How to tell if you’ve been manipulated by a narcissist

A narcissistic personality hides their manipulation under a theatrical mask. The lights go down, the stage is set, the scenery is pushed into place and the performance begins.


Mastering a metaphorical act, entering the shape-shifting scene, a big brave soldier courageously carries a tiny helpless victim. Without exception and without question, hiding their cowardly nature, their scripted, twisted, distorted personal story is always a tale of zero to hero.

"Healthy shame is an emotion that teaches us about our limits. Like all emotions, shame moves us to get our basic needs met."

- John Bradshaw

A typical "gaslighting" scenario plays out when a narcissist is the root cause of a problem. The type of problem which they refuse to name, refuse to see, and, as such, can legitimately, in their distorted minds, refuse to own. It's not that they don't understand responsibility; a narcissist deliberately refuses to take any blame to avoid negative thoughts from feeling guilty, so you become the one who is supposed to feel their shame.

Despite discarding you once you are no longer a useful object, or being forced into a position whereby you finally exit their game of shame, they make any falling out "your fault" as you "must" be deserving of their verbal, physical or emotionally abusive assault.

You are left wondering how you became such easy prey as you allowed an abuser to bulldoze into your insecurities and fears, keeping you guessing as to what they might do next. Your responses are shot to pieces and you are living by reactions, feeling a need to defend each and every action that you make. However, it is worth noting a more vulnerable narcissistic personality will find covert ways of mocking and dismissing your interests, passions, and beliefs - often behind your back or through social media.

On the other hand, a more grandiose narcissistic personality will display overt aggressiveness, maliciousness and viciousness, resorting to public personal attacks and criticism, dogged in self-interested pursuit of achieving their own goals through such action.

So, what can you do to watch out for this kind of emotional abuse in a friend or lover, a partner or spouse, a child or parent? How can you tell when you have been drawn into a manipulative relationship? Staying mindful, in the here and now, gaining self-awareness so you feel confident and know your own truth. Having the foresight to see how it will all end in disaster unless you step back into the light and out of the spell of self-doubt. You can retain your integrity and manage the inevitable conflict into which they wish to engage you in order to try and expose you as "the wicked person" - the projection they are trying to impose on you.

7 signs of emotional manipulation

1. A lack of boundaries

Narcissists are relentless in the pursuit of what they want and have little regard for any hurt they cause to you along their route. Everything that happens in every scenario is always about them.

Healthy relationships are not about control or making people feel obligated. Healthy relationships are about freedom and choice. They are not about conditions, demands, terms, laws or other forms of multiple rules. For example, you may hear, "As a friend you should ...", "As a parent, you have to ...", or "As my partner, you ought to..." There may be seduction, secretiveness, grooming: "We can't tell anyone because ..." Or worse, being put in a position, where it is you who has to bend the rules and break the truth.

Human relationships suffer from toxicity; poisoned and unable to thrive when one party is uninterested in what the other wants, thinks, and feels. Overriding your wishes, desires, and explicit instructions you will be left feeling violated, weak, exhausted and dispirited as a narcissist will take up all your space, thereby crowding you out spiritually, emotionally, and physically as they parasitically feed off the fantasy of you they once idealised.

2. Lack of self-awareness

A narcissistic personality type can only see their own inaccurate reflection. Dominating and controlling, they believe their way of handling a situation is the only way. It is always "my way or the highway" meaning that you "should" do what they think you "should" do. All they care about is that their needs are met. Through you. Lacking self-awareness, these manipulative, controlling and abusive individuals never think that the problem lies within.

For them, the only "within" the problem lies is within someone else and soon it will be your turn. Unfortunately, as your kind nature kicks in along with anxiety, self-doubt and confusion, your inner child will automatically side with the narcissist's cinematic inner helpless victim. As such, unwittingly your resultant kind, apologetic, humble behaviour provides backup for their incorrect beliefs.

3. Confusion and control tactics

You will be left feeling confused, compliant, drained and lifeless. You will notice this happens when there is a swift and subtle swing between charm, loveliness and friendliness towards passive-aggressiveness, standoffishness and withdrawal. Expert manipulators, these triangulators will ingratiate themselves into your family, friends, causes and pets. In fact, anyone they can have access to, through you, they will choose to addend.

They have learned to survive on the quickness of wit and humorous banter. "King of the Pub. Queen of the Decanter." When you finally find a way to make them leave you alone, their angry, spiteful, destructive desire for revenge means you may be left out of your family or friendship group.

Their favoured revenge is to worm their way into making friends with your ex, whether lover or friend, hoping the pain, anxiety and sheer discomfort of crossing those boundaries will drive you insane. They don't care about you. They never did. Sadly, you start to face the facts. Underneath you have known it always has been all about them.

4. Bullying and intimidation

You may be bullied, intimidated and threatened. They won't let up or let you go until they wear you down so you are brainwashed into thinking you can never say "no". Narcissists have no assertive state with which to moderate themselves. Zero sense of self-regulation. A missing 'off' button. For example, if you dare to say "no" to any of their demands, desires or wishes, often presented in the form of control dressed up as care, they will see you as aggressive and pulverise or provoke you into giving in.

