This looks like a long and depressing personal story, but it’s a personal story in service of a point. If you find yourself manipulated, hated on, devalued, trolled, or abused — or caught up in arguments with angry, hateful people (including yourself) — whether in person or online, I’m telling my story so you can see what’s really going on. Keep reading. I wrote this for you. And I’m telling it as a story because simply saying the words won’t make it hit home.
“Some people are nice to everyone except their own flesh and blood,” my mother would sometimes warn. Yes, the same mother beat me regularly.
The last time I spoke to her, she was holding my car ransom. I needed to sell it to move abroad; I needed her signature; and when I called her, the first words out of her mouth were, “Well, maybe I will, and maybe I won’t.” Said with the vilest sneer you can imagine, that still rings in my ears 7 years later.
She was delighted to find she had me over a barrel, and she forced me to stay on the phone with her for over an hour. She cried, begged for forgiveness, told me how badly my lack of forgiveness had hurt her. She accused me of willfully forgetting “the good things” — and demanded an explanation for why, a decade before, I had not “gotten her the help she needed” (when I was 13).
She forced me to agree that I would call her more often (as ransom for the paperwork), on a specific schedule, and she forced me to say that she “wasn’t all bad.”
All this she made me do in order to avoid her economic sabotage. While she cried victim, about how badly I hurt her, with my feelings.
Not once did she put two and two together.
You might be thinking, “Wow, insane.”
But sadly it was pretty much what I expected. And it isn’t insane. It’s not even in any way remarkable.
It’s a strategy that had always worked for her, to get what she wanted.
It’s textbook malignant narcissism.
And you’ll find it all over the internet, wherever “trolls” reside.
Narcissists have one goal:
A malignant narcissist will say anything, claim anything, blame anything, DO anything in order to:
- Get attention
- Look “good”
- Excuse their behavior
But these 3 things are in service of just one overriding goal:
To see their desired self-image, reflected to them, from the faces of other people — in the ways that make them feel strong, superior, powerful, saintly, or vindicated.
In other words, narcissists seek to force everyone else in the world to answer: “Tell me who I am! And I better like it!”
Narcissists always have an ulterior motive
And their ulterior motives play out at a million different “intensity” levels but here is an archetype:
My mother would beat me, and then she would cry pitiously and shake until I would end up comforting her. Again and again. She never felt genuine remorse, it was a show. It was a trick.
She did it so she didn’t have to change.
If she felt bad about herself, all she had to do was beat me, and presto! Someone would tell her they loved her and it was okay.
This wasn’t by accident, this was by design.
She could then feel free to act as if it never happened. As if it were erased. It happened, but I’m not a bad person, the magical mirror tells me so, ergo, it didn’t happen. Hence her willingness to impart “wisdom” about “some people.”
That’s a malignant narcissist for you. And you’ll see that behavior cut through all types of trolls.
Narcissists do not “lose control”
Everything they do is calculated.
It may not be on the level of their consciousness, but something inside them is running the numbers like a seasoned bookie. That’s why my mother stopped beating me as soon as I got big enough to hit back.
The violence was never due to her lack of control, it was her control.
When I started hitting back — as a tween — she changed tactics. She alternated between trying to destroy my sense of self with vicious commentary, and making herself as pitiable as possible. And because I wasn’t heartless like her, she’d always get her way.
Narcissists are unfathomable to normal people
I told you above how my mother would beg for my forgiveness while threatening me… She also liked to tell me how I “had” to lose weight, dress better, pluck my eyebrows or else I’d never attract a man. More than once, she said this in front of my long-term boyfriend.
This isn’t unusual, it’s typical of narcissists.
Narcissists have little to zero awareness of the situations around them, unless it helps them exploit them. That my boyfriend was there? Didn’t even register.
Narcissists don’t give a shit about self-contradiction, either, because they have no fixed sense of self. They “are” whatever they need to “be” to get their fix. When they need to change poses, they will, and the past will be forgotten as if it never happened (unless they can bring it up to hurt you again, and get two-for-one).
Narcissists lack boundaries
To have a sense of “No, I will not cross that line, that’s not who I am” — you have to have a clear idea of who “who I am” is to test against. Narcissists don’t have this a fixed sense of self, so they simply do not have that line.
They will say and do anything, if they think they won’t get “caught.”
Narcissists count on us not seeing them for what they are
Normal people have all done things we later regretted, with guilt and/or shame that kept us up at night. Those emotions are there to tell you you crossed that line, and not to ever do it again. That’s the origin of our self-control in the face of extreme emotions.
