, your own judgment.

The impact of gaslighting can be emotionally crippling. Because if you can’t trust your own mind, who can you trust? 

This is exactly what the narcissist wants — to break down your defenses so that you become more susceptible to their control. 

To be fair, many people do this without evil intentions, or even realizing what they’re doing. It’s a strategy they learn unconsciously in order to feed their narcissistic essence and gain the upper hand.

But it’s crucial for you to uncover this and learn how to defend against it. Otherwise, you risk becoming an emotional puppet they can manipulate. 

6) Shifting the goalposts

Just when my friend thought she was finally getting a handle on what he wanted or expected, the rules would suddenly change. 

First, it was about how much time they spent together; then it was about what they should be doing with that time. 

Every time she felt like she’d met one of his expectations, a new, often more demanding, one would take its place.

Meeting his other ex confirmed this was no fluke; it was a recurring tactic. These ever-shifting goalposts are another manipulative trick to keep you disoriented and in a constant state of striving.

But neither of them felt he was doing this with diabolical intentions. It’s just that he was so focused on his own needs that he didn’t even notice the moving target he’d set for them.

He wasn’t purposefully making a game of it; he was just so self-absorbed that he couldn’t see how his actions affect them. 

And that’s a different kind of warning sign, but a crucial one to heed nonetheless.

7) The victim mentality

Finally, here’s a strategy that my friend noticed from the very beginning of the relationship — though she didn’t understand its implications until much later.

Her then partner seemed to have a lot of misfortunes happen to him. At first she felt bad for him, and approached him with lots of compassion, trying to give him even more.

But later she realized, it wasn’t a question of life being unbelievably unfair to him. He just framed it that way with his victim mentality.

And when things started going south, he applied it to her as well. Anytime they had an argument or disagreement, he’d twist things around to make it seem like he was the one being wronged.

It wasn’t long before she started feeling like the bad guy in their love story.

This was his sneaky way of evading responsibility. He was so wrapped up in his own narrative, he couldn’t imagine being the antagonist in any situation.

So rather than face his actions and grow from them, he’d rather paint himself as the perpetual victim. And who wants to be the villain in that story?

Uncovering a narcissist’s deceptive strategies

Navigating the minefield of a relationship with a narcissist can be a taxing experience. 

But the more you understand these deceptive tactics, the less power they have over you. 

My friend’s experience was eye-opening for her, and I hope sharing it has been enlightening for you, too.

Remember, someone who consistently employs these strategies is waving red flags at you, whether they realize it or not. 

If you see these signs, consider it your cue to proceed with extreme caution, or better yet, make a clean break.

It’s challenging, yes, but you deserve a relationship that is built on mutual respect, love, and genuine kindness. 

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Tina Fey

I'm Tina Fey, the founder of the blog Love Connection. I've extremely passionate about sharing relationship advice. I've studied psychology and have my Masters in marital, family, and relationship counseling. I hope with all my heart to help you improve your relationships, and I hope that even if one thing I write helps you, it means more to me than just about anything else in the world. Check out my blog Love Connection, and if you want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter

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