Emotional manipulation is tricky.
When someone’s a master at it, you can’t even tell you’re being manipulated in the first place, and oftentimes, you’re only granted that clarity when the situation is long in the past and you can analyze it retrospectively.
But that’s exactly why it’s so important that we all learn the ins and outs of narcissistic mind games. If you know what true manipulation looks like, you’ll be less likely to fall for it from the get-go, saving yourself a lot of tears and turmoil.
Here are the 7 mind games narcissists play to keep you in their grip.
1) The Promise Game
Can you wager a guess at what one of the strongest human emotions is?
The answer is…
Hope. As long as you have at least a tiny bit of hope to hold on to, it doesn’t matter how dire your circumstances are – you’ll still believe that somewhere down the road, things will get better.
Don’t get me wrong, I love hope. It’s what keeps us going when everything else fails.
Unfortunately, though, hope can also be used against us. Narcissists know very well that if they promise you the world, if they make it so that you look forward to the future… you’ll stay in their grip.
Sure, things might not be perfect now. Sure, the way this person treats you isn’t exactly great. But the promise of a better future is looming over you, clouding your judgment and keeping you grounded in the twisted relationship dynamic.
Don’t give in to it. Instead, ask yourself: “What is the proof I see right in front of me?” No matter how many promises they make, it is their actions that show their true character.
2) The Boundaries Game
I’ve recently spoken to a friend whose narcissistic ex once told her, “When you wear a swimsuit to the beach, it’s triggering me and breaking my boundaries. If you respected my psychological well-being, you wouldn’t do it.”
Oh, the twisted games narcissists play to have it their way.
By flipping psychology terminology on its head – he’s turned someone else’s independent actions into a boundary of his instead of admitting that he’s simply insecure – my friend’s ex managed to make her look like the bad guy although he was the one with unreasonable requirements.
Everyone’s boundaries differ, which is why this game is so masterful – sometimes, it really is hard to tell whether a person’s boundaries are valid or whether they’re manipulating you.
Personally, I always ask myself if someone’s requirements are clashing with my own freedom of self-expression.
If my partner doesn’t want me to cheat, that’s a valid boundary because cheating is at complete odds with the monogamous “deal” we have in place. If they don’t want me to wear a swimsuit to the beach, though, it’s against my core values and breaking MY boundaries.
3) The Smarter-Than-Thou Game
Psychology terminology isn’t the only weapon in a narcissist’s arsenal – if they’re smart, they know how to sharpen every piece of knowledge into a sword.
Knowledge is one of the most important things you could ever possess. And if a narcissist is well-read, they will show you just how smart they are until you fully believe anything they say.
I used to have a friend who would know everything about anything. As time went by, I began to believe anything that came out of his mouth just because there’d been enough cases in the past when he’d been right, making me think that everything he said was correct.
I was wrong. Sometimes, he embellished things. He only brought up facts that fit his own narrative, ignoring opposing arguments. He always said his knowledge came from research, but more than a couple of times, he couldn’t actually find the study he’d been talking about.
Over time, I stopped putting so much of my faith in him. That wasn’t the case for some of my other friends, though, because they didn’t bother to fact-check his claims.
If you pair this up with narcissism, you’ve got a very strong personality right there – someone who’s smart, who knows how to twist little slices of truth to fit their story, and who will use their intelligence to make you feel dependent on them.
They know better than you, after all. Why shouldn’t you listen to them? Why shouldn’t you heed their advice? Why shouldn’t you fall for their intelligence and charm?
My advice is to always fact-check what they tell you and to truly challenge them during discussions. Narcissists hate being proven wrong.
4) The Vulnerability Game
Is there a worse feeling than realizing you’d opened up to the wrong person?
Yeah, not much can top that. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happens when you’re dealing with a narcissist – they are so charming that you end up opening up to them about your deepest vulnerabilities, only for them to use those weaknesses against you.
The worst part is that it is precisely in the action of hitting you where it hurts most that they’re chaining you to them even more.
Well, imagine telling someone that you don’t like yourself very much. Imagine admitting to the fact that you’re scared no one will ever love you properly.
A few months later, the very same person might treat you like rubbish, but the moment you want to leave, they say, “Come on, I’m the only one who’ll ever love you. No one else would put up with you. Do you really want to leave the only person in the entire world who actually likes you?”
5) The Prove-Me-Wrong Game
If you love someone, one of the worst things they could say is that they simply don’t believe you.
“I thought you loved me, but I guess I was wrong.”
“If you really loved me, you wouldn’t mind doing X or Y.”
“You just don’t love me as much as I love you.”
The thing about narcissists is that they are so deeply self-centered that they will unashamedly manipulate you to always have it their way.
If things aren’t turning out the way they’d like, they will rely on your love for them to achieve that goal. And what better way to do so than to say you simply don’t love them enough and ask you to prove them wrong?
So… you do. Time and again, you go out of your way to show them just how strong your love and loyalty are. Until one day, you realize that you’ve already done so much for them, invested so much time and energy, that even the thought of leaving is completely draining.
Because if you leave, what was all this for? Were you really just being manipulated all along? Was this all a game?
It’s very hard to go through something like this, but realizing that past investment does not translate into future investment is an important part of the process.
6) The Isolation Game
Ah, the good old isolation technique.
If your partner or friend ever tries to isolate you from other people and keep you only to themselves, stay on guard.
This is because manipulators thrive when you have no one else to turn to for help. They are at their best when you can’t discuss their games with your sister or cousin and when they make up the majority of your social world.
It may start off small, such as telling you that your friend Lucy really isn’t good for you or saying that your brother seems way too controlling. But over time, the isolation game escalates, and before you know it, you never hang out with anybody except this one person.
Remember: a good partner or friend who has your best interests at heart would never cut you off from other people.
7) The Intermittent Reinforcement Game
Finally, intermittent reinforcement is one of the cruelest techniques a narcissist can use on you. The researcher Shahida Arabi, MA, describes it as “a pattern of cruel, callous treatment mixed in with random bursts of affection.”
This brings us back to our initial point about hope. If someone treats you poorly, only to bombard you with affection a few weeks later, you will cling to those good moments and hope with all your might that they will eventually become the norm.
Surely, the bad times will decrease in quantity and intensity. Surely, the good times are who your partner or friend is truly on the inside.
Unfortunately, it’s rarely that easy. Narcissists know that if they only ever treat you badly, you won’t have any reason to stay, so they throw in something to keep your hopes up from time to time.
It’s incredibly hard to deal with a situation of this kind, but again, one of the things that have helped me most is to ask yourself, “What is the proof right in front of me?”
And then comes the question: “Would my soulmate/the love of my life treat me this way?”
No. They wouldn’t.
Someone better is out there for you.