Repeat: this is for normal people.
It’s also normal to assume other people are like you, inside, with the same types of feelings. That’s the root of empathy.
So, we assume that if somebody — a stranger who seems “like us”, or especially somebody we “know” — does something so awful, there must be a reason. (That’s a little natural, human, everybody-has-it narcissism… nothing to be ashamed of.)
We figure it must have been something really bad, to overcome all the guilt and feelings that would have otherwise stopped them. For them to lose control of their brakes. (Hence even normal people, who do not abuse, can be innately prone to victim blaming…)
But narcissists don’t have brakes to begin with. Narcissists do what they do for its end. Always. Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there.
My mother is a good example again: She didn’t beat me because she “lost control” — she never did it in public, and she stopped as soon as I could strike back.
She had brakes, but she put her foot on the gas.
So she could get what she wanted. From me.
To a narcissist, you’re nothing but an implement for them to use
It took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that my mother not only never loved me, but never even saw me as a person, just a way to get her needs served.
I was a set of knobs and buttons and levers and she’d poke, prod, twist, and yank until I gave her the response she desired. She was just positioning her mirror so that it best reflected whatever aspect she wanted to see.
On the one hand… devastating. On the other hand, totally freeing, because it was the last nail in the coffin of the idea that any of it was my fault.
I realized: Not only was it not my fault, it had nothing to do with me, individually, whatsoever. I was simply handy and easily manipulated. (You know who else is easily manipulated? Children, dependents, people in bad situations, people who are hurting, people who want to be stroked and have their egos fed.)
That’s the only way narcissists can think of you — as inputs & outputs, means to an end — because that’s all they can think of themselves. They’ve disowned even their own selves in favor of their image.
Narcissists are everywhere.
This experience has shown me just what people can be like. And so every time some vicious internet debate flares up, I now see these behaviors for what they are — and they are everywhere.
These people are everywhere, in your workplace, community, church, and of course, the internet. (And, I’m sad to say, quite possibly in your family.)
They’re not all so overtly terrible. The “best” narcissists simply won’t pay you any attention unless you have what they want; the middling ones will simply campaign, slowly and gently, for you to lose your sense of self, the better for you to focus on them and give them what they want (power, reflection).
Or maybe they are so terrible, and you just don’t know it, because they are nice to strangers, and evil to their family. (My mother was right about this one.)
Here’s the danger, even if the person is not breaking you down or abusing you personally:
Unless you’ve had this kind of experience, you (very reasonably!) expect people to behave in coherent ways:
If a person claims that x is true, you either expect that it is true, or they have a clear & comprehensible motive for lying.
If they say, I did this thing because y, the sane assumption is to take that at face value.
For example, “I hit you because you just made me so mad with x that I couldn’t stop myself.”
Or, for example, take a person who says, “I troll because you don’t deserve what you have” or “because you are skinny, fat, white, black, male, female” — you are inclined to believe that they believe the words that are coming out of their mouth.
But that’s not true with narcissists.
Narcissists are extremely fluid
Narcissists will say, or do, anything to control the image they see reflected back to them… and that means controlling you. They will use any weapon that’s handy.
They will tailor their evil to your specific scenario, but don’t believe that this means it’s actually about you. That you caused it.
That you mysteriously, have the power to control them… which, of course, makes the narcissist the victim.
When you start to grasp the way that the abuser can view himself as a victim of the person he’s abusing, you are on your way to understanding the way that narcissists work.
Let me be clear: Nothing a narcissist does is your fault. Nothing.
Narcissists use all your emotions against you
Remember that their goal is to see themselves, as they wish to be, reflected in your face, their mirror.
That means that their constant prerogative is emotional manipulation.
What makes you doubt yourself? The narcissist will figure it out.
They will prey on your emotions like they’re pushing buttons on a black box. Push, push, push… what works? A narcissist may try to incite your fury (which makes them feel powerful, and also helps them play victim). Or they may go for your sympathy first, or your guilt, or your pity.
Here’s an example of how a narcissist will use guilt against you: You don’t want to hurt me this way, do you? You know I can’t control myself.
Again, the narcissist is happy to play the victim… if that means s/he gets exactly what s/he wants.
When narcissists resort to violence, the violence is only in order to create & feed the emotions they crave to see… in you.
Sometimes a narcissist tries to convince the world
Sometimes they try to sell a big lie to the world — or at least you — in order that they can believe it.
For example, the various flavors of virulent racism and sexism you find online usually fall into this category.
