Narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths can inflict long-lasting damage on their victims. Their emotional and verbal abuse, combined with their cruel, persistent attempts at sabotage, can even drive their victims to self-destruction and suicide. For part one of this series, here are five ways these covert saboteurs can infiltrate your life and attempt to destroy it:
Covert predators like these will spread falsehoods to slander your reputation or smear your credibility to others. This is a form of gaslighting intended to manage your image in the public eye to ensure that no one would believe you were being abused. The abuser works overtime to paint you as the abuser in order to escape accountability for his or her actions.
At the root of all smear campaigns is character assassination. Malignant narcissists preemptively strike with personal attacks in an attempt to unsettle you and smear your good name because they are pathologically envious or threatened. Smear campaigns can also be launched in contexts outside of romantic relationships; they can circulate in the workplace, in friendship circles, through the media, as well as within extended families. It’s not uncommon, for example, for a pathologically envious sociopathic co-worker to feed misinformation about their hard-working colleagues to their bosses in order to eliminate them as a “threat” when climbing the corporate ladder. When narcissists infiltrate the higher ranks of authority, they have the potential to cause even more devastation by sabotaging those they perceive as competition.
As Joe Navarro, former FBI Profiler, writes in his book, Dangerous Personalities, “Narcissists can reach high levels in high-powered or high-trust professions, where transgressions and abuses of authority can have devastating consequences. When you have a police officer who lies, cheats, and steals; a health professional who believes himself the arbiter of who lives or dies; a coach who sexually abuses trusting children, the potential to do damage increases exponentially.”
Smear campaigns can be launched by telling blatant lies about the victim, spreading rumors or “suggestions” which call into doubt the sanity of the victim with an air of faux concern, or even concocting false evidence to isolate the victim from outside support.
A survivor, Molly, shared with me her harrowing story of how her narcissistic partner tried to stage his own death to frame her and spread lies about her sanity. She writes:
“He held a gun to his head and said that he’d kill himself, make it look like murder to ensure I was to blame if I didn’t shoot myself after. He’d tell his family and our close friends that we had true love, yet behind my back tell them I was crazy and suicidal – and he was doing the best he could to help me. I have never been suicidal. This all caused my closest friends and family to lose all faith in me and totally secluded me from the outside world. He limited me to one meal a day while nursing our newborn.”
If you are being met with any kind of smear campaign, stick to the facts. As difficult as it may be, try not to become emotionally responsive in public – narcissists will use your emotional reactions against you to further depict you as the “crazy” one. Present only the facts if you are met with unwarranted accusations. Focus on any legal consequences you can take against a narcissist with a smear campaign; carefully document evidence of the narcissist’s abuse whenever possible if you need to build a case. Research the defamation laws in your state and, if necessary, enlist the help of a lawyer who is familiar with high-conflict personalities.
Create a healthy support network which encourages you during difficult times – ideally, one that includes a trauma-informed therapist who understands personality disorders. This support network should be made out of people who are trustworthy and have your back – not those who enable or support the narcissist. You do not want to be further gaslighted, invalidated, or retraumatized while encountering a smear campaign.
It’s common for predatory individuals to create a misplaced sense of dependency and devotion in their victims as they morph into everything their victims could ever want in the beginning, only to transform into their worst nightmares. Dependency makes you vulnerable to being used and exploited for the narcissist’s agenda. Once you become dependent on them for anything – whether it’s emotional support or financial aid, you are rendered more powerless in your ability to leave them.
Malignant narcissists begin their relationships with excessive amounts of contact, praise, flattery, and attention – this is known as love bombing. They use love bombing to groom their victims in order to get them invested in a fabricated future together – one that they never plan to deliver on. Love bombing is especially effective when a victim is still healing from a loss, a trauma, or a void of some kind. As Dr. Archer notes, “The dopamine rush of the new romance is vastly more powerful than it would be if the target had a healthy self-image, because the love bomber fills a need the target can’t fill on her own.”
Once their victims are sufficiently hooked, they then push them off the pedestal, causing their victims to work even harder to try to regain the honeymoon phase of the relationship. Periodically, they will still give their victims “scraps” of the idealization phase. This is what psychologists call “intermittent reinforcement” of positive rewards to provoke a response in the victim (Skinner, 1937). Whenever the victim is about to leave, the abuser swoops in with the “nice guy” or “nice girl” act, causing victims to doubt themselves and the true nature of their abusers.
Malignant narcissists want to ensure that their victims believe they can only gain support and comfort from them. That way, their victims remain ensnared in the abuse cycle. Victims become biochemically and psychologically addicted to their abusers through intermittent reinforcement. This form of dependency on the narcissist also has the effect of isolating the victim and sabotaging any outside relationships. Being with a narcissist is not unlike being in a one-man cult, and research shows that those who leave cults are more likely to do so when they have a connection or link to to the outside world (Rousselet, et al. 2017).
