Narcissists are some of the most manipulative people on the planet. They have so many different manipulation tactics that help them control the thoughts, feelings, emotions, and needs of others.

12 mind games that narcissists play with the people that they abuse to gain an advantage over them are gaslighting, projection, intimacy avoidance, emotional withholding, baiting, ghosting, future faking, mirroring, triangulation, hoovering, love bombing, and intermittent reinforcement.

In this article we are going to guide you through each of these manipulation tactics so that you can have the information that you need to know when a narcissist is playing mind games with you.

Gaslighting

Gaslighting is a manipulation tactic that narcissists use to get others to question their own sanity, memories, and/or perception of reality.

For example, imagine that you are confronting the narcissist in your life because they called you stupid, “I don’t like when you call me stupid, please don’t do it again.”

A woman trying to set boundary with a narcissist.

But they responded with, “What? What are you talking about? That never happened.

This would be considered gaslighting. The narcissist knows that they called you stupid but they are choosing to deny it to avoid taking responsibility for their actions.

Over time, this type of behavior can manipulate you into questioning your own sanity, memories, and/or perception of reality.

If you would like to learn about the six different types of gaslighting, click here to download our free guide.

Suggested Reading:

Our article Why Does Gaslighting Work? will give you a better understanding of the reason that gaslighting is such an effective form of manipulation.

Projection

Projection is a defense mechanism that occurs when someone takes the parts of their identity that they find unacceptable and places them onto someone else.

For example, a man who feels insecure about being short mocking his younger brother for being short instead of acknowledging his own insecurities about his height.

For narcissists, the parts of their identity that they find unacceptable are their painful thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

A narcissist trying to overcome the painful thoughts, feelings, and emotions that they have.

You see, narcissists struggle with feelings of being unlovable, unwanted, inadequate, worthless, and weak every single day.

This is because they have such low emotional intelligence that they can’t manage these thoughts, feelings, and emotions on their own.

This is where projection comes into the mix.

To protect their emotional stability, narcissists will simply project their painful thoughts, feelings, and emotions onto others.

The most recognizable form of projection that narcissists use are accusations.

For example, if a narcissist cheated on their spouse, it would trigger their painful thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

Not because they know that they have done something wrong, but because they know that it contradicts their grandiose self-perception.

A narcissist losing narcissistic supply.

To protect their emotional stability, the narcissist projects the blame onto his wife by accusing her of cheating, “I know that you are cheating on me, just admit it!”

Now, this is a very simple, yet very common, example of projection. However, there is a much more complex form of projection that you should know about.

When a narcissist subjects you to abuse and manipulation, part of the reason they are doing it is to destroy your emotional stability.

You see, when you have low self-esteem because of the abuse and manipulation, it allows the narcissist to think to themselves, “I’m not the unlovable, unwanted, inadequate, weak, and worthless one, they are.

A narcissist trying to project his thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

This is projection and is the reason why abusing and manipulating others helps narcissists maintain emotional stability.

Suggested Reading:

Our article Why Do Narcissists Use Projection?will help you better understand the role projection plays in narcissistic abuse and our article What Do Narcissists Want In a Relationship? will help you better understand why narcissists abuse and manipulate you.

Intimacy Avoidance

Intimacy Avoidance is the withholding of intimacy from one’s spouse or partner.

10 signs of intimacy avoidance.

The concept of intimacy avoidance being present in narcissistic relationships stems from the work of Dr. Douglass Weiss.1

He focuses on something called intimacy anorexia, which is a relationship disorder where one partner will withhold emotional, spiritual, and sexual intimacy from the other. 

His work revealed several connections between intimacy anorexia and narcissistic abuse such as victim blaming, controlling behavior, and financial abuse. 

But the biggest connection between the two comes from his belief that intimacy anorexia stems from an attachment issue.

A doctor speaking about intimacy avoidance.

This is because one of the driving forces of narcissism and narcissistic abuse is a narcissist’s issues with attachment (see below).

Suggested Reading:

Our article How Are Narcissists Made?has a ton of information that will help you better understand the attachment issues that narcissists have. Also, our articleDo Narcissists Enjoy Intimacy? has information that you may find helpful.

Emotional Withholding

Emotional withholding is a situation when a person uses their love and affection, praise or even their presence against their partner.

The most common manifestation of this in narcissistic relationships is a manipulation tactic called breadcrumbing.

Breadcrumbing is the act of sending out flirtatious, but non-committal social signals (i.e. breadcrumbs) to lure a romantic partner in without expending much effort.

A woman breadcurming someone.

When a narcissist uses breadcrumbing on you, it means that they are leading you on.

A simple example of this could be a narcissist who is very attentive and flirty with you but never makes an attempt to see you again.

For narcissists, breadcrumbing allows them to establish power and control.

For the person being abused, breadcrumbing causes a sense of helplessness, low self-esteem, and loneliness.

Generally speaking, narcissists use breadcrumbing to manipulate you into giving them narcissistic supply.

