Do you think you could spot a narcissist?
People throw around the term loosely to describe those who are self-absorbed, entitled and manipulative – from overbearing parents to destructive exes. But narcissism is a complex phenomenon that is often misunderstood and oversimplified.
Narcissists can be controlling and intolerant while refusing to acknowledge wrongdoings. Instead, they’ll use an array of manipulative strategies to escape blame and perpetuate abuse. Sometimes, they’ll “gaslight” you into questioning your own feelings and ignoring their red flags. Or they’ll use “baiting” to intentionally provoke you when you want to be left alone. Even after the relationship ends, the emotional abuse can continue with tactics like “hoovering.”
For your convenience, we’ve rounded up all the buzzed-about terms and tactics to be aware of when it comes to dealing with a narcissist.
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Even the most abusive relationships can start off like a fairytale with lavish gifts, extravagant getaways and public displays of affection. But this initial phase, cycled with abuse, is an emotional manipulation tactic known as “love bombing,” which clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula previously described as “too much too fast.”
The true difference between an exciting start to a blossoming romance and love bombing is what happens as the relationship progresses: If this is “love at first sight” (which experts say is rare), you’ll be accepted when you get more comfortable — which may expose the annoying and unattractive parts of yourself.
This isn’t the case when you’re being love bombed. Instead, “they may just totally lose their interest and disappear, leaving you completely confused. Or in some instances, they may drip-feed little romantic gestures along with opposite gestures – like criticism,” registered psychotherapist Denise Dunne previously explained. Ultimately, it’s from a deeper motivation to “hook you into something … and create a manipulative relationship that benefits their own psychological needs.”
More on love bombing:The emotional manipulation tactic, explained
Ever felt like you were second guessing your sanity? You may have been a victim of gaslighting, a manipulation strategy that makes someone question their memories or sense of reality.
Gaslighting doesn’t just happen in relation to big events or issues, it can occur over little things as a way to plant self-doubt and shift the power dynamic. Some examples include:
- Lying about or denying something and refusing to admit the lie even when you show them proof
- Insisting that an event or behavior you witnessed never happened and that you’re remembering it wrong
- Changing the subject or refusing to listen when confronted about a lie or other gaslighting behavior
- Telling you that you’re overreacting when you call them out
More on gaslighting:Phrases and words to pay attention to
When a narcissist isn’t getting the attention they want from victims, they can deliberately provoke or trigger them by“baiting.” They may, for instance, insult somebody they know you care about or make inflammatory, false accusations about you. Other examples of baiting include:
- Overt insults such as mocking, taunting and ridiculing with offensive jibes.
- Guilt-tripping or playing the victim and blaming others for their own unhappiness, to elicit a response.
- Intimidation and threats to provoke fear or anxiety in order to keep the recipient compliant. For instance, they may threaten to publicly expose secrets, vulnerabilities or insecurities.
More on baiting:Narcissists use ‘baiting’ to convince you that you’re the problem. What is it?
Toxic exes may try to reenter our lives under the guise of change: They’ll say they’ve grown into a more loving partner and even offer up tempting gifts. But do they mean it?
Narcissists use “hoovering” to suck someone back into an emotionally abusive relationship through manipulation and lies — only to continue thecycle of abuse.
Someone who has actually changed will acknowledge the hurt they’ve caused or take behavioral steps like therapy. Instead, a hooverer will say something like, “‘baby, if you take me back, we’re going to buy that house’ or ‘I won’t work at the bar anymore if we get back together.’ So the coming back becomes enticing because it offers things they know the person wants,” Durvasula explained.
More on hoovering:Narcissists often try to win back their exes with ‘hoovering;’ experts say it’s emotional blackmail.
Why is it difficult for some people to leave the narcissists in their lives? They may be “trauma bonded,” which describes an unhealthy relationship between an abuser and their victim.
For example, Cecile Tucker, a registered clinical counselor specializing in trauma. says “one might start to connect with, understand or even become defensive of the person who is abusing them.” This is because moments of distress and devaluation are often juxtaposed with intermittent positivity or intimacy, making it difficult to leave these situations. The victim may also try to rationalize or justify the abuse they’re experiencing and consequently form an emotional attachment to their abuser.
What is trauma bonding?:Why you may be misunderstanding this cycle of abuse.
Narcissistic and emotional abuse is hard to spot because of what experts call “pseudomutuality,” a façade of happiness and perfection projected onto the public in order to hide the manipulation and continue the abuse privately.
For instance, a narcissistic parent may embody the role of a perfect parent on the outside, only to pit siblings against each other with no conflict resolution. A romantic partner may post heartwarming photos on social media while privately engaging in verbal abuse and isolating behaviors.
“It’s a great way to keep the victims confused about what is really true,” Alexandra Skinner Walsh, licensed mental health counselor and founder of The M.A.D. Therapy which helps survivors of abuse, previously told USA TODAY. “They might not feel genuinely connected, safe, or unconditionally loved, but others tell them they are, leaving them wondering: What’s really true?”
Common signs of pseudomutuality include:
- Lack of boundaries: Victims are discouraged from keeping secrets or deviating from the narcissist’s expectations because boundaries are seen as a threat to their control.
- Emotional manipulation: Gaslighting, projection and isolation.
- Rigid enmeshment: Individuals are expected to uphold a public image of cohesion and happiness with the narcissist. Speaking out is typically met with punishment, such as insults or smear campaigns.
More on pseudomutuality:Why it takes so long to spot narcissistic abuse
Many people are aware of the dangers of narcissism. But the reverse — of having no narcissism— isn’t any healthier.
Echoism, a term popularized by psychologist Craig Malkin, describes many victims of narcissistic abuse who fear being the center of attention. Those familiar with Greek mythology may recognize the name from the story of Narcissus, a hunter in love with his own reflection, and his romantic admirer Echo, a nymph cursed to repeat back the last few words she hears.
Like their namesake, echoists “struggle to have a voice of their own,” Malkin explained. “They often echo the needs and feelings of others,” and the result is a unique vulnerability to toxic relationships that perpetuate a cycle of abuse and silence.
More on echoism:Why some are prone to narcissistic, emotionally abusive relationships
Gray Rocking or graywalling
So how do you deal with the narcissist in your life?
Many experts recommend“gray rocking.” Also known as graywalling, this strategy involves being as disengaged and unresponsive as possible. For instance, avoiding eye contact, maintaining a flat tone in your communication, or responding with simple answers like “yes,” “no,” or “I didn’t know that.”
Ultimately, the goal is to keep your responses limited in order to make the person you are communicating with lose interest in you.
“It’s when somebody tries to make themselves as boring and nonreactive as possible to decrease the amount of provoking or emotional reactions,” Deborah Ashway, a licensed mental health counselor in North Carolina, previously explained. “Because when somebody doesn’t give the manipulator the responses they want, they’re no longer able to push their buttons.”
More on gray rocking:How to set boundaries with the narcissist in your life.
The reality is not everyone can escape or “gray rock” a toxic relationship— especially when it involves in-laws, parents, or a co-parent. That’s why experts suggests a slight variation of gray rocking called yellow rocking, which involves “the infusion of a little more emotion in communication.”
“You can’t be a complete robot in front of your kid, so yellow rocking infuses a bit more emotion into the communication that goes beyond the flatness of gray rocking,” Durvasula says. “For example, instead of just saying yes, no, you say, ‘Oh wow, I didn’t know. Thank you so much.'”
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