Manipulation is a fundamental aspect of narcissistic abuse. It would be impossible to pull of the audacious forms of abuse that narcissists do without a solid foundation of manipulation. Victims of narcissistic abuse who take the time to develop a skillset that enables them to spot manipulation in the relationship are far safer both emotionally and physically in comparison to those who haven’t been able to yet.

The best way a victim of narcissistic abuse could tell if the narcissist in their life is manipulating them is aggressively pursuing inconsistencies in the narcissist’s demeanor and being aware of the different forms of deception that are embedded into their behavior. 

Manipulation in narcissistic relationships is all about the narcissist having power and control over the victim. They feel entitled to having what they want, when they want, without the interference of the thoughts, emotions, feels, and needs of others.

In this article readers are going to learn nine of the most common signs of manipulation in narcissistic relationships but as always, we want to remain readers that guidance from a qualified professional will always yield the best results!

Suggested Reading: How to Stop a Narcissist From Manipulating You.

A Sense of Desperation

A very common ploy a narcissist will use to manipulate others is to victimize themselves. This is particularly true for narcissists who could be classified as covert or at the very least had traits and characteristics of covert narcissism. This victimization of one’s self often manifests in the form of the “should’ve, would’ve, could,ve” method.  

  • I shouldn’t have hit you but I’ve never been loved by anyone so I don’t know how to love others. I’m so sorry, please don’t give up on me. I should’ve done better. 
  • I know I shouldn’t have smashed her car window but I was so angry because I would’ve got the promotion at work if my boss didn’t play favorites all of the time. It’s like she doesn’t even see how hard I work! You are the only one who sees me for me and I love you for it. 
  • I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to yell at our son. It’s just when I see that he’s not trying his best at baseball it makes me really upset and brings up a lot of negative emotions. Like, I could’ve played professionally if my father was around. Our son has his dad, he should be more grateful. 

In the heat of the moment, victims of narcissistic abuse could be manipulated by statements like those because of how sincere they sound. But after some time has passed and the narcissist gets the sense that the victim has forgiven them, they’ll go right back to their invalidating, devaluing, and dehumanizing abuse like moths to a flame. 

Being Isolated From Others

One of the signs that tell us that a narcissist knows that their behavior is wrong is their ability to pick and choose who sees their true identity. The victims and survivors of narcissistic abuse are often the only people who know how abusive the narcissist really is. Everyone else sees their falsified identity which portrays them as a charming, charismatic, successful, authentic, and genuine human being. 

This can be extremely isolating for victims of narcissistic abuse but it also gives them an opportunity to acknowledge and accept that the narcissist in their life is a manipulator. You see, many victims of narcissistic abuse are often terribly confused by their abuser’s ability to be the charming, charismatic, and healthy person they first met in front of other people but a monstrous abuser behind closed doors. 

Living in an environment where everyone around them thinks that their abuser is a fantastic person, on top of all the manipulation they’re enduring from the narcissist, is terribly confusing. However, it says a lot because manipulators do not like manipulating others in front of an audience because there are too many variables that are out of their control. 

Meaning that the fact that the victim feels like the only person who knows the terrible side of the narcissist should be a huge indication of manipulation being present in the relationship. 

Intensity Around Decision Making

Something that shouldn’t be overlooked when learning about manipulation in narcissistic relationships is the intensity around decision making that narcissists use to manipulate others. 

The clearest manifestation of this would be the love bombing phase. It’s a phase in the beginning stages of an abusive relationship where an abuser will use mirroring to absorb an extraordinary amount of information about the victim’s identity to create a falsified identity that is designed to fill a void in the victim’s life.  

It is an incredibly intense period that manipulates victims of abuse into making a quick decision about the direction they want to take the relationship. For some this phase manifests in the form of an overwhelming amount of spontaneous moments, time spent together, communication, intimacy, and so on. 

A victim of narcissistic abuse experiencing the love bombing phase

The intensity of it all manipulates victims of abuse into feeling like they have a special and unique connection with their abuser. From here, the abuser is able to get away with months, years, and even decades of abuse simply because of the foundation their intensity created in the beginning stages of the relationships.  

Another really common way a narcissist will use intensity to manipulate their victim is with a manipulative technique called gaslighting through ultimatums. With statements like “I am going to leave you if you complain about (blank) one more time” narcissists are able to manipulate their victim into associating expressing their own thoughts, emotions, feelings, and needs with negative consequences. 

A narcissist’s tendency to use intensity to manipulate others is one of the clearest manifestations of their sense of entitlement to having what they want, when they want. 

Explosive and Uncharacteristic Emotions

Two very common narcissistic behavior patterns that are designed to manipulate others are narcissistic rage and intermittent reinforcement. 

Narcissistic rage can be both aggressive and passive aggressive but it is an explosive response narcissists have when they experience an ego injury, also known as a narcissistic injury, or some type of contradiction to their falsified identity. 

When a narcissist goes into a rage, they’re desperately trying to regain power and control of a situation which often results in the victim being silenced, chronically apologetic, terrified of expressing their own emotions, and feel as if they have to walk on eggshells around the narcissist. 

Narcissistic rage is a powerful form of manipulation because it forces the victim to associate self-advocacy with danger which will silence them into a chronically submissive and apologetic state. 

Intermittent reinforcement is the delivery of a reward at irregular intervals. In narcissistic relationships narcissists use intermittent reinforcement to keep their victim hooked in the relationship. 