Think about it: What would motivate a person to not only act in a racist or sexist way to people, in real life, but hang out on forums and talk about it all the time? To aggressively justify it at every turn? To pick fights?
Hint: it’s just as self-serving as beating a child so she will give you reinforcement. The beating was never the point, the reinforcement was.
Imagine: if you could see a thousand faces with the same expression as your face, what would you feel?
Which is of course why it is so dangerous to join a mob… any mob, no matter how “noble” the stated purpose may be. The mob is almost surely led by a malignant narcissist. And that narcissist is using you.
The flip side of the reinforcement coin is…
Narcissist see only mirrors, they don’t see you
My dateless, friendless mother was so toxic nobody wanted to be near here except those of us who had no choice. But of course she saw fit to tell me how I had to change in order to “get a man.”
Again, this isn’t crazy, this is typical.
Whenever nasty things a narcissist says about someone else, they’re really saying about themselves. Narcissists, living in a world that consists only of reflections, are more prone than anyone to the psychological sin of “projection.”
Example you see online: narcissists tearing into someone for achieving career success the narcissist says they do not “deserve.” The narcissist claims, then, ipso facto, said target achieved it by some form of trickery. What this tells you is that the narcissists believes he/she got their own success (however much or little) via trickery… and yet, they didn’t get as much as their vilified target. Therefore it is “unfair.”
And again, the narcissist enjoys being the victim, because then it means it’s not their fault… while simultaneously they can claim superior powers of observation and understanding.
At heart, all narcissistic tactics are tactics of control and “defense”
If a narcissist can figure out how to make you feel, they can manipulate you.
If they can manipulate you, they can control how you look at them, so they can control the information the world gives them about themselves, so they can control their own self-image.
For example: If someone cowers at your feet, then the they must see you as standing tall and powerful, like a god — or so a narcissist would think.
Or… if they feel the hint of some terrible feeling boiling up inside themselves, they can “defend themselves” against the feeling by forcibly projecting it on you, by making you feel it, instead. And then they can watch.
Malignant narcissists will use your own human instincts against you.
When a person is talking, your instinct is to believe that they believe what they’re saying. Most people are fairly straightforward.
But narcissists are not straightforward until you spot them for what they are.
Narcissists will contradict themselves readily, even in the same breath. They will take any position in an argument as long as you’re on the other side, or it puts you where they want you, or it makes them look “good” (powerful or terrifying or saintly).
Whenever they give a justification, they are lying, plain and simple.
They have no compunction against saying things in flat denial of reality (e.g. “You’ll never get a man” in front of my man, or “You don’t want that” in the face of undeniable want).
They don’t notice, they don’t care. There is no internal logic to their claims or behavior except bottomless, insatiable, ravenous hunger to fill their empty shell.
When I picture the way a narcissist makes me feel, all I can see is a giant, gaping mouth.
Narcissists are adult babies
A malignant narcissist is an adult body with the emotional development of a toddler. Imagine a typical conversation with a very small child:
“Why did you break the vase?”
“But the vase is broken.”
“It was like that.”
“No, it wasn’t. I heard it break.”
“Tommy did it!”
“No, Tommy was in the kitchen with me.”
“It was a dragon.”
“Yes, it flew in through the window. It’s gone now.”
“Honey, I know you broke the vase. Why don’t you just say you’re sorry?”
“IT’S NOT BROKEN!!!”
Because very small children don’t have even the physiological capacity to deal with total reality, consequences, or empathy… we know this is just a developmental stage, nothing personal, and so, in a way, it’s cute.
You don’t believe the toddler when she blames the dragon.
Narcissists: there be dragons. Lots of them.
But that’s the exact same kind of conversation (or experience) you’ll find yourself having with an adult narcissist. Only it won’t be about the vase, it’ll be about power inside your family, or your self-worth, or your hair or clothing or personal choices, or what you “deserve,” or work, or politics, or equality, or code, or spelling, or anything at all.
And, like children, narcissists are often preoccupied with what other people “deserve.” Hear them crying, “It’s not fair!”
Narcissists are “never” at fault
Narcissists will blame you, their parents, their spouses, their children, their tools, their bosses, their coworkers, the corporate heads, elected officials, their fellow citizens (who “don’t deserve” what they have), the poor, the rich, writers, TV personalities, men, women, dogs, cats, the weather, the “system,” their upbringing, their dinner, their biochemistry, the internet, the age they were born in, the past, the future, the stranger on the train, the train itself, the tracks, the earth, the universe itself.
