How to Decode the Narcissist’s Playbook: Recognizing Manipulation Strategies

by | Jun 17, 2024 | Life in General, Relationships, Single Moms

Thank you for continuing this journey with us. Previously, we distinguished between toxic behavior and narcissism in Toxic vs. Narcissism: Understanding the Difference. Today, we equip you with the tools to recognize manipulation tactics in How to Decode the Narcissist’s Playbook: Recognizing Manipulation Strategies. Finally, our next post will guide you through the healing process in Surviving Narcissistic Abuse: Your Guide to Healing and Thriving.

Welcome to a key addition to my blog series for Narcissistic Abuse Awareness. This post delves into the complex tactics narcissists use for manipulation and control. Beyond mere self-centeredness, they exhibit a false confidence that masks deep insecurities, using a series of manipulative tactics not just for self-promotion but for deep psychological control.

This bonus post synthesizes all the strategies discussed throughout the series, including gaslighting, love bombing, and future faking, detailing their implementation and harmful impacts. My goal is to empower you with the knowledge to recognize these tactics early, protect your emotional well-being, and reclaim your power.


Supply / Fuel: Narcissistic supply or fuel refers to attention, admiration, emotional energy, and other forms of validation that narcissists require to sustain their self-esteem and ego.

The Love Bombing and Idealization Phase (separate?)

In the initial stages of a relationship, narcissists often engage inlove bombing— showering their new target with excessive affection, compliments, and gifts, which makes the recipient feel incredibly special and valued. This is part of the idealization phase, where the narcissist presents themselves as the perfect partner, mirroring the desires and interests of their target. The purpose of this stage is to hook the person emotionally and establish a level of trust and dependency that the narcissist will later exploit.

Devaluing Phase

Once the idealization phase wears off, and the victim believes the facade, the narcissist begins to show their true colors. The devaluing phase begins; the once abundant praises and affirmations turn into criticism and contempt. The same attributes and actions that were once idealized are now sources of fault and irritation. This sudden shift can be disorienting and deeply hurtful to the partner, who will likely scramble to regain the narcissist’s approval and affection, not understanding that the shift is a calculated effort to gain more control.

Discard Phase

The discard phase occurs when the narcissist decides that their partner no longer serves their purpose — either the partner has begun to push back against the narcissist’s manipulations, or they have become too worn down to provide the narcissist with the admiration and service they require or the narc has found a better source of supply. This phase often involves a sudden withdrawal of affection and can be executed with shocking coldness. At this point, the narcissist may already be grooming their next target, having overlapped relationships to ensure they are never left without a narcissistic supply.

Crazy Making Behavior: This term refers to a form of psychological manipulation used by individuals, often narcissists, to destabilize and confuse their victims. It involves actions and communications that are inconsistent and contradictory. This leads the victim to doubt their own sanity and perceptions. 

Crazy making behavior can include gaslighting, lying, saying one thing but doing another, withholding information, and erratic moods. The purpose is to keep the victim off-balance and more dependent on the manipulator for their version of reality, ultimately asserting control over them. 

This tactic is particularly insidious because it can be subtle and is often interspersed with periods of normal, pleasant interactions, making it difficult for the victim to identify what is happening and to confront or escape the situation.

The Hoover Tactic: Even after a breakup, narcissists often employ a tactic known asHoovering— named after the famous vacuum cleaner brand. This involves attempts tosucktheir ex-partner back into the turmoil of the relationship through manipulation. They may suddenly proclaim they have changed, or they may use guilt, pleading, accusations, or even the threat of self-harm to bring their former partner back for another cycle of abuse.

Every step in this process — from love bombing to Hoovering — is a testament to the narcissist’s use of relationships as tools, not bonds. The people in their lives are not valued for who they are, but for what they can provide to the narcissist. This cycle is a game of chess to the narcissist, where others are pawns, and emotional damage is collateral, not a concern. Understanding these dynamics is crucial for anyone involved with narcissist to recognize the patterns and protect themselves from the psychological harm that inevitably follows.