For example, if a victim of narcissistic abuse has reached their limit with the constant invalidation, devaluation, and dehumanization, and decided to leave the relationship, a narcissist would likely use intermittent reinforcement to manipulate the victim into giving them another chance. 

A narcissist using intermittent reinforcement to drag his vicim back into the abuse cycle

Sadly, narcissistic relationships are so emotionally starved that a narcissist only has to show the slightest amount of empathy to manipulate their victim through intermittent reinforcement. 

Intermittent reinforcement is really hard to spot. We cover this much more thoroughly in our article Why Do Trauma Bonds Feel Like an Addiction but the “reward” in intermittent reinforcement actually manipulates chemicals in the victim’s brain. 

With that being said, a really good way a victim of narcissistic abuse could spot intermittent reinforcement and protect themselves from further manipulation is to recognize the fact that the narcissist’s “reward” is uncharacteristic of them. Even though it feels really good, it doesn’t outweigh the mountain of abuse the narcissist subjects them to. 

Bringing Up the Past

A really common way that a narcissist will use manipulation to minimize, devalue, and/or invalidate what someone else has achieved or has to say is by bringing up the past. They do this to make the victim seem inconsistent.

A narcissist bringing up the past to minimize her mistake in the present

It is quite ironic because they’re so self-centered that they can’t manage to acknowledge or remember any of the positive about their victim but the moment they see an opportunity to get something they want by bringing up the past, their brain turns into an encyclopedia of “mistakes” their victim has made in the past. 

Bringing up the past is a form of gaslighting because the narcissist is trying to manipulate their victim into believing that they’re the problem, not the narcissist. 


When a narcissist is trying to manipulate their victim, they’re trying to achieve a goal through deception which makes lying a very reliable sign of manipulation being present in any given situation with a narcissist. 

Suggesting Readings: How Can You Tell When a Narcissist Is Lying, Why Do Narcissists Lie.

Unresolved Arguments

One of the signs of a narcissistic relationship is toxic arguments. As a general rule in healthy relationships both parties walk away from the argument feeling heard, respected, and equal. In narcissistic relationships, the victim walks away from the argument feeling confused, doubtful, and hurt while the narcissist walks away feeling reassured, validated, and powerful. 

The reason being that narcissists use arguments to reassure themselves of their fragile sense of self. In other words, narcissists use arguments to regulate their own suppressed negative emotions. By “winning” arguments, narcissists are able to convince themselves that they are as grandiose, superior, and worthy as they portray themselves to others.

Suggested Reading: Why Is Arguing With a Narcissist a Horrible Idea.

With that being said, there’s a specific aspect of narcissistic arguments that a victim could use to identify potential manipulation. 

If someone has set very firm boundaries with a narcissist in an argument, like refusing to take the blame for something, yet the narcissist continues their relentless pursuit of “winning” the argument, it could be a sign that the narcissist is trying to manipulate them because accepting defeat would mean that the narcissist would have to contradict their own falsified identity and that isn’t going to happen.

This can happen in both short and long periods of time. The point is that the narcissist will keep asking or doing the same thing to try to manipulate their victim into accepting their agenda even though the victim has made their position on the matter very clear.

A victim of narcissistic abuse trying to end an argument with her abuser

Twisting Your Words

One of the reasons that managing a narcissist is so difficult is because of how good they are at portraying others in a negative light. One of the ways that they do this is by twisting their victim’s words to manipulate them into taking the blame or at the very least fall silent due to confusion. 

One of the most common scenarios where this could occur is reactive abuse. When a victim of narcissistic abuse decides to react against the narcissist’s abuse in a manner that could also be considered abusive, it is called reactive abuse. It’s a really bad place to be in because it allows the narcissist to portray the victim as the abuser and themselves as the victim. 

A really common example of this would be when a narcissist weaponizes the victim’s vulnerabilities and insecurities to bait them into an argument then twists the response of the victim to manipulate them into taking blame or go into a silent state of confusion.

Illogical Reasonings

It’s widely believed that narcissism originates from an unhealthy/abusive upbringing with primary caregivers who are unavailable, unresponsive, and inconsistent. This leaves narcissists severely emotionally inadequate. They’re unable to conceptualize a realistic sense of self and they’re incapable of regulating their own emotions. 

This is a HUGE problem because this childhood of theirs has left them with a deeply rooted hatred for their true identity because they think their vulnerabilities and insecurities make them weak, rejectable by others, unloveable, less than, etc.. 

To avoid being consumed by their negative emotions and imploding, they create a falsified identity that is designed to be accepted by society while simultaneously suppressing their negative emotions deep within their psyche.

Suggested Reading: How Are Narcissists Made?

It’s important to be aware of the depth of their delusion because it means that any form of authenticity or logic actually contradicts their falsified identity and causes a crippling amount of psychological tension. So, they avoid logic and authenticity at all costs.

Through manipulative behaviors like gaslighting and projection narcissists are able to manipulate their victims with illogical statements on a daily basis. 

A narcissist using illogical reasons to continue an argument

About the Author

Hey, I’m Elijah.

I experienced narcissistic abuse for three years. 

I create these articles to help you understand and validate your experiences.

Thank you for reading, and remember, healing is possible even when it feels impossible.

About This Article

We used Artificial Intelligence (AI) to create parts of this article to enhance its accuracy and readability. It underwent a strict human editorial process before being published. See additional information.


Vrij, A., Fisher, R., Mann, S., & Leal, S. (2006). Detecting deception by manipulating cognitive load. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10(4), 141–142

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