It’s only with 20/20 hindsight that this distinct behavior becomes clear to those who have had relationships with narcissists; of course, once you see it, it becomes impossible to unsee. For example, in retrospect, you might realize how carefully he or she curated his or her narrative of past relationships in order to garner your empathy and to get you fully on his or her side. (I will be using the male pronoun to avoid the pile-ups but feel free to switch genders.) You don’t notice in the moment that every story of failed love has him doing everything he can to make the woman happy but nothing is ever enough; you don’t register that, in his telling, everything he did was perfect. Most important, as you reach for his hand—moved by how much pain he’s gone through—you miss the fact that he takes absolutely no responsibility for the relationship’s failure.
Or perhaps you’ve finally set some boundaries in place with your high-in-narcissistic traits and controlling mother, only to discover that she has mounted a smear campaign against you, filled with false accusations, and has contacted everyone you know from relatives to your boss, painting herself as the victim of an abusive and ungrateful daughter. And, to your shock, many of the people she contacts believe her.
Or maybe you’ve decided to divorce your narcissist at long last because you’re tired of his abuse, his lies, and, yes, his cheating, but you want the process to be dignified and civil because you intend to try to co-parent your kids with him. You live in a no-fault state so you tell your attorney to come to a mediated settlement and then you’re hit with a barrage of accusations, including infidelity, along with alleged child abuse. He portrays himself as the victim of a conniving woman—and asserts the kids are victims too. None of this is true but it doesn’t matter to him because he both wants to win and appear like the victim.
All of these stories are ones shared by readers, either for my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, or for posts and articles.
Why the narcissist takes on the victim role
Given that narcissists curate the personae they present to the world, tend to be self-aggrandizing and conscious of material success, and care a great deal about what other people think, playing the role of the victim seems somehow counterintuitive. After all, victims by definition lack agency and power which are both important to the person high in narcissistic traits. So how does this work exactly? I turned to Dr. Joseph Burgo, author of Building Self-Esteem and The Narcissist You Know, for his expert take: “Because narcissists lack authentic self-esteem, they often resort to self-pity as a substitute. Feeling sorry for yourself because you’re a victim makes you the mistreated and misunderstood hero in a story that’s all about you.”
Bingo! This makes perfect sense—the idea of substituting self-pity for true self-esteem because, appearances to the contrary, what the narcissistic is most afraid of is revealing the damaged and hollow center at his core.
Once you understand this part of the equation, you can also see how playing the victim connects to the other behaviors that reveal the narcissist in his full glory.
Other behaviors that connect (and reveal who he is)
Playing the victim is only one part of the puzzle that makes a narcissist and it’s important to see how the other pieces fit together.
- In it to win it
His thinking is all black-and-white with a nary a hint of nuance or gray, and that means you are either for or against him—period and end of story. If you’re against, then you are victimizing him—yes, there’s the narrative again—and as Dr. Burgo points out in The Narcissist You Know, he is highly vindictive, and feels absolutely free to victimize you and anyone else who gets in the way of his winning. He takes no prisoners and no responsibility, and could care less if anyone gets hurt. That includes his children too, by the way, if you happen to be divorcing him.
- Plays emotional hot potato
The phrase comes from Dr. Craig Malkin’s book, Rethinking Narcissism, and I think it is easier to grasp than the fancier term projection which describes much the same thing. Not only does the narcissist deny his feelings—telling you that he’s not angry when his jaw is clenched or working, his face red, and his arms folded tightly across his chest—but he’ll go on to attribute what he’s feeling to you. But he’s not going to leave it at that; he’s going to accuse you of being angry all the time, yell at you about how he’s tired of the “same old tattoo,” and guess what will happen? Sure enough, if he pushes you hard enough, you will get angry and now you are victimizing him and he’s going tell you that he’s tired of your anger. In the narcissist’s best-possible scenario, you will end up apologizing to him.
Dealing with the narcissist’s acting like a victim can be trying but realize that he wants you to react. Your best bet? Stay out of the sandbox as much as you can.
Photograph by Aejaz Memon. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.