“After listening for almost twenty-five years to the stories my patients tell me about sociopaths who have invaded and injured their lives, when I am asked, “How can I tell whom not to trust?” the answer I give usually surprises people. The natural expectation is that I will describe some sinister-sounding detail of behaviour or snippet of body language or threatening use of language that is the subtle giveaway. Instead, I take people aback by assuring them that the tip-off is none of these things, for none of these things is reliably present. Rather, the best clue is, of all things, the pity play. The most reliable sign, the most universal behaviour of unscrupulous people is not directed, as one might imagine, at our fearfulness. It is, perversely, an appeal to our sympathy.”
― Martha Stout, The Sociopath Next Door
I have realized that narcissists love, love to prey on areas where there is trauma. Where there are survivors, narcissists swarm in for the kill, attracted by the scent of an open wound. The irony is that, more often than not, they are concerned with validating a person’s trauma only so the wound stays open, never to be healed, assuring them a source of continuous supply.
Topics like rape, sexual abuse, physical violence are ‘showy’ and great buttons to push when you want supply, because everyone will automatically be on your side no matter what the broader picture is, and narcissists never bother with details or context, they are only interested in hot buttons that incite strong emotional reactions. People with trauma speak from their wounds, shutting down their rational brain in the process. This is a symptom of PTSD and no fault of their own. If you trigger a person, they react in a primal way out of a need to protect themselves. They immediately are thrust into a vulnerable position where they become easy prey for the narcissist.
Sadly, this is the kind of scenario that narcissists love to hone in on. They sensationalize and magnify such situations in order for people to come bearing their wounds, so a pseudo ‘collective healing’ takes place in which people feel heard and unburden themselves from their trauma stories. This power dynamic is not healthy, however, and purely one directional. The narcissist mentions a triggering topic while remaining elusive, not divulging any personal information, and people immediately become vulnerable and confess. It’s an uneven power dynamic in which people’s strong emotions and wounds feed the narcissist, in order to validate their existence. All the while, the narcissist does not return the gesture: their modus operandi is to provoke and allude ambiguously in order get narcissistic supply from the trauma stories of their audience.
The Narcissist in Disguise
I’ve noticed that the majority of narcissists I know have great disguises. Most of them project the image of vulnerability, helplessness, meekness, often to an extreme degree. They sometimes create art that’s sickeningly sweet: all love, positivity and utopias, directly contrasting with deeper emotional wounds that they’ve hidden away to fester. Be wary of the person who only sprouts positivity and rainbows: they probably harbour deep, simmering rage. Some of the most malignant narcissists I know seem to thrive because they have such a great disguise, the majority of their friends and followers do not realize their toxic patterns or simply turn a blind eye to them (ie. “Everyone has their eccentricities and emotional hot buttons”).
Narcissists, however, know exactly when to open up about their trauma story in order to get supply. They release one vague detail here and there, but they never give the full story uninterrupted. They were abused, and no one batted an eye. ‘Society’ stigmatized them, and they were left all alone. However, context is never given, nor are any solutions even suggested: the intent is purely to allude to the wound in order to portray one’s self as the Ultimate Victim. Theirs is always a mythic story told in such abstract terms that anyone can project themselves easily into their shoes. It makes for easy identification, so a person chancing upon their statuses automatically identify and feel sympathy for them. It’s a very covert manipulative tactic in which the narcissist plays victim only as it suits them, in order to get the reaction they need if they are low on supply. The insidiousness of such acts, however, easily swim over most people’s heads unless they have been trained to spot such deception, because humans by nature are empathetic and we feel the need to support each other’s pain.
For a person to exploit trauma and pain in order to get supply seems monstrous and severely undermines the pain and stories of actual victims, preventing us from coming up with practical solutions that will support victims of trauma. Victims who fall into the trap of identifying with their victimhood often get stuck in a trauma cycle if their trauma continues untreated, and this actually increases the chance of them reliving the trauma again till this conflict has been resolved (See: Compulsion to Repeat and The Body Keeps the Score), thereby also strengthening their existing worldview that the world is indeed full of danger. Evidence-based therapies such as EMDR exist to actually help victims to process the trauma event, preventing them from continuously reliving it.