Triangulation and Pitting Others Against Each Other

Triangulation is a manipulative tactic in which the narcissist deliberately creates jealousy or breeds mistrust between the people in their lives—friends, family members, and romantic partners alike. By doing this, they keep others off balance and maintain control and attention upon themselves. They may share secrets or spread misinformation to one party about another, creating an atmosphere of competition or suspicion that only the narcissist can navigate effectively. This not only ensures their indispensability but also prevents any unified front that could oppose them.

Blame Shifting

The narcissist’s public persona is a meticulously crafted facade designed to mask their insecurities and manipulate perceptions. Central to maintaining this facade is their chronic inability to accept responsibility for their actions. They almost always have a justification for their minimized abusive behavior while shifting blame to anyone but themselves. 

Deflection and Denial

Narcissists are masters of deflection. They never acknowledge their role in causing distress, instead shifting the blame to others, including their victims. This refusal to accept responsibility is not just a tactic used in confrontations but a pervasive element of their interactions with everyone around them. Their discussions are sprinkled with excuses and fabrications that serve to paint them as the victim or hero, never the villain.

Backhanded Compliments

These are compliments laced with criticism meant to unsettle the recipient. For example, a narcissist might praise someone’s work in one breath and in the next, subtly imply that the success was due to luck rather than skill.

Rewriting History

Narcissists will often change details of past events to better suit their narrative, denying things they said or did, which confuses and destabilizes those around them.

Professional Lying

They lie with ease and confidence, constructing believable stories that paint them favorably in the eyes of others.

Pathological Lying: This behavior in narcissists involves consistently telling unnecessary and often extravagant lies. Narcissists use pathological lying to manipulate and control others, enhance their self-image, and maintain a facade of superiority. These lies help them construct a reality that supports their grandiose self-perception and shields them from any truths that might undermine their crafted image.

Half Truths: is a deceptive tactic where the narcissist mixes elements of truth with falsehoods. This method makes their lies more convincing and difficult to challenge, as the elements of truth lend credibility to the entire statement. By utilizing half-truths, a narcissist can manipulate the perceptions and memories of their victims, which is a critical component of gaslighting.

Smear Campaign: A smear campaign is a malicious strategy to undermine someone’s reputation, credibility, and relationships through the spread of false accusations, rumors, and innuendo. This tactic involves carefully crafting lies or exaggerating truths to paint the target in a negative light, effectively isolating them from their support network and damaging their public image. The ultimate goal is to control how others perceive the victim, ensuring that the narcissist gains sympathy or maintains their position of power and influence.

Flying Monkeys: A term derived fromThe Wizard of Ozthat refers to people who are recruited by a narcissist to help with their bidding. They often help the narcissist manipulate or spread misinformation about the victim further aiding rumors and the smear campaign.

Gaslighting: A highly effective and harmful form of psychological manipulation used by narcissists and other manipulative individuals to gain power over someone. The term originates from the 1938 stage playGas Light,where a husband manipulates small elements of their environment, such as dimming the lights, and then denies that anything has changed, making his wife doubt her sanity.

In practice, gaslighting involves the abuser denying and distorting reality to such an extent that the victim starts questioning their judgments, memories, and the events around them. This can cause immense confusion and anxiety in the victim, leading to a loss of self-esteem and, in severe cases, can even alter the victim’s sense of reality.

Intimidation: Intimidation is a manipulative tactic where fear is used to control someone’s actions or decisions. Narcissists may employ threats, aggressive behavior, or overt displays of power, including legal and financial intimidation, to force compliance. This could involve threatening lawsuits, manipulating financial resources, or using one’s economic advantage to control and isolate their victims, thereby ensuring obedience and dependency.

Intentional Jealousy: A deliberate tactic used by narcissists to create insecurity and competition. They may flirt with others, praise someone else excessively, or subtly imply that the victim is not good enough. This manipulative behavior is designed to make the victim feel jealous, unworthy, and more desperate for the narcissist’s approval and attention.

False Flattery: Offering excessive, insincere praise and compliments to manipulate someone’s perception or to gain their trust and affection for ulterior motives.

