Anyone who remembers watching the Wizard of Oz as a child will probably remember how horrifying the Wicked Witch of the West’s flying monkeys were. These monkeys were sent by the witch to do her dirty work, and the phrase has since become synonymous with people who end up doing the dirty work of a narcissist.
Flying monkeys get caught up in a narcissist’s plan — often to damage the life of another person. The narcissist may use their flying monkeys as piggy in the middle, carrying information from party to party. The flying monkey may use gaslighting tactics, open aggression, and guilt-tripping in order to make another person feel bad and weak, whilst shoring up the narcissist. And they’re often involved in pleading the case of the narcissist. Narcissists love having at least one flying monkey, as it makes them feel important and means they can appear to be above the people below them (on both sides) who are caught up in the messy parts of the drama.
The narcissist often recruits his or her flying monkeys from among other family members, such as siblings, spouses, or children. Close friends or work colleagues may also become flying monkeys: I’m sure we’ve all come across bosses or political leaders who wouldn’t be able to function without a band of helpers prepared to get their hands dirty.
Rosie described how she had been her brother’s flying monkey up until the point she realised she was involved in a potentially illegal action. “I felt very threatened by my brother”, she told me. “He is extremely aggressive and emotionally abusive and I felt safer keeping in with him. That might involve picking on our other sibling, sending emails and generally defending my brother whenever he’d acted out of line. I’d got to a point where I was blinded as to what was right or wrong. I just wanted to be his best friend because I saw him as the strongest in the family, and it stopped him turning on me”.
Some of the reasons people become flying monkeys include:
Self-preservation and protection. Rosie’s motivation to become her brother’s flying monkey was understandable and was based on self-preservation. Like other people who do a narcissist’s dirty work for them, she didn’t pay much, if any, attention to the impact of her actions. Her need to look after herself was far greater than her need to protect anyone else. Forming an alliance with the person perceived as the strongest member of a family or organisation is one reason people adopt this role. Telling tales, spreading misinformation, and using gaslighting techniques against anyone who dares to question the narcissist might just mean you get to keep your job and don’t find yourself on the receiving end of narcissistic rage.
Rescuing the narcissistic "victim." If you tend to fall into a rescuing role, you may feel compelled to jump to the defence of the narcissist who blames everyone and everything for whatever is going wrong in their life. Sticking up for the narcissist meets your inbuilt need to feel valued and needed because of your rescuer role.
A loss of sense of self. Some flying monkeys are so browbeaten by the narcissist that they have far less capacity than otherwise might be expected when it comes to knowing right from wrong. They may have experienced years of emotional abuse at the hands of the narcissist and have lost a sense of self and independent decision-making along the way.
Loving the drama. Some flying monkeys really thrive on the drama. When you’re involved with a narcissist, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll be involved in a few dramas along the way. What can beat the adrenaline of being caught up in lies, secrecy, and deception?
Being a narcissist. Flying monkeys often have strong narcissistic traits themselves, including a desire for attention, a lack of empathy, and a desire to bully and manipulate others. They may be involved in a family, work, or other situation in which they know that their best opportunity to fulfill their narcissistic desires comes from allying themselves with a more powerful narcissist.
If you have had your fill of being a flying monkey, the narcissist in your life is unlikely to be happy about it and, at the least, may not want anything to do with you once you cease to be of use. Being used by a narcissist to take care of some of the least desirable aspects of their business is always going to place you in a compromised, stressful environment and you should ensure that you have the appropriate support in place when you choose to change your role.
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