If you have a habit of becoming overly dependent on others in relationships, it’s important to learn to enjoy your own company and become independent prior to entering a committed relationship of any kind. Whenever entering into a new relationship, friendship, or business partnership, slow down the pace with which the relationship proceeds; try to get as much information about the person’s behavioral patterns over a period of time before making any kind of substantial investment – whether it be agreeing to a relationship or investing in a company. Try to remain as independent as you possibly can – both emotionally and financially, during the early stages. It is far more difficult for a narcissistic individual to love-bomb you for a long period of time without their mask slipping eventually, and it is far more difficult to trap you in an abuse cycle when you’re already coming from a place of detachment. Trust patterns over singular actions or lofty words.
Narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths are pathological liars. They lie because it provides them with the ability to remain one step ahead of the game. As Dr. George Simon asserts, “Manipulative malignant narcissists lie to keep one step ahead of you. They engage in a constant dance of positioning for advantage. They want you to be in the dark or second-guessing yourself. And they don’t want you to have their number. They neither want you to know who they really are nor what they’re really up to. They seek only power, dominance, and control. And lying enables this. It gives them the position of advantage.”
Lies can be explicit or they can be told with a significant amount of omission. As Donna, another survivor of narcissistic abuse, describes, “The sneakiest way a covert narcissist abused me was obfuscation! Never giving all the facts so it wasn’t ever a complete lie, but leaving me with a feeling of, something is missing in the story.”
Pathological deception like this is common among sociopathic leaders in the business world. For example, CEO Elizabeth Holmes defrauded investors out of billions of dollars for a famous blood-testing startup, Theranos, whose technology delivered none of what it promised. She was able to cultivate relationships with some of the world’s wealthiest and influential people using her charisma and charm, leading some investors to hand over millions of dollars to a company that placed the health of others at stake. She was even said to be faking her voice in order to appear more dominant. Her prolific lies, along with the strength of her false persona, enabled her to get away with fraud for a lengthy amount of time.
Narcissists create these types of elaborate lies not only to commit financial fraud, but also to engage in emotional con artistry. It’s very common for them to live double lives and hide multiple affairs. They are prone to lying about and exaggerating their integrity and character as well. Their deception can also come out in more bizarre ways – such as through the fabrication of an illness. They may manufacture an illness to gain sympathy, emotional gratification, or have an excuse at hand to avoid responsibility for their behavior. A narcissistic mother, for example, may have a habit of claiming to have migraine headaches whenever her adult children attempt to confront her about her verbal abuse and abruptly leave the room. This is a form of deceptive stonewalling which allows her to skirt any kind of dialogue which challenges her. A psychopathic predator may claim to be mentally ill at the time of a murder, to lessen the impact of the criminal charges.
Other narcissistic individuals may use their fabricated illnesses as a form of control and sabotage, as an excuse to abuse others. Stephanie, a survivor of a narcissistic father, tells me: “My dad pretends to have hyperacusis. This is a hearing condition related to extreme sensitivity to noise. He uses this to control everyone from servers to CEOs. If someone makes a noise, he acts like he is in extreme pain and then lets loose on the unsuspecting victim. He has made formal complaints to get people fired. His enablers still believe he has this condition. I have watched him when he didn’t know. It is a sham.”
Do not give your blind trust to anyone unless they have shown you over time the consistency of their character. It is more than okay to remain neutral and to take into account discrepancies and red flags. Be wary of anyone who “drip-feeds” you the truth, giving you only part of the truth while omitting important details. If you are especially vulnerable to gaslighting, I recommend keeping a journal to help you keep track of any information that does not add up when meeting a new partner, friend, or employer. This will help you to remain grounded within your instincts and inner guidance.
Additionally, when confronting someone you suspect is a pathological liar, let them tell their version of events first so you can observe whether or not they will tell the truth. Do not let them know you have contradictory information which would expose them if they are violent or aggressive. Instead, detach, make a safety plan, and cut ties as soon as possible. Taking an observer stance, instead of automatically accusing them, will actually give you more information about their character in the long run – mainly, whether they’d be willing to be transparent even if they didn’t know you had proof of their lies.
Predatory manipulators make grandiose promises they cannot keep. They may promise you a dream marriage, a family, financial support, or if they’re an employer, the perfect career path – whatever they think you most desire. These false promises dangle the carrot of a brighter future – so long as you first meet the narcissist’s needs. It’s important to remember that with any kind of future-faking or promises, the narcissist has rigged the game so you are set up to fail while they gain.
