Published on The Huffington Post 3/28/2017 at 9:36 p.m. ET. Narcissists have an extensive arsenal of weapons to shield and bolster themselves against their intolerable feelings of inferiority. Masters at brainwashing, narcissists go to unimaginable lengths to manipulate those around them to uphold their distorted version of reality—a world in which they are immaculately perfect: flawless, blameless, always right, and endlessly adored. Here are some examples of classic narcissist head games.

Narcissist Head Games

Cognitive Dissonance The narcissist’s manufactured reality is built on lies and denial, and she expects her family members to accept her version of the truth. What this means for the narcissist’s spouse and children is that they find themselves in “opposite land,” where she tells them (usually through a range of manipulative tactics) that “reality” is different from or even the opposite of what they feel and perceive. The narcissist produces a cognitive dissonance in which the other person experiences a profoundly disorienting gap between what s/he perceives and what the narcissist says happened—black is white, good is bad, false is true. Cognitive dissonance is extremely traumatic, as it leads to self-doubt and disassociation.

Divide and Conquer A primary strategy the narcissist uses to assert control, particularly within his family, is to create divisions among individuals. This weakens and isolates them, making it easier for the narcissist to manipulate and dominate. The narcissist divides through various means. He sets up an environment of competition and terror in which individuals are trying to avoid attack, often at one another’s expense. He favors some and scapegoats others, breeding mistrust and resentment between siblings or between his spouse and children. Such dynamics can also play out in a work setting, where a boss uses the same kinds of tactics to control and manipulate his employees.

Gaslighting This is a form of psychological abuse in which the narcissist systematically undermines another person’s mental state by leading them to question their perceptions of reality. The narcissist uses lies and false information to erode her victim’s belief in their own judgment and, ultimately, their sanity. After an abusive incident, the narcissist refuses responsibility, blames you, or outright denies that the abuse took place. She may say things like, “That’s not what happened,” “You’re crazy,” or “You made me do it.” The term gaslighting comes from the 1944 Hollywood film Gaslight, a classic depiction of this kind of brainwashing.

Hoovering Since narcissists are by nature pathologically self-centered and often stunningly cruel, they ultimately make those around them miserable and eventually drive many people away. If a source of supply pulls away or tries to go no contact, the narcissist typically attempts to hoover (as in vacuum-suck) them back within his realm of control. He will try to hoover through a variety of means, from promising to reform his behavior, to acting unusually solicitous, to dangling carrots such as gifts or money. However, if he finds adequate sources of new supply, he may simply walk away from old ones.

Projecting One of the narcissist’s go-to manipulations is projection, whereby she beams her words, actions, traits, and motives back onto others. If she lied, you are the liar; if she is childish, you are immature; if she insulted you, you are critical; if she demanded reassurance, you are insecure. Through projection, the narcissist blames the victim and denies accountability. Projection is an insidious form of lying that is especially traumatic for children, who internalize the belief that they are hurting the person who is actually abusing them. A narcissist also may project her ideal beliefs about herself onto others, such as her golden child or someone she admires. It is up for debate as to whether narcissists project consciously or unconsciously, but they do it with impeccable aim.

Rage The narcissistic personality reacts with rage if his narcissist injury is triggered. The narcissist takes even the smallest slight, which most people would easily brush off, as intense humiliation and/or rejection. When this happens, his fabricated “perfect” self and overblown feelings of entitlement are threatened, setting off a wild rage response. Narcissistic rage is terrifying, sometimes physically violent, and far beyond normal anger. It is emotionally and physically traumatizing for those on the receiving end, particularly children, who naturally blame themselves for the adult’s reaction.

Shame Narcissists are expert at projecting their own negative emotions onto others. Sadly, shame is a foundational emotion of the narcissist, probably stemming from childhood feelings of personal failure. In a primitive attempt to avoid feelings of shame and to elevate themselves, narcissists routinely shame others. A child who spills something, hasn’t mastered the use of silverware, or doesn’t know what a word means is mocked or reprimanded. A spouse who sings off key, forgets an appointment, or dares to disagree with her/his narcissist spouse is ridiculed or outright attacked.

Smear Campaign Narcissists engage in smear campaigns to discredit others within their family or social sphere. A narcissist may smear another person because that person sees through her mask, she is trying to preemptively conceal her own abuse of that person, or she is taking revenge because the person offended or rejected her. The narcissist may conduct a smear campaign for lesser reasons, such as jealousy or resentment. Narcissists are quite calculating in their process of discrediting and socially isolating their target, using innuendo, gossip, and outright lies to family, friends, neighbors, and community members. The narcissist won’t hesitate to smear an ex to their children, a scapegoated child to friends and relatives, or a colleague to other colleagues. The smear campaign usually happens behind the victim’s back, often with the assistance of the narcissist’s enablers/flying monkeys.

Listen to “Head Games” by Foreigner.

Julie L. Hall’s articles on narcissism regularly appear in The Huffington Post and PsychCentral. She is the author of a forthcoming memoir about life, and a few near deaths, in a narcissistic family (read excerpts). 

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