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Narcissists, Controllers, and the Art of Blame-Shifting

Understanding a tactic that keeps a toxic person in the driver's seat

Photograph by Damir Spanic. Copyright free. Unsplash
Source: Photograph by Damir Spanic. Copyright free. Unsplash

The term gaslighting has filtered into the public consciousness as part of our continuing fascination with all things pertaining to narcissism. And while gaslighting is certainly a strategy people who need to control employ—whether they be parents or lovers or spouses or friends or employers—there’s another we should be talking about just as much: Blame-shifting. The latter is, in some ways, more subtle than gaslighting, and way harder to see. Let’s take a look at the two and do what English teachers call a compare-and-contrast exercise, shall we? (Yes, I was one once.)

Gaslighting versus blame-shifting

To be clear, both tactics are verbally abusive and depend on an imbalance of power in the relationship between the person using them and the person on the receiving end; the powerless intended target is usually very invested in the relationship, most likely loves or cares deeply about the abuser, and is often dependent on him or her. The person doing the gaslighting or blame-shifting is actually more interested in feeling powerful or in control (and the buzz that comes with it) than they are emotionally connected to their target.

What is gaslighting precisely? It takes its name from a play and then a 1944 movie called Gaslight starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. In it, Boyer manipulates Bergman and distracts her from his criminality by trying to convince her that she is going insane. And that’s what gaslighters do: They make the target believe that his or her grip on reality is tenuous at best and non-existent at worst. The most common tactics are insisting that something that happened didn’t, dismissing a claim by saying it was simply imagined, or telling the person flat out that she or he is losing it or crazy. Gaslighters exploit their target’s fears, insecurities, vulnerabilities, and neediness to their own ends.

While it takes some concerted effort to gaslight another adult—even a needy or insecure one—gaslighting a child is remarkably easy because of the enormous power and authority a parent has by definition. What child can stand up to the words “You’re imagining it because it never happened” when uttered by her or his mother or father, each of whom is the ruler of the very small universe in which the child lives?

Blame-shifting also exploits whatever disparity in power exists in the relationship and, again, is remarkably easy in a parent-child relationship. But, between adults, it has certain subtleties that gaslighting does not and, as a net, it catches more fish. This behavior is always about power and the sad truth is that the victim tends to be the one who loves, needs, and depends on her or his abuser in ways that are significantly different from the motivations of the person shifting blame.

How blame-shifting works

This particular form of manipulation depends on the abuser really knowing your weaknesses and tendencies; among them might be your steadfast avoidance of conflict or your proclivity to play the peacemaker; your tendency to backtrack on your positions; your desire to please; your own insecurities and doubts about yourself; and your tendency to question the validity of your thoughts and feelings. Most of the people caught in this web grew up in households where their emotional needs weren’t met and were unloved, unsupported, or downright picked on in their families of origin. This is also true of the abuser but he or she has learned to cope differently.

Mind you, most of the time the abuser doesn’t look you in the face and say “This is all your fault because…” although he or she might from time-to-time; it’s usually stealthier than that. Let’s say you complained about his or her behavior and the argument escalated until suddenly the abuser says, “I wouldn’t have acted that way if you weren’t always nagging me” or “If you didn’t always start in when I am dead tired from work, I wouldn’t lose my temper” or “If you weren’t always focused on you and your needs, we wouldn’t be fighting.” The chances are good that the guilt-tripping works because you want this relationship to thrive and suddenly you feel awful and you hear yourself apologize. Since your goal is to have things work out between you, you don’t even see you’ve been played.

I am sorry to say that this actually happened to me. I did notice early in my relationship to a man who turned out to be highly narcissistic that he had an odd way of deflecting the conversation when I discovered he hadn’t been entirely truthful about something I asked him about. He would always say, “If you had asked the right question, I would have given you the answer.” These were white lies and omissions and I wrongly attributed his way of dealing to his profession as a litigator and his poor communication with his former wife. I could not have been more wrong, and, yes, eventually, it devolved into blame-shifting. The only good news is that I didn’t fall for it.

Why narcissists and controllers blame-shift

The obvious answer is that it permits them to dodge responsibility for their words and actions; what’s more convenient than having a ready fall guy or a scapegoat? Plus, being right all the time is a dandy confirmation for the narcissist, reinforcing how strong and superior he or she is, despite the deep shame that sits at the core of the self like a poisoned pit. An allied tactic is what Craig Malkin in his book Rethinking Narcissism calls “playing emotional hot potato,” which is another way of looking at projection: The narcissist ascribes what he or she is feeling to the target. That too undermines the target’s sense of her own perceptions; even though she can see that he is red in the face, his jaw muscles working, and his arms closely held against his chest, he is telling her that it’s her anger that is wrecking the relationship. And she is apt to believe it.

Through interviews for my next book as well as those conducted for Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, I have come to see that blame-shifting is also motivated by the need to strip the target of a sense of agency; what’s likely to happen is that, under attack, the target will resort to old default positions such as apologizing to or trying to placate the abuser. Inevitably, she’ll revert to another old learned behavior which is self-blame. That is, of course, what the narcissist or controller wants.

Once you’ve identified blame-shifting, you’ll see that it’s a persistent pattern of behavior. Take heed.

Copyright© 2020 by Peg Streep

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock


Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.

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