False promises are common among deceptive sociopaths especially when it comes to financial matters. Below is just a sample of the many ways survivors told me how these false promises compromised them financially:
“Saying he will pay for half the mortgage for the new house that I couldn’t afford alone or the new car that I financed. Playing into my dreams of nice new things. Then, when I ask for money, it’s “well what for?” Or completely dropping out of my life and leaving me with all the expenses.” – Jill
“Being secretive re: finances, especially why things were not in joint names. He would always say “You know I love you and I’m taking care of you. Trust me, I’m putting it in the business name for tax break and to protect you in future.” Ha – he was putting everything in his name to later “screw” me financially.” – Patricia
“He always promised me things, like a future together in a picture perfect house and setting. All the while knowing he’d never allow this to come true.” – Donna
“He offered to pay my car insurance and as we were living together needed a copy of my title, so I gave him my title for the insurance agent and forgot about it. We had a six-month old baby at the time. After we broke up, he retaliated by sending the police to my house, claiming I had his car and that I wouldn’t give it back to him. I said, no this is my car, and here are my records. However, he took my title and forged my name, signing it over to himself. The cops took my car because it appeared to be legally his.” – April
Take any promises at the early stages of a relationship with a grain of salt. Unless a person has shown you over a long period of time that they are a person of their word, do not take them at their word. Avoid signing contracts, giving out personal loans, living together, or agreeing to “split the bill” on any substantial purchases if you suspect you are dealing with someone toxic. Get a divorce financial planner if you are planning to divorce a narcissist (and avoid telling them what you’re up to until you’ve exited the relationship safely). Remember, they do not play fair. You are not dealing with a normal person who is looking out for your best interests.
Gaslighting is an insidious erosion of your sense of reality. When a narcissist gaslights you, they may engage in crazymaking discussions where they challenge and invalidate your thoughts, emotions, perceptions, and sanity. Gaslighting enables narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths to exhaust you to the point where you are unable to fight back. Rather than finding ways to healthily detach from this toxic person, you are sabotaged in your efforts to find a sense of certainty and validation in what you’ve experienced.
Gaslighting can take many forms – from questioning the status of your mental health to outright challenging your lived experiences. A female narcissistic partner may convince her boyfriend that he is “imagining” things when she comes home late from work due to having an affair with her co-worker. A sociopathic mother might taunt and bully her daughter with horrific insults, only to claim, “I never said that,” when her daughter confronts her later on. A psychopathic boss may gaslight you into believing that your complaints about the way you’ve been mistreated at the company are a result of you being “too sensitive” rather than the company’s own biases. They may urge you to be “patient” while never actually delivering the benefits they promised to deliver in the beginning. As Dr. Robin Stern describes in her book The Gaslight Effect, “The “Good-Guy Gaslighter” finds a way to make it look like he’s doing everything you want—without ever really giving you what you want.”
Survivor Annie described to me her dizzying experience of gaslighting: “When we’d get into an argument and I would back up my side with facts, he would take those facts and spin them around in so many circles that by the end of the argument, he was able to use some of those same facts for himself and leave me feeling lost and “crazy.” I’d walk away asking myself how I ever even thought it was a good argument in the first place.”
If you suspect you’re being gaslighted, enlist the help of a supportive third party such as a trauma-informed therapist who specializes in recovery from this type of covert abuse. Work together to go through your narrative of what occurred in the relationship. Write down things as you experienced them to reconnect with your sense of reality. When in doubt, document everything, especially if you’re encountering gaslighting in the workplace. You may choose to print out e-mails, screenshot text messages, save voicemails, or, if the laws in your state allow it, record conversations. Rather than falling into the trap of wanting an explanation or validation from the gaslighter, turn to self-validation. Reaffirm the reality of the abuse you experienced – and you will get one step closer to healing from the narcissist.
Archer, D. (2017, March 6). The Danger of Manipulative Love-Bombing in a Relationship. Retrieved January 26, 2019, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/reading-between-the-headlines/201703/the-danger-manipulative-love-bombing-in-relationship
Rousselet, M., Duretete, O., Hardouin, J., & Grall-Bronnec, M. (2017). Cult membership: What factors contribute to joining or leaving? Psychiatry Research,257, 27-33. doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2017.07.018
Simon, G. (2018, March 09). Lies Manipulative Malignant Narcissists Tell. Retrieved January 26, 2019, from https://www.drgeorgesimon.com/lies-manipulative-malignant-narcissists-tell/
Skinner BF (1937). Two types of conditioned reflex: a reply to Konorski and Miller. J. Gen. Psychol. 16: 272–79.
Stern, R., & Wolf, N. (2018). The gaslight effect: How to spot and survive the hidden manipulation others use to control your life. New York: Harmony Books.
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