But how do we spot the narcissist in sheep’s clothing? How do you detect them when they hide among us, under the guise of being profoundly harmless? I’m going to outline some of the narcissist’s most insidious tactics, as well as some practical tips on how to easily detect one. But first, I’m going to go through some of the most common disguises I’ve seen the covert narcissist use.
Disguise One: the Victim Who Cries Wolf
First of all, the narcissist is never interested in healing. A victim of trauma usually feels a certain inclination towards healing, in order to be able to live a normal life, even if ‘normal’ may not be accessible after the trauma event. However, the narcissist is not really interested in ‘normalcy’ as they are in opening and reopening the trauma wound in order to keep it fresh and bloody. They do not want people to heal, they only want to push the topic of trauma out again and again so people’s emotions rise. If there is negative feedback, this is another form of supply: both the lynch mob and the adoring crowd feed the narcissist equally. Strong emotions are the narcissist’s feast of choice.
Narcissists also love to use alarmist terms in order to incite strong emotional reactions- terms like Rape Culture, Rape Apologia, Victim Blaming- terms that automatically set you off in an alarm mode so you stop questioning and feel waves of strong emotions. Often, they will cite alarmist statistics without context, or suggest conspiracy theories in ways that seem harmless (ie. “Patriarchy is to be blamed for rape”) that automatically make you reason along their lines without second-guessing or evaluating the thought. This is not a coincidence: a compliant victim is a victim who does not question what is happening but only provides strong supply to the narcissist. Don’t be fooled though, the topic mentioned is never the actual topic they are discussing. They may be crying rape, but they are actually parading the typical victim agenda in order to hold a pity party in which you are the feast.
Note that these type of narcissists never provide any personal details beyond what is strictly necessary to elicit imagination. They hint drop a lot, but most of the energy they spend is in posting short, often single-sentenced statuses that draw in the pity mob. People are naturally full of empathy and compassion and want to connect to the wounded one, even if those wounds are mostly for display as a means to get supply.
Disguise Two: The Crusader of Truth, Defender of All Victims
A lot of narcissists like to parade a saviour agenda. Never trust someone who proclaims to speak for everyone of a particular group. Definitely don’t trust someone who proclaims they are the speaker for a particular group without having experienced the trauma of that particular group (ie. Feminists defending all rape victims without actually experienced male violence. Their knowledge being strictly theoretical and fantastical. They are riding the wave of ‘what’s hot’ to get supply). Such people definitely have narcissistic tendencies, even if they are not a full-fledged narcissist. Although the narcissist often uses their own ‘trauma’ to push their agenda, when such a ‘trauma’ is non-existent, the narcissist has to make do with the trauma of others, or perhaps confabulate a false story of abuse instead. The intent is, again, to be the Ultimate Victim (and the Ultimate Victim is always conveniently unquestionable: to question is to be ‘inhumane’, no?). A normal individual usually has no agenda to use their own experience as fodder for a political cause. The person who does so almost always has an intent to manipulate and rally the masses around them, in order to retrieve narcissistic supply, make themselves popular and look attractive and desirable. It has nothing to do with the victim, everything to do with the ‘activist’ parading their cause.
Ironically, these sort of people often like to paint the world in a very select way. Specifically, into a duality where they are the saviour, and whatever they say is evil is the ‘oppressor’ (Capitalism, Communism, Men: all the same fictional ‘Evil’ under a different name), putting them in a position of authority over the evil of the world. They usually take the experiences of their victim group of choice, appropriating their experiences in order to reconfigure them under terms that give the illusion of unity, solidarity and healing. This is really Building A Cult 101: Create the illusion of unity under a doctrine you have created from the deepest, most intimate experiences of your followers in order for your followers to be pliant and submissive. Often, they invent ‘conspiracy theories’ loosely based on fact, which makes them very hard to dispute, in order to incite fear and paranoia (more on that later).
“What do we call a story that’s based on limited real data and imagined data and blended into a coherent, emotionally satisfying version of reality? A conspiracy theory. ” Brene Brown. Rising Strong.