Whenever you hear someone blaming these things, ask yourself: Are they really an otherwise reasonable, kind, generous, empathetic person, who is internally and externally consistent… with just this one blind spot?
Sometimes the answer is “Yes.” Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody has moments of weakness. Those people you can work with.
But… if the answer is no?
Then it’s a superficial ploy. Don’t believe it. Don’t buy into it.
Don’t argue the point, because there’s no way you can convince a narcissist that it’s wrong to “hate women” or “hate men” or “punish” children because, firstly, they don’t truly believe what they’re saying or doing, and secondly, they cannot feel what we call “wrong”, and lastly, they don’t respond to logic or argument.
How can you tell if a narcissist is lying? Easy: their mouth is open.
One more story about the changeable shiftiness and perverse logic of the narcissist:
Once, I fell down the stairs and sprained my wrist, and my mother was as solicitous as could be… until she was spitting at the mouth angry, and she grabbed my injured arm and twisted.
She claimed she didn’t mean to hurt me, after she grabbed my arm and twisted it.
But every time I did something totally innocuous that she didn’t like, that had no bearing on her at all, I was “trying to hurt her.”
This was, of course, well after she stopped trying to beat me because I was too big and it was too easy for me to beat back. She saw a weakness, though, and she struck at the opportunity.
To a person who doesn’t know the secret of the malignant narcissist, this sounds like some kind of crazy “double standard” — but actually it is entirely consistent, because neither of her actions (nice, or hurtful) were for me, or about me, they were for her and about her. She felt like looking nice, which would get her what she wanted. Then she felt like being cruel, which would get her what she wanted.
Everything is always about the narcissist — they will personalize every single thing you do — except for the their own actions, for which of course the world is at fault.
Narcissists always strike first, and excuse later.
The abuse is the tool they use to get what they want; the reason they’ll give you is fake.
They’re not telling you how they really see reality, not at all, they’re just saying “a dragon did it.”
And if their “dragon” (their excuse for harming you) harms you even further? That’s icing on the cake.
You will lose if you treat a narcissist like a regular person
Malignant narcissists walk and talk like regular adult human beings, but they’re not. Trying to interact with them as if they are? That’s a one way ticket to insanity.
Once you buy into their lies, their justifications, their machinations, their superficial acts… it’s too late. They’re getting what they want: a reflection of the image they are desperate to build.
It doesn’t matter whether you side with them or against them. If you side with them, they get what they want, because their image is justified. If you side against them, they get what they want, because their image is justified. They’re getting off on it either way.
After all, when you attempt to fight them, you are firstly proving that you buy into the image they’re selling, and you’re giving them the thrill of being persecuted at the same time, which reinforces the power of that image.
You’re caught in their web, and you are wiggling like dinner.
The only way to win with a narcissist is not to engage at all.
If you can’t entirely avoid them, there are strategies to handle their schemes:
Are they witheringly critical? Say “Thanks.”
Are they foaming at the mouth in some *ist manner? Say nothing to them, or, if you must say something, say, “I can see how it benefits you to say that” — and back away. Don’t fight, don’t argue, don’t break down; that gives them what they want. They will know then that you’re easy pickings and they will never leave you alone, ever again.
(Feel free to inform the rest of their audience what’s going on, though.)
If a narcissist is trying to manipulate you in any other way, just give them a look that says, “I see exactly what you’re doing” — and float above it.
Once you see the malignant narcissist for the mewling, scrabbling eternal toddler they are, somehow all their machinations fall away and all you can feel is pity for their miserable existence. (But don’t let that pity fool you into trying to “help.” Narcissists love playing the victim as much as any other role. That is, after all, why they are always blaming anything else but themselves for their actions.)
Remember, they’re saying that thing to you specifically because the biggest thrill in a narcissist’s life is to feed you inputs and watch you dance, like a puppet, because they’re getting something out of it, be it reinforcement or power. (Just like a baby who discovers that if he knocks the blocks off his high chair, they fall over, and mommy or daddy will pick them up, again, and again. Only the baby grows out of this infantile display of power, and the narcissist never will.)
Finally: If a narcissist starts to abuse you overtly or covertly, run away, as far and fast as you can, because they can never be reformed, because they will never believe it’s wrong, and they will never stop, just change tactics. If you can’t escape completely, bring your interactions with them into the outside world as much as possible (e.g. in public), because all but the most far-gone narcissists will dial it back to preserve their carefully tended image. If people do not believe you, because the narcissist seems “so nice” out in public, find a way to prove it, get help, and get out.