A narcissist talking about playing mind games.

You see, when they present themselves as charming, charismatic, articulate, and they seem like they are interested in you, it is very common for you to naturally want to chase their attention.

The attention that you give and the chase that you are on gives narcissists narcissistic supply, which is validation, admiration, reassurance, power, and control.

Baiting

Baiting is a manipulation tactic that occurs when a narcissist says or does something manipulative to get you to engage in a negative interaction with them.

For example, if the narcissist in your life knew that you were really insecure about your acne and they said, “Are you ever going to wash your face? I mean c’mon take care of yourself.”

A narcissist baiting a woman.

This would be considered a form of baiting. They want you to get upset, angry, self-conscious, etc., because it gives them narcissistic supply.

For instance, it is very common for narcissists to use baiting to make the person they are abusing burst out with anger.

This is because when the person gets angry, it gives the narcissist an opportunity to use their response to portray them in a negative light to others (image below).

A narcissist trying to manipulate others.

Doing this gives the narcissist a significant amount of power and control (two elements of narcissistic supply) because they now control the narrative.

Baiting is a powerful form of manipulation that narcissists use to play with your mind. If you want to learn about the six different types of baiting, click here to download our free guide.

Suggested Reading:

Our article How to Respond to Narcissistic Baiting has a ton of helpful information that you can use to protect yourself from baiting.

Ghosting

Ghosting is the practice of ending a personal relationship with someone by suddenly withdrawing from all communication without explanation and it is one of the most annoying manipulation tactics that narcissists use.

As a general rule, there are five reasons that a narcissist would ghost you:

  • They want to confuse you.
  • They want to make you doubt yourself.
  • They want to manipulate you into giving them attention.
  • They are stonewalling you.
  • They have found a new source of narcissistic supply.

The reason that ghosting can be such an effective form of manipulation is because it can trigger our deepest insecurities and vulnerabilities.

When you get ghosted, it is very common to want to try to get back in touch with the person who has ghosted you for reassurance.

A woman feeling insecure about her decision.

It is very common for you to want to know what happened, if you did something wrong, if you will ever hear from them, if there is something that you can do to fix things, and so on.

Narcissists know this and use the attention that you give them as a powerful source of narcissistic supply.

Suggested Reading:

Our article Why Do Narcissists Ghost You walks you through each of the five reasons that narcissists ghost the people that they abuse.

Future Faking

The term “future faking” refers to a manipulation tactic that narcissists use when they make a false promise in the future to get exactly what they want in the present.

For example, if the narcissist in your life knows that you want to get a new car, they could future fake you by saying something like, “Hey I will buy you a new car if you quit your job.

A narcissistic man future faking someone.

But they actually have no intention of buying you a new car, they are future faking you.

What they really want is for you to become financially dependent on them so they can have full power and control over you.

Suggested Reading:

In our article What Is Future Faking And Why Do Narcissists Do It? there is a lot of information that will help you grasp a better understanding of what future faking is and how narcissists use it to control you.

Mirroring

In this context, mirroring is a manipulation tactic that occurs when a narcissist absorbs information about someone’s identity and uses that information to create a falsified identity that that person can identify with.

For example, if you told the narcissist in your life, “I am having a tough day today because it looks like I might lose my job.”

A man having a tough day.

They could lie and mirror you by saying, “I might lose my job too. I found out last week that there are big budget cuts coming. I don’t want to take away from anything that you just said, I just want you to know that I understand what you are going through.”

Over time, mirroring manipulates the person being abused into feeling understood, valued, and heard.

Narcissists use mirroring to trick the people that they are abusing into attaching their thoughts, feelings, emotions, and needs to them.

Suggested Reading:

Our article How Do Narcissists Use Mirroring? has a lot of information about mirroring that you may find helpful.

Triangulation

When a narcissist turns a one-on-one situation into a two-on-one situation by involving a third party, it is called triangulation.

By recruiting a third party, narcissists are able to create a power imbalance and dominate the situation.

Triangulation could look something like the following: 

Imagine that you have just arrived home from work and your narcissistic spouse is trying to bait you into an argument by using your insecurities against you (image below)

A narcissist trying to bait his wife.

You know that they are just trying to bait you into an argument, so you use the Gray Rock Method to restrain yourself from engaging in a meaningful interaction with them.

The narcissist doesn’t like this because you are not giving them the narcissistic supply that they want.

In an attempt to overcome your Gray Rock Method, the narcissist begins to triangulate you with their ex. 

A narcissist trying to triangulate his wife.

This is triangulation at its finest. Your narcissistic spouse is trying to manipulate you into engaging in a meaningful interaction with them by bringing a third party (their ex) into the conversation.

If you engage with them in a meaningful way (i.e. an argument) it would give them an opportunity to create a power imbalance and dominate the situation.

Being triangulated can create a lot of self-doubt, paranoia, anxiety, self-blame, fear, and it can make you feel incredibly isolated.