Lately, I had a nasty encounter with a woman who claims to be a crusader and defender of victims. Ironically, she also has a cult recovery blog in which she writes about her cult experiences and how she has been thrown out and blocked by many ‘toxic people’ from her ‘ex-cults’. She mentioned that she was well-esteemed in all of these circles- a prominent speaker flown in to France all-expenses-paid for masses of rad-fems, a defender of animal rights for global vegan conferences, an exploited ‘cash cow’ for her baptist church, etc. (A note: I never found evidence for any of these claims on the webs or on her main website, but even if we give her the benefit of the doubt, I do find that this vague grandiose showing off is a red flag). Every single one of these cult circles seemed to be honing in on her masses of talent. Another typical narcissist trait: to feel the need to make one’s self look grander in all scenarios, even as the illuminated victim who has woke to her abuse at the hands of her oppressors.
This person’s current ‘cult of choice’ was, at the moment, radical feminism. Her followers encouraged women to search their past histories for incidences of rape that may or may not have happened, a tactic that is very much like memory implantation (“The basic technique used… involved asking family members of a participant to provide narratives of events that happened when they were young and then add another event that definitely had not happened”), a common control tactic used by cult leaders. In addition, they seemed overly concerned with singling out Men as a receptacle for all of society’s Evil. One person said that women are incapable of violence- Men are the source of all violent acts.
When I expressed my own experiences with female psychological abuse which I find are much more disturbing than male acts of violence, I was told that my experiences were invalid because of my internalized misogyny (never mind the fact most of this discourse is very foreign to me, having grown up outside North America in a very different cultural construct). Another said that all women abusers are victims of male abuse, because women are incapable of abusive behaviour. This is the kind of mindset that rejects social context: Most reported acts of violence are acts of male violence. Also, men may be more physically abusive, but women are capable of psychological abuse on par with men. But this is not a battle of the sexes: I’m just making the point that both sexes are guilty of being equally awful as human beings. Psychopathy sadly does not discriminate gender. To make this a gender issue is to overly simplify a complex phenomenon which, furthermore, prevents us from coming up with practical solutions and stopping psychopathic behaviour from spreading.
This quasi-religious worldview quietly siphons the world into Victim and Abuser, Black and White, God and the Devil. All women are pure, all men are evil. All evil should be condemned with death, without question. Also, women never ever lie about their rapes, because women aren’t ever deceitful and if they are, it’s patriarchal conditioning. Under the conspiracy of Patriarchy, the world’s complexities are easily filtered into simple dualities. What a wonderfully simple world we would live in if all the grey areas were erased! However, when challenged to provide a solution to this situation, her followers said that death was the only solution for all acts of sexual violence. When someone offered the idea that a rapist can be reformed, she was violently shut down and her words twisted (“You are saying rape is benign? All men who commit rape should die!”). They were basically suggesting a dystopia in which even the suggestion of infringement causes death, and this is supposed to create a utopia? Apparently, someone’s ‘utopia’ is another’s dystopia: the two are more closely aligned than you think.
The most disturbing part of this was that the woman whose thread this was on was a self-proclaimed supporter of those who had fallen out of cults. She was open about her own traumas and had a blog in which she discussed cult tactics. I found her blog quite useful in putting into words things I had felt, so naturally it alarmed me when I realized she had a crowd of followers who were exhibiting cult behaviour, quite blatantly and obviously. It alarmed me further when I did a little research on her and found her exploiting the traumas of others (using viral terms to incite intense emotion) in order to amass a following. Ideology that train women to see violence in all men everywhere is the most damaging thing you could do to a rape victim. A victim of PTSD is trained to see danger everywhere even where there is no danger. To suggest to a rape victim that all men are violent is dragging them into a pothole where they are stuck with their trauma eternally, paranoid about each man they see (and PTSD triggers can be as simple as seeing a car after a car accident: it’s a primal response that short circuits past the rational brain).
