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8 Ways Narcissists Seek to Manipulate and Dehumanize You

How to sidestep narcissistic manipulation.

Key points

  • People with Narcissistic Personality Disorder often undermine others in an attempt to gain power or feel superior.
  • Narcissists' tactics can be powerful and harm those around them.
  • By recognizing how a narcissist's arsenal works, you can reduce the potential harm they may try to inflict upon you.
Source: pio3/Shutterstock
Source: pio3/Shutterstock

Because of their personality disorder, narcissists tend to live life as a zero-sum game in which there are only winners and losers in any interaction or relationship.

Terrified of feeling like or being viewed as a “loser,” narcissists use numerous approaches designed to devalue, minimize, and control other people. Many of these tactics come naturally to narcissists and may be hard to spot.

8 of narcissists’ most potent tactics:

When dealing with narcissistic people, forewarned is forearmed.

1. Labeling

Narcissists love labels. Knowing that uttering a single word may temporarily reduce another’s sense of self or silence another can feel incredibly powerful for a narcissist. Examples include calling another person “loser,” “failure,” “stupid,” “weak,” or “needy.”

Ironically, narcissists’ labels reveal more about the narcissist than their target. One hallmark of narcissism is the frequent use of the defense mechanism of projection. Projection is when we unconsciously attribute to others feelings and judgments that we cannot tolerate recognizing within ourselves. Narcissists’ most-used labels tend to show their deepest fears about themselves.

For example, if “stupid” is a narcissist’s go-to label, it may indicate how desperate they are to feel smart, often in response to deep fears of being inadequate.

Or narcissists who love to call others “weak” may reveal their fear that not being strong would expose them to mortal danger.

2. Displacing

When we ignore or flee from unpleasant feelings, they may emerge indirectly as disowned aspects of ourselves. Narcissists have little tolerance for painful emotions. As a result, they tend to offload uncomfortable feelings on those around them.

For example, narcissists tend to carry a great deal of shame, but it is rarely in their conscious awareness. Instead, they displace their shame on others by trying to make others feel inferior and “carry” the narcissist’s shame for them.

For example, narcissists’ fears of being illegitimate may lead them to question others’ legitimacy. Their fear of being flawed can emerge as harping on another’s small misstep in an otherwise exemplary performance.

3. Exaggerating

Narcissistic Personality Disorder is characterized by distorted views of self, others, and the world. Given narcissists’ tendencies toward grandiosity, exaggerating is second nature to narcissists. Thus, narcissists’ looks, accomplishments, and possessions are the “greatest,” “perfect,” and “the best.”

Narcissists’ tendency to exaggerate works in reverse when applied to others. Narcissists may tell you that your comment was “the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” your outfit is “the ugliest,” or your performance was “the worst in history.”

4. Stonewalling

Narcissists have found that never backing down, even when they are wrong, can be a winning tactic. When faced with a narcissist’s persistent stonewalling, other people may simply give up and allow the narcissist to do whatever they want, much to the narcissist’s delight.

Source: Alexander_P/Shutterstock
Source: Alexander_P/Shutterstock

5. Scapegoating

Narcissists often blame one individual for a group’s problems. In doing so, they gain power, evade any responsibility they have in creating problems, and ostracize their target, which serves as a warning to others who might think of challenging the narcissist.

6. Intimidating

Narcissists tend to be bullies. They try to get what they want through verbal, psychological, or emotional brute force.

It is important to recognize intimidation and abuse. As the saying goes, “If you see something, say something.” Remember: Intimidation or threatening others is illegal in most places.

7. Gaslighting

Narcissists will deny what you know to be true in an attempt to destabilize you. For example, a narcissist may take something that belongs to you right before your eyes, but when you bring it up, deny that it happened. They will insist you are imagining things, denying all evidence to the contrary. The longer this gaslighting goes on, the more self-doubt you may feel about your perceptions.

8. Dehumanizing

Much like authoritarian regimes, narcissists classify others as inferior, unworthy, or evil to justify oppressing or attacking them. They may devalue you through dismissive remarks or hostile humor or treat you as “other,” seeking to make you feel subhuman and alone.

While we can have compassion for anyone suffering from a personality disorder or unhealthy narcissism, we do not have to accept destructive manipulative or controlling behavior from anyone. You have the right to be abuse-free in your personal and work life. Stand up for that right.

Copyright © 2021 Dan Neuharth Ph.D., MFT