People with strong narcissistic tendencies are known for certain destructive social patterns. Anybody who has had the misfortune of dealing with these types of people may notice that whenever there’s a conflict or any type of disagreement, they tend to act in an abhorrent yet predictable manner.
In this article we will explore the common behaviors and scenarios where narcissistic and otherwise toxic people (hereafter narcissists) play the victim and manipulate the narrative.
Delusion and denial
Narcissists can’t deal with reality because it contradicts what they want to be true, and this creates painful emotions. As a coping mechanism, they learn to delude themselves that what is real is actually not real, and however they see the situation is real, even though it isn’t.
Sometimes they truly see it that way. Other times it’s just a story they tell themselves and others. And often the longer you tell a story, the more you believe it, even if initially you know it’s not true. And so eventually they may start truly believing it.
Either way, the first step is to create a version of events that is an alternative to what actually happened or what’s going on.
While delusion is more of an internal process, lying and denial is often in the context of other people.
Regular people deal with their problems by themselves, internally. Or they discuss it in a very private setting: in therapy or among very close, healthy people. Narcissists don’t have people like that in their life and are not really interested in actually resolving anything or being introspective.
Narcissists simply want to know that they are in the right. For that, they need other people’s false validation to regulate their shaky self-esteem. They need to find people who would agree with them. And in order for others to agree with them, these other people either need to be terribly unhealthy and unable to recognize their toxic tendencies, or the narcissist needs to lie and present a different story than what is actually true.
Here, they tend to flip the roles where they are good, noble, caring, virtuous and the other person is evil, cruel, selfish, and immoral. Which brings us to the next point….
The most common way narcissists create alternative narratives is by projecting. We’ve talked about narcissistic projection in a separate article but to extract the main point, narcissists love to project.
If they say that the other person is jealous of them, then you know that the narcissist is jealous. If they say that the other person was cruel to them, then you know that the narcissist was cruel to the other person. If they say that the other person was lying and cheating, then you know they were the one lying and cheating.
Yes, sometimes it’s not as simple and there could be unhealthy behavior on both sides, but more often than not whatever the narcissist is presenting the other person as is a much more accurate description of the narcissist.
Whatever the case may be, the mechanism here is that in the narcissist’s mind they try to attribute their own unhealthy behavior, perspective, and character traits to the other person because it shifts attention and responsibility from them. And if the other person “is” all these bad things then it can’t be that I am these things—thinks the narcissist—I’m the good guy here.
Framing the story
Narcissists also like to truncate the story and present only the bit where the aggrieved party reacted to their toxic behavior, framing it as if that’s where the story started (see picture).
Or they twist it by using euphemisms and deceiving language (“I’m not controlling, I just want what’s best for you.”).
For example, if a narcissist dislikes you and tries to bully you but you stand up for yourself, they will frame it as if they are the ones being a victim of bullying. In their narrative they were just doing their thing or joking around and you started being mean to them. Meanwhile, they simply left out what happened beforehand when they bullied you, so actually you “being mean” to them is a normal response to toxic behavior.
Here, by leaving out or downplaying their aggression they simply frame you engaging in self-defense as vile aggression against them. And then they think: “How dare you react or challenge me! You’re so sensitive and unfair! That’s why you deserve everything that’s coming!”
Slander, triangulation, character assassination
There are several ways how the narcissist employs their lies and projections, and the goal is always to turn others against you in hope that they won’t try to figure out the truth.
One of the ways to do that is triangulation. In psychology, it means controlling and manipulating communication between two parties. It is related to gossiping, smearing, and slandering, where the narcissist spreads false information around. A more extreme version of all of that is character assassination, where the lies are much more severe and damaging.
If you actually examine the narcissist’s narrative, you quickly notice that they are full of crap.
For instance if you examine a narcissistic parent who tells others how you hurt them and say mean things, you quickly notice that they are the one who constantly demeans, disrespects, and manipulates the adult-child. And when the child becomes more assertive and stops giving them resources (time, money, attention), they see it as aggression because they feel entitled to those resources.
If you examine further, you notice that not only the narcissistic parent was initially disrespecting the adult-child’s boundaries, but is also retaliating further now by manipulating others into siding with them.
The same is the case in professional environments or personal relationships. The narcissistic party does something toxic, the aggrieved party reacts and stops the perpetrator or distances from them, and then the narcissist retaliates by trying to shape the social opinion into a narrative where they are the good, righteous party. Sometimes they even convince others to bully and intimidate the victim further.
These methods often rely on the victim not having a support system or being isolated. This increases the narcissist’s chances of others siding with them and not with the victim.
Summary and closing words
Narcissists can’t accept that they may not be wonderful people. They are also incredibly fragile when facing an idea that perhaps they did something wrong, especially if others can see it. Therefore if there’s a conflict they will do anything and everything to maintain a fantasy that they are always good, all while perceiving the other party as evil.
Not only that, they need other people’s validation that their delusion is true. To achieve that, they create preposterous, slanderous, manipulative narratives where all of that is true and try to convince others of it. And since many people are unwilling and unable to look into the truth behind it, the narcissist can find that validation they so desperately crave and even act out their revenge fantasies. Often the reason is as simple as hating to see others doing well because they themselves are miserable.
As a result, sometimes people get seriously hurt: socially, financially, emotionally, or even physically. But the narcissist doesn’t care about that. In fact they are often glad, because in their narrative the victim deserves it by being “evil,” so whatever happens is justified.
Of course not everyone can see the truth when listening to the narcissist but it’s quite evident looking from the outside or if you have enough psychological insight and experience. And if you are wise and educated enough on it, you can avoid getting into these situation, minimize the damage, sever your ties with them more quickly, and protect yourself better.
Check out the author’s books: Human Development and Trauma: How Childhood Shapes Us into Who We Are as Adults and Self-Work Starter Kit.