An example of a term used by this person to control through inciting paranoia is the whole idea of ‘rape culture’. The very term ‘rape culture’ is damaging because it normalizes a traumatic event (rape) into something that is prevalent everywhere (culture). It not only trivializes severe trauma, but it also breeds paranoia. After spending a good afternoon reading articles on this topic, I could also feel myself getting more anxious and paranoid, although I could not trace the source of it. That is the kind of sticky, hazy energy such terms carry with them. Let’s not forget that a lot of ‘rape culture behaviours’ are socialized mannerisms that occur in both sexes and are culturally dependent. They are not an inbuilt biological mechanism (all men are fated to rape), but a complex set of social and cultural behaviours that are not malignant of their own accord.
I was about to sign off that thread (after all, it’s quite easy for someone to cult-hop and I was wondering if she had just fallen out of one cult into another) when she accused my friend of being manipulative when my friend left the conversation, and my alarm bells started ringing very loud. My friend had been respectful in all of her comments: she had only stepped into the conversation to express, politely, her discomfort with the violence of this person’s play (a play about castrating all rapists). This person’s disproportionate response felt too familiar: you have to agree with everything and if you leave, you’re a coward for not staying to be beaten up. When you call out the abuser for being abusive, they call you abusive for calling them out on their manipulative tactics. It’s the oldest trick in the book. Furthermore, she ended her conversation with the admonition “I hope you see how f**ked up your actions were, apologize and change”, very much like a religious leader asking a follower to confess of their sins and repent. Shortly after, she deleted all evidence of her abusive language and blocked me and my friend. A typical narcissist covering her tracks.
To the skeptical observer who may rightfully assume that I’m making too much of this incident, I would add that those who let their followers mob a bystander for expressing an opposing viewpoint are not guilt-free. It doesn’t matter if they themselves keep quiet. Someone who can calmly watch their followers bully someone without any sensitivity rings many of my alarm bells, especially if that person is championing a cause such as trauma recovery. This type of bullying is obviously a trigger, so why would they idly watch their followers mob a person and gleefully ‘thank’ them for their ‘support’ after-the-fact? Rather, I suggest that such an action actually implicates the person more, because it shows they’ve groomed enough people long enough for them to violently lash out at their will. Another narcissistic trick to preserve their image while allowing others to do the dirty work for them.
Fear, Paranoia, and the Modern Cult Leader
Fear mongering is one of the favourite tools of the narcissist, because it’s an easy tool of control. Make a person fearful and shameful of having a different experience, and they are easily under your control of their free will.
In my research of this shapeshifting wannabe cult leader, I realized that she had initially been at the forefront (by her own admission) of several extreme ideologies- radical feminism and veganism, for example. However, it seems she had found a new audience among members of ex-cults and started her ‘cult recovery’ blog shortly after. However, despite calling our radical feminism a cult, she also proceeds to contribute to fear mongering by publishing cognitive dissonant articles such as The Pedophile Culture, “I’m Suspicious of Male “Feminists” — And You Should Be Too”, Not All Men. Well, actually… and a rather troubling transphobic article called How Transgender Activists Spread Rape Culture. I’ll spare you the reading of them by summarizing them for you: they create new viral terms in order to group people under a cloud of paranoia (All Men Are Potential Rapists, All Men are Pedophiles, All Men are Violent, etc). These articles are not about “facts” as they purport to be. They are about spreading fear propaganda in order to to reconfigure how you see the world. They create fears and paranoias that did not exist before, and they isolate actual victims into the PTSD nightmare of having your triggers everywhere, so nowhere is safe.
“Conspiracy thinking is all about fear-based self protection and our intolerance for uncertainty. When we depend on self-protecting narratives often enough, they become our default stories. And we must not forget that storytelling is a powerful integration tool. We start weaving these hidden, false stories into our lives and they eventually distort who we are and how we relate to others.
When unconscious storytelling becomes our default, we often keep tripping over the same issue, staying down when we fall, and having different versions of the same problem in our relationships – we’ve got the story on repeat.” Brene Brown. Rising Strong.