In such a manner, totally unaware, you will end up meeting their needs. Their need is to be needed by you. They will feel rejected if you do not allow them to become an all-consuming life force, feeding their appetite for recognition, admiration and attention. They silently rage or outwardly rant and rave if you refuse to allow yourself to be used as the fodder they crave.

Alcohol and/or drugs provide a licence to be bold and "brave". Then suddenly, without warning, the war is over and all is calm as you are the one who is now in a state. You were dragged into their game of down and dirty. The drama played out, the satisfaction left them with enough veneer to behave reasonably. A narcissist is satiated once they have driven you insane. Whilst you reel in shock and shame. After any such "incident" abusers often act as if nothing has changed. And the crazy-maker appears as if they are sane.

5. Self-promotion

A narcissistic personality type will always pretend to be a good, charitable, selfless, community-minded and giving person, expending vast amounts of energy and imagery making out that they are made that way. Hiding the shadow side of their self. In such a manner, they slip behind the façade of what we perceive to be socially acceptable behaviour. Especially if we ourselves are innocent, fair-minded, generous and believe it is our duty to contribute towards our world. Often we are so taken in, that we don't do what we might otherwise, and run a mile if we saw under such disguise.

A narcissist will 'boast, brag, show off or self-promote' regarding any fundraising or volunteer work. Posts on social media illuminate an ulterior motive for their seemingly altruistic nature. Sometimes the mask falls quickly, as you can start to hear the emotional pull of feeling guilty when they 'tell you' or even 'gently encourage' you to do the same. You will now be able to tell if you are being coerced.

Ask yourself this question: Do you think that if an individual writes about their activities and/or displays pictures either of or with vulnerable adults or children, i.e. those who may not be in a position to have explicitly provided, or not provided their consent, such individual is in breach of safeguarding rules? In this case, you know you are dealing with a manipulator as they crash freely through legal barriers in a desperate attempt to lend further fake credibility. To promote their prolific profile of personas.

6. Taking advantage

Narcissists want you for what you can do for them and will slot you into their lives in order to take the most advantage. You may find yourself 'helping' by entering data, taking photographs, cleaning or cooking as you crave a reward, even a morsel of praise. Such 'helping' may escalate exponentially finding yourself financing, bankrolling, stealing and covering up for all their mistakes.

If you have gained a profession, a narcissist lacks the emotional maturity necessary for the hard work essential to acquire such (in their eyes) 'high' status, or, on the other hand, perhaps they are a professional or business owner, but are dissatisfied, as they are not where they think they 'should' be, a narcissist will, by association, be trying to add your solid self-image to their own.

Creating the desired impression and further feeding their fake persona amplifies their false self. So good are they at mimicry, people may even believe that they have the same job as you. For example, if you are a primary school teacher, they may start to use words and phrases or pretend to be interested in the education system which leads others to say yours is a job that they would also be suited to. At that point, you know for sure that they are totally jealous, and want to be you.

7. Deception

A narcissistic personality knows they have a good chance of hooking you into a relationship as the essence of your nature is to want to help. Perhaps you possess one of the kindest, caring, empathetic, conscientious and sensitive souls amongst us humankind. Or you are just a fair-minded, logical, problem-solving straightforward and direct person. Maybe due to having become used to meeting your parent's needs, you have an overdeveloped nurturing side. This means you believe that it is wrong or selfish to focus on your own life. Or you have a religious or spiritual belief or, for any other reason feel worthless unless you have an abundance of love to give.

The first inkling that you are being deceived may come when you feel uncomfortable at being subject to false flattery, praise and prose that doesn't quite 'rhyme'. Becoming aware that words and actions have fallen out of line. When that happens, deep down you know it's time to call time.

What is your position on the cycle of emotional abuse, either being abused or abusive? Are you self-aware? How can you find your real self, build your self-concept, gain confidence, learn interpersonal skills, personal boundaries, and assertiveness?

In order to relieve your anxiety and alleviate your fears regarding a perceived power dynamic, find a therapist with whom you can have an equal relationship as far as possible. One who is experienced in what you believe to be your own personal demons. So you can steady yourself back onto an even footing, wanting to leave the black hole of self-sabotage, mistrust, abuse, depression and anxiety.

If you recognise addiction, can a 12-step programme help alongside therapy? Although a range of interventions exist, the key lies in your motivation to change coupled with the strength of your therapeutic relationship. Good luck on your journey.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Leigh-on-Sea SS9 & Basildon SS13
Written by Amanda Perl, Psychotherapist Counsellor MSC BACP Accred CBT Practitioner
Leigh-on-Sea SS9 & Basildon SS13

I am a BACP accredited counsellor and psychotherapist, a CBT practitioner and member of the British Psychological Society. Also course lead on the stage 4 BACP accredited counselling diploma. My private practice reflects my belief that each of us is unique with the potential for growth and development and can move forward in our own way.

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