Future Faking: Future faking is a manipulative tactic where narcissists make unrealistic promises about the future to achieve their immediate desires. This approach creates false hope in the victim, building anticipation for events or commitments that will never occur. 

As the promised future fails to materialize, the narcissist often uses excuses or even gaslighting to explain away the discrepancies, further manipulating and controlling the victim. This cycle of making and breaking promises can be emotionally devastating, leaving the victim disoriented and deeply hurt when the expectations are repeatedly dashed.

Fault Finding: Constantly pointing out real or perceived flaws in others to undermine their self-esteem and to divert attention from the narcissist’s own shortcomings.

Blame Shifting: Avoiding accountability by deflecting blame onto others. Narcissists use this tactic to maintain their self-image and to avoid facing consequences for their actions.

Deflecting: Steering conversations away from the narcissist’s behavior and onto topics that discredit, confuse, or distract the victim.

Denying: Outright refusal to acknowledge wrongdoing or the validity of the victim’s feelings and perceptions, even in the face of evident facts.

Isolation: Cutting the victim off from their friends, family, and other support networks to gain more control over them and to prevent them from receiving support or contrary perspectives.

Mirroring: Mirroring is a psychological tactic where an individual deliberately imitates or reflects someone’s behavior, tastes, and mannerisms to quickly establish rapport and gain their trust and affection. This technique involves closely observing and then emulating the victim’s preferences in music, hobbies, speech patterns, and even values or beliefs.

By presenting themselves as remarkably similar or compatible, the manipulator creates a sense of familiarity and trustworthiness. This deep-seated connection can make the victim feel uniquely understood and bonded, which the manipulator then exploits to further their own agenda.

In relationships involving narcissistic individuals, mirroring is often used in the initial phases to captivate the victim, setting the stage for deeper emotional manipulation.

Zero Empathy: Zero empathy refers to a complete lack of ability or willingness to recognize and share the feelings and experiences of others. Individuals who exhibit zero empathy are unable to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, understand their emotions, or respond appropriately to others’ distress.

In the context of narcissistic behaviors, zero empathy is a defining trait where the individual is so focused on their own needs and feelings that they disregard those of others, often leading to selfish or hurtful behaviors without any guilt or remorse. This lack of empathy is a key factor that contributes to many of the manipulative and damaging interactions narcissists have with others.

Cold Empathy: Cold empathy refers to the ability of individuals, such as narcissists, to recognize and understand other people’s emotions and motivations without sharing or responding to these emotions on an emotional level. It’s often used for no-brainer situations the narcissistknowsone would be sad over such as diagnosis, death, or loss.

This form of empathy is analytical and detached, often utilized by narcissists to manipulate or control others for personal gain. While cold empathy allows for an accurate reading of someone’s emotional state, it lacks the compassionate component that typically motivates altruistic behavior. 

It is important not to confuse cold empathy with cognitive empathy, which involves understanding emotions for purposes of social interaction and communication, rather than for manipulation.

Needling & Baiting: Provoking the victim with subtle, often repeated, negative behaviors or comments designed to elicit a reaction.

Withholding: Deliberately withholding affection, information, or resources as a means of control and punishment.

Undermining: Subtly working to diminish someone’s effectiveness, achievements, or ability to act independently, thereby increasing their reliance on the narcissist.

Rushing IntimacySoulmate Scam”: Accelerating the development of a relationship and creating an illusion of intimacy and destiny to captivate and control the victim.

Financial Abuse: Exerting control by managing or restricting the victim’s access to financial resources, thereby limiting their independence.

Subtle Attacks: Low-intensity behaviors or comments intended to unsettle or harm the victim without obvious aggression.

Projection: Attributing the narcissist’s own negative behaviors or characteristics to others to deflect blame and to maintain their self-image.

Minimizing and Invalidating: Trivializing the victim’s feelings, thoughts, or experiences in a way that makes them question their self-worth or reality.

Forgetting: Feigned forgetfulness as a manipulation tactic to avoid responsibility and to make the victim question their memory.

