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Popular Strategies of a Narcissist

Recognize the techniques that narcissists use to control others.

Key points

  • Narcissists often leverage subtlety; they’re unlikely to lash out at someone when others are watching.
  • Narcissists are experts at projecting blame onto others.
  • In narcissistic relationships, boundaries and limits are viewed as wrong.

It might be surprising to learn that narcissists are amazingly intuitive. They can often see what motivates people, what their fears are, and where their vulnerabilities lie. The idea that a narcissist somehow looks villainous and is easily recognizable is a false belief that stops many individuals from recognizing narcissism when it’s right in front of them. Narcissists typically share some popular strategies that empower them to use, manipulate, and destroy others.

Narcissists are most often wrapped up in a believable exterior. They’ve been wronged in the past and they’re happy to tell you about it. Their perceived pain over past experiences can feel very real. These are not individuals walking around barely able to function: Skilled narcissists often appear generous, outgoing, very interested in others’ emotions, and skillful at blending into their environments.

Much like animals who have developed camouflage techniques to hide in certain areas, narcissists have developed certain ways of presenting themselves to cover up their true nature. If narcissists went around with an identification badge on their chests, their victim pool would shrink immensely, leaving them with very few people to use to get their needs met.

Recognize narcissists' techniques to save yourself heartache in the long run

Since narcissists favor covert action over sharing their true intentions, it’s crucial to be able to recognize some of their more popular strategies to prevent getting tangled up in a relationship with them. Though it’s always hard to extricate oneself from a narcissistic relationship, the longer it goes on, the more challenging it will become. Paying close attention to their favored techniques for manipulating others can go a long way in preventing their success.

Narcissists can be overly focused on status. Recent research indicates that narcissistic admiration—a belief that one is special accompanied by a desire to entice others—plays a key role in understanding how narcissists work. Those narcissists who desire status because they want to be viewed as unique from others are more likely to have somewhat positive outcomes with self-esteem, whereas narcissists more focused on others’ inferiority have a higher chance of harmful self-worth outcomes.

Because status is so important to narcissists, those narcissistic individuals who desire to charm others can often use this as motivation to gain prestige. Their behaviors will come across as more appealing than narcissists solely focused on gaining status for the sake of proving others are "less than," which makes them both less damaging as well as harder to recognize.

The differences in how narcissistic self-worth is impacted by the motivation behind their status-seeking speaks to how individuals trying to avoid narcissistic relationships can learn to recognize more elusive red flags earlier in the interactions.

Narcissists are all about subtlety. They’re very unlikely to lash out at someone when others are watching, and they often act overly caring and considerate toward their victims when in public. Reputation is key here, and narcissistic individuals want to be viewed as “the best” at everything—the best in every relationship, the best at their careers, the best at putting others’ needs before their own… the list goes on.

A narcissist always starts by taking advantage of others in a subtle way. Maybe they’re just having a horrible month, they’ve been traumatized by someone’s mistreatment of them, or there’s some other very important reason as to why they need you to behave in a certain way—and, somehow, it all makes sense when they request it. Remember, narcissists have excellent communication skills, so they can discern others’ disbelief, and they’re more than capable of subtly adjusting their statements and requests according to the responses they get.

That subtlety makes pinpointing a narcissist’s behavior very challenging. They won’t overtly tell you that you mean nothing to them, but they will quietly and subversively attack your reputation, play the victim to others regarding your treatment of them, and feign shock that anyone would ever think or accuse them of any motivations that aren’t purely altruistic in nature.

Narcissists are experts at projecting blame. Narcissistic individuals have always been wronged by someone else. Typically, it occurs in an intimate relationship or a family relationship. They have been mistreated, they have been ignored, they have been taken advantage of—and, when pressured, they will sometimes admit a superficial mistake on their part that could have contributed to the situation, but rarely will they genuinely go beyond that ownership.

Narcissists are only hurt when they don’t get what they want—and they will work very hard to get what they want, in totality. There is no compromise. If you do not bend to everything a narcissist wishes to get from you, you’ll quickly see them project blame for everything going wrong in their lives onto you. Sometimes that blame feels warranted to victims, at other times it’s obviously over the top.

Warranted or not, a narcissist’s blame is different from taking responsibility in a healthy relationship. This blame is all-encompassing: You must admit you were wrong, you must be willing to pay penance (repeatedly) for as long as they desire, and you must give in to their demands in the future because you wronged them. A simple equation, but when victims experience it one small piece at a time, it can be very challenging to recognize.

Narcissists launch wildly successful smear campaigns. When a narcissist is getting what they want from you, the relationship can be wonderful. They will go overboard to prove how perfect the interactions are, and “love bombing” is a tool that will be used in all kinds of narcissistic relationships—not just intimate ones. However, once victims take a stand and say “no” to further abuse, they should buckle up for a serious smear campaign.

Narcissists thrive on their reputation, so being discovered as manipulative is to be avoided at all costs. One of the best strategies they employ to take the focus off their own behaviors and put it onto others is to loudly proclaim the faults of their victims to anyone who will listen.

Narcissistic individuals will often find it hard to turn off their smear campaigns. They will share them with the most unlikely of people—mutual friends, shared acquaintances, even victims’ family members—in an effort to gain support. Their goal is to completely destroy the credibility of their victim so that the victim’s only choice is to return to the narcissist to regain their standing. Smear campaigns give immense power and control to narcissists.

Boundaries are a dirty word for a narcissist. In healthy relationships, everyone has boundaries that should be talked about and respected. In narcissistic relationships, boundaries are viewed as wrong. Limits will only impede a manipulative person’s ability to take advantage of others, and narcissists will work overtime to teach their victims the hopelessness of setting boundaries.

Relationships that don’t allow for individualism or frown on expressing disagreement should be a red flag. Narcissists will try from the beginning of a relationship to set the standard for no boundaries. They will test the waters with small issues initially, and depending on their success, will tweak their strategies or move on to bigger boundaries. One of their most well-used techniques is to remind victims of all they’ve done for them—which, in their mind, is equivalent to chips in the bank that give them a blank check to do whatever they want to their victims in the future.

Narcissists want to show their victims who has control, and violating even the smallest of boundaries will accomplish this. They will create opportunities to cross lines at every turn, and if victims bring up the violations, narcissists will easily blow it off as a small issue that shouldn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. However, every single boundary violation is crucial to pay attention to—they will eventually pile up and lead to damaging behaviors.

Awareness is the first step

A narcissist never gives anything freely, be that a gift, time, or their own thoughts and feelings—there’s always a cost, and usually it’s a cost that will build over time to be immense and devastating. Their toolbox is seemingly endless, as they constantly adjust strategies based on what works and what doesn’t.

For individuals who want to avoid getting trapped in narcissistic relationships, staying aware of several common manipulation strategies is crucial. Awareness, if nurtured, will eventually lead to a determination to stand up for yourself and escape these hurtful, destructive relationships.


Virgil Zeigler-Hill and Jennifer York. Narcissism and Self-Esteem Revisited : The Mediating Roles of Perceived Status and Inclusion. June 2022.

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