Let’s just say that our modern cult leader is a beautiful shapeshifter. They are not the megalomaniac, dominant, sexually abusive leader of the old model. New cult leaders are amorphous, innocent, alluring. Their doctrines seem seductively simple, their demeanours so loving, so compassionate. But all this a facade to make themselves appear better. How do we distinguish a genuinely compassionate individual interested in healing from a cult leader preying on victims for supply? People who want to help are never loud and violent. Real survivors who have gotten over their trauma and are interested in helping others do the same are quietly assertive, as they know that the violent approach is a reflection of the traumatic experience in itself and has the potential to re-traumatize individuals.
Now, I’m going to propose a solution that has worked for me in deciphering the alluring narcissist from the compassionate helper. I’ve found, in every case, that the narcissist always sets off my internal alarm system but I am the one who chooses to ignore these red flags that come up because I want to be liked by them. If you feel a wiggly, grey, hazy feeling in your gut, that’s a telltale sign the person is toxic. Often, the narcissist is very good at convincing your rational, cognitive brain that their doctrine is the right one. In such a context, you do not question but quietly concede. This is especially true if the narcissist uses key words to draw you in that make you automatically identify with your own experiences.
Often, I found myself making excuses that the person in question is too talented, too well-spoken to be bad (“They are such a great artist! How can they be bad?”). Tuning into those bodily sensations when someone says something suspect helps you to perceive if someone is speaking purely from ego (selfish intent) or from their heart (compassion and empathy). Without fail, I noticed that my body felt squiggly on the inside when I was in an encounter with a narcissist, even if I usually only noticed after-the-fact (the narcissist being a very alluring creature).
Also, the narcissist always betrays themselves if you question them. An easy way is to politely disagree with them in a way that cannot be construed to be antagonistic. Be the devil’s advocate and question their doctrine, even if you agree with them. Remember, ideas are just tools for the narcissist to use in order to hook you in. It’s not about the idea, it’s all about the power dynamic created by the idea.
When you question a narcissist, they usually fly into narcissistic rage, because they feel their stronghold against you may be crumbling. Realize that this could be used against them, but be aware that they tend to cover their tracks by deleting whatever potentially problematic comments they made. Screenshot everything. Reveal nothing. Any personal information you provide is fodder for manipulation. Practice the Grey Rock Method: Pretend to be a dull grey rock, answering the narcissists’s questions with disinterested and detached answers (“I’m sorry you feel that way” or “What do you propose I do about this situation?). Always have your rational front when dealing with a narcissist.
When unveiled, the narcissist will morph like Tam Lin, shapeshifting into various forms and using every dirty emotional manipulative tactic in the book to get you to concede. Don’t be deterred. Stay on your on shore and quietly ask the questions that you know have no answer. Remember that the narcissist always descends into insults the more you point out their logical fallacies.
Even though narcissistic behaviour seems to be prevalent in all aspects of society, narcissistic individuals are actually comparatively not as common. More often than not, they are in positions of power and not too hard to spot. The most insidious sort are the ones who have disguises of good will and Great Causes. Never trust someone who proclaims to have The Answer, even if they are parading causes of saving homeless people, helping abused victims, saving the environment, etc. Question everyone who purports to have One Solution to All. An intellectually curious individual interested in self-awareness and self-development is able to take feedback without flying into narcissistic rage. Remember that it is the narcissist’s inability to be questioned and their lack of empathy and patience for ideas that differ even slightly from them are red flags pointing towards the fact that the person you’re dealing with is probably a narcissist.
My recent experiences with people with narcissistic tendencies may paint a disheartening portrait of how people can operate in malignant ways, but I do think that narcissists can be easily demobilized if one always maintains their calm when face-to-face with one. This is easier said than done, as the narcissist likes to dangle emotionally charged topics as bait, hoping for you to hook on. Be present with what this brings up for you, but do not take the bait. Narcissists, once unveiled, are fairly easy to deal with. It’s when they are in disguise that they are hard to spot and their tactics hard to decipher till it’s too late, and you are drained of energy, yet not knowing the source of that drainage. By presenting these ideas- some unconventional, others controversial-, I hope to shine a light on how narcissists use seemingly innocuous ways to get what they need from people.
Lastly, if the patterns I’ve mentioned sounds familiar to you, you may have been the target for narcissistic abuse. If this is the case, know that there are many resources and support communities available to you.