Charm: Using charisma and allure to influence and manipulate others, often seen at the beginning of relationships or in public settings.

Pushing Boundaries: Repeatedly testing and violating the victim’s boundaries to erode their ability to assert their needs or rights.

Scapegoat: In the context of a narcissistic family dynamic, a scapegoat is a child (or sometimes another family member) who is unfairly blamed for the family’s problems and shortcomings. This child is often the target of the narcissist’s frustration, criticism, and emotional abuse, and is used as a way to divert attention from the narcissist’s own flaws and failings. The scapegoat role is a way for the narcissist to maintain their sense of superiority and control over the family, protecting themselves from accountability. Narcissistic spouses often use their partners as scapegoats, blaming them for issues and hiding behind them in family dynamics.

Trauma Bond: Refers to a strong emotional attachment formed between a victim and a narcissist, typically forged through a cycle of abuse characterized by intense, emotional experiences, including periods of love and affection followed by manipulation, degradation, and control. This bond is reinforced by the inconsistency of reward and punishment, creating a powerful emotional connection that makes it difficult for the victim to leave the abusive relationship.

In these dynamics, the intermittent reinforcement of kindness followed by cruelty keeps the victim hopeful for resolution and clinging to the positive moments, despite the prevailing abusive behavior. This pattern can lead to the victim rationalizing harmful actions and remaining loyal to the abuser out of fear, obligation, or deep-seated emotional dependency. Such bonds are deeply damaging and can significantly complicate the process of breaking free from the cycle of abuse.

AdditionalPlaysBetween Narcissistic Parents and Children

Narcissistic parents often exhibit another range of manipulative behaviors designed to maintain control and satisfy their own needs, frequently at the expense of their child’s well-being. These behaviors can create a toxic and damaging environment, leading to long-term emotional and psychological issues for the child. 

Below is a list of common behaviors narcissistic parents may use, highlighting the stark difference between a healthy parent-child relationship and one tainted by narcissistic manipulation. In a healthy relationship, parents nurture their child’s independence and self-esteem, while narcissistic parents undermine their child’s autonomy and self-worth to reinforce their own power and control.

Infantilization: Creating dependence in the child even into adulthood, making them reliant on the parent for basic decisions and needs.

Emotional Manipulation: Using guilt, shame, or pity to control the child’s actions and emotions.

Gaslighting: Causing the child to doubt their own memories, perceptions, and reality.

Triangulation: Playing siblings or family members against each other to create competition and division, ensuring loyalty to the narcissistic parent.

Projection: Accusing the child of the parent’s own negative behaviors or feelings, deflecting blame from themselves.

Neglect: Failing to provide emotional support or attention unless it serves the parent’s needs or image.

Enmeshment: Blurring boundaries between the parent and child, making it difficult for the child to develop an independent sense of self.

Excessive Criticism: Constantly belittling and devaluing the child’s achievements and self-worth.

Favoritism: Showing preferential treatment to one child over another, often creating sibling rivalry and tension.

Parentification: Forcing the child to take on adult responsibilities and emotional burdens that are inappropriate for their age.

Withholding Affection: Using love and approval as a tool to control the child’s behavior, only giving affection when the child meets their expectations.

Public Humiliation: Shaming or embarrassing the child in front of others to assert dominance and control.

Monopolizing Success: Taking credit for the child’s achievements or using them to enhance their own image and reputation.

Isolation: Discouraging or preventing the child from forming close relationships outside the family to maintain control.

Example of some of the above tactics used together.

In a particularly manipulative instance, during the discard phase, the narcissist might weave an elaborate scenario to further destabilize the victim. They may insinuate or even directly suggest that they are having an affair with someone the victim knows and respects—perhaps even a close friend or a person the victim believes the narcissist genuinely cares about. This deceit serves multiple nefarious purposes: it deeply wounds the victim, isolates them further by involving and potentially estranging other important relationships in their life, and distracts from the narcissist’s own infidelities which are often real and ongoing.