Suggested Reading:

Our article What Does Triangulation Look Like? has a lot of helpful information that will help you grasp a better understanding of triangulation.

Hoovering

Hoovering is a manipulation tactic that narcissists use when the relationship is about to, or already has, ended.

It occurs when they say or do exactly what you need to hear or see to give the relationship another chance.

For example, imagine that you have had it with the narcissist in your life.

You have tried to make the relationship work for years but nothing has changed and you want to be in an environment that makes you happy.

The narcissist senses that you are about to leave them so they come to you and say, “I know that we have had a rough few years but I love you and I have started to go to therapy to be the man/woman that I need to be to keep someone as amazing as you. Please don’t give up on me.”

A narcissist hoovering someone.

This would be considered hoovering. If you would like to learn more about the five types of hoovering, click here to download our free guide.

A Quote From One of Our Community Members

To hoover me my mom would send me messages that said things like ‘I have been thinking about you a lot lately. I am so sorry for the things that I put you through, I don’t deserve to have a daughter as wonderful as you. But if you can find it in your heart to help me get better, I promise that I will be there for you like I should have been from the very beginning.‘ – Jane

Suggested Readings:

Our article How to Deal With a Narcissist Who Is HooveringandWhat Happens When You Reject a Narcissist’s Hoover? has a lot of information that will help you protect yourself from hoovering.

Love Bombing

The term “love bombing” refers to a phase in the beginning stages of a narcissistic relationship where the narcissist manipulates you into believing that they are the perfect person for you.

Love bombing is typically characterized by excessive amounts of attention, admiration, and affection and it makes the person being manipulated feel dependent and obligated to the narcissist.

For example, imagine that you have just started a new job at a company that has a narcissistic boss.

This boss could love bomb you by telling you that you remind them of themselves, they could tell you that you have a bright future at the company, they could give you an amazing salary, or they could even give you special privileges.

A narcissistic boss love bombing a new employee.

Over time, this is going to manipulate you into feeling dependent and obligated to the narcissistic boss.

Now, the reason that love bombing is such a powerful form of manipulation is because of mirroring and future faking.

During the love bombing phase, the narcissist is mirroring you (i.e. the narcissistic boss telling the new employee that he/she reminds them of themselves) and they are future faking you (i.e. the narcissistic boss saying that the new employee has a bright future at the company.)

A new employee meeting his narcissistic boss.

Mirroring and future faking gives the narcissist the information they need to create an environment that lures you into a false sense of security and allows their abusive tendencies and manipulation tactics to go unnoticed.

Suggested Reading:

Love bombing happens in all different types of narcissistic relationships. Our article What Do Narcissists Do During the Love Bombing Phase? has a lot of helpful information that you can use to understand it better.

Intermittent Reinforcement

Intermittent reinforcement is the delivery of a reward at irregular intervals.

When a narcissist senses that the person that they are abusing is no longer a reliable source of narcissistic supply, they will use intermittent reinforcement.

You see, the most common reason that someone wouldn’t be a reliable source of supply is because they have checked out of the relationship.

A narcissist gloating about himself.

This could be because they know that they are dealing with a narcissist so they have started to use the Gray Rock Method.

Or it could be because the abuse and manipulation that they are experiencing is becoming too much to handle and they have emotionally checked out of the relationship.

Either way, narcissists don’t like this so they use intermittent reinforcement to change this.

Now, because those experiencing narcissistic abuse are often incredibly emotionally starved, all a narcissist has to do is give them the slightest amount of empathy, compassion, or intimacy for the “reward” of intermittent reinforcement.

A narcissist using intermittent reinforcement.

Sadly, this “reward” is very powerful and manipulates those being abused into believing in the relationship again.

In fact, the “reward” of intermittent reinforcement actually triggers the reward center in the brain of the person being abused and floods their body with dopamine.

Over time, those being abused by a narcissist become addicted to the feeling that they get when they are “rewarded” and this turns the narcissist into their only known source of happiness.

Suggested Reading:

Our article Why Do Trauma Bonds Feel Like an Addiction? has a ton of helpful information about how intermittent reinforcement makes the bond between a narcissist and the person they are abusing feel like an addiction.

Get a Free Educational Bundle Every Week!


  • 1 Educational Video From a Mental Health Professional
  • 1 Informative PDF About Narcissistic Abuse
  • 1 Journaling Exercise With Multiple Prompts
  • 7 Affirmations for the Upcoming Week
  • Lifetime Access to Our Private Online Community

Get a Free Educational Bundle Every Week!

  • 1 Educational Video From a Mental Health Professional
  • 1 Informative PDF About Narcissistic Abuse
  • 1 Journaling Exercise With Multiple Prompts
  • 7 Affirmations for the Upcoming Week
  • Lifetime Access to Our Private Online Community

All of the content that Unfilteredd creates is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for clinical care — please visit here for qualified organizations and here for qualified professionals that you can reach out to for help.

References:

[1] Characteristics of Intimacy Anorexia

15 Signs of Mind Games in a Relationship