When the victim, driven by confusion and pain, reacts by confronting the supposed affair partner or their significant other, the situation escalates into serious drama and possibly broken relationships. Throughout this turmoil, the narcissist stands back, often with a sense of pride in the chaos they orchestrated—a testament to their calculated and strategic manipulation, akin to a chess master proudly watching the board unfold in their favor.

This strategic manipulation of perceptions ensures that the narcissist remains protected from accountability, while the victim struggles alone, their credibility eroded by the very person who abuses them. In this way, the mask not only disguises the narcissist’s true nature but also actively undermines and entraps their victim, making escape and recovery all the more difficult. By creating these convoluted narratives where they appear blameless or even the victims themselves, narcissists ensure that any accusations against them are met with skepticism or outright disbelief.


Understanding the tactics outlined equips you with the knowledge to recognize and resist the manipulative strategies employed by narcissists. By becoming aware of these behaviors—such as gaslighting, love bombing, and future faking—you can protect your emotional well-being and reclaim your power. This playbook serves as a crucial resource in your journey to break free from the destructive influence of narcissistic manipulation. 

Remember, awareness is the first step towards empowerment and recovery. Stay informed, set firm boundaries, and seek support when needed to navigate and heal from the impact of narcissistic abuse.

Understanding narcissistic manipulation tactics is key to protecting yourself. In our final post, we will focus on healing and moving forward. Join us for Surviving Narcissistic Abuse: Your Guide to Healing and Thriving to learn how to rebuild your life after abuse.


  1. The Narcissist Playbook by Dana Morningstar
    • This book provides insights into the tactics narcissists use to manipulate and control their victims, offering strategies to recognize and counteract these behaviors.
  2. Divorcing and Healing from a Narcissist by Dr. Theresa J. Covert
    • This guide helps victims navigate the difficult process of divorcing a narcissist and offers tools for healing and rebuilding their lives.
  3. Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship with a Narcissist by Dr. Ramani Durvasula
    • Dr. Ramani offers advice on recognizing narcissistic behaviors and making informed decisions about whether to stay in or leave the relationship.
  4. Whole Again: Healing Your Heart and Rediscovering Your True Self After Toxic Relationships and Emotional Abuse by Jackson MacKenzie
    • This book offers practical steps for healing and finding peace after experiencing toxic relationships and emotional abuse.
  5. Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection by Sharon Salzberg
    • While not specifically about narcissism, this book offers insights into forming healthy relationships based on mindfulness and compassion, which can be beneficial for those recovering from narcissistic abuse.
YouTube Channels
  1. Dr. Ramani Durvasula
    • A clinical psychologist specializing in narcissistic behavior, Dr. Ramani provides detailed insights into understanding and managing relationships with narcissists. Dr. Ramani’s YouTube Channel
  2. Surviving Narcissism by Dr. Les Carter
  3. Rebecca Zung
    • Rebecca Zung offers practical advice for dealing with narcissists, particularly in legal scenarios, helping victims recognize and counteract manipulative tactics. Rebecca Zung’s YouTube Channel
  4. Michelle Lee Nieves Coaching
Support Groups and Websites
  1. Psychology Today
    • Provides numerous articles and resources on narcissistic abuse and finding professional help. Psychology Today
  2. Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Programs
    • There are various online support groups and recovery programs that offer community support and validation. Examples include groups on Facebook and forums like Reddit’s r/raisedbynarcissists.
Additional Books
  1. Healing from Hidden Abuse by Shannon Thomas
    • This book offers a recovery framework for those dealing with the aftermath of psychological abuse.
  2. The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk
    • While not exclusively about narcissistic abuse, this book provides valuable insights into how trauma affects the body and mind, which can be crucial for understanding the impact of long-term emotional abuse.
Legal Resources
  1. Domestic Violence Legal Help
    • Websites like the National Domestic Violence Hotline offer resources and legal advice for those dealing with narcissistic abuse and other forms of domestic violence. The National Domestic Violence Hotline

These resources provide comprehensive information and support for understanding, coping with, and recovering from narcissistic abuse.



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