The Narcissist’s Playbook

By JH Simon

The narcissist needs others to maintain their power. Where people usually nurture bonds through empathy and cooperation, the narcissist must convince people to enter their fantastical sphere of influence using alternative means. For this, the narcissist relies on the art of persuasion to sell their false self while manipulating others into meeting their narcissistic needs.

The art of persuasion

At the heart of every narcissist, behind their elaborate false self which can fool almost anyone, lies a timeless methodology. Coined by Aristotle over two thousand years ago, the ‘three pillars of persuasion’ have remained a universal blueprint for influence, and are outlined as follows:

Ethos (Appeal to credibility)

To have ethos is to project competence, divinity and authority. How a person dresses, their body language, their expression, and their ability to demonstrate success and status all come together as ethos. Think Adolf Hitler. He tailored his appearance and body language to create the impression of authority, showing abnormal discipline in honing his image. He rarely faltered in public, maintaining perfect posture and controlled body movements. The illusion of greatness had to be seamless and absolute. Hitler also touted his war record as proof of his bravery and loyalty to his country. Kim Kardashian is another example. She has dedicated herself absolutely to her image, surgically sculpting her body and perfecting her movements, posture and behaviour to create the illusion of divinity and perfection.

Ethos is potent. It persuades without making demands. In the uninitiated mind, the presence of a person of apparent strength, beauty or competence demands submission. While the average narcissist may not be as devoted as Hitler or Kim Kardashian, they will still develop a strategy of some kind. They adapt their body language, facial expression and attire to appear to have more status than they do. Narcissists will also flaunt and exaggerate their achievements, hoping to convince an audience of their high value.

Pathos (Appeal to emotion)

Appearance and reputation are how the narcissist makes their target receptive to influence. However, to cause a real shift, the narcissist must engage others by appealing to their emotions. The narcissist will make sometimes subtle and sometimes outrageous claims and accusations in the hopes of throwing people off-balance. They will also make sweeping, passionate generalisations to polarise people.

A narcissist explicitly targets the emotions of the five developmental forces. Their words can strike fear in the target, or cause them to feel shame using ridicule. The narcissist can appeal to a person’s sense of pride by questioning their worth and forcing them to redeem themselves. The narcissist can win the target’s love with charm, or anger them to force an outraged reaction. In every case, the purpose is to throw the target off-centre and force them to comply with the narcissist’s agenda. Our tendency to act from our emotions makes us all vulnerable to the pathos of the narcissist.

Logos (Appeal to logic)

The narcissist’s end game is to gain access to their target’s mind. While disarming a person and destabilising their emotional balance are powerful tools, the narcissist must strike at the person’s core beliefs to ensure effective control. By consistently questioning and challenging a person’s reality, the narcissist can change how others see the world and themselves. For example, a narcissist might say: ‘Your friends don’t care about you,’ or ‘That’s not what a good friend does.’ Depending on the situation, the bare minimum such a statement achieves is to have you questioning your friendships, which eventually might culminate in you distancing yourself from them. In this way, the narcissist goes a way to isolating you from those you care about. The narcissist is relentless in their assault on their target’s mind, using a barrage of subjective statements and questions aimed at reprogramming their target’s core beliefs.

For maximum effect, the narcissist will use all three pillars simultaneously. They cultivate their image while discrediting and mocking those who threaten them (ethos), while questioning and attacking the reality of their target using emotion-triggering statements (pathos), and convincing yet subjective arguments and statements (logos). Using ethos, pathos and logos, the narcissist can neutralise those who threaten their power, disarm their target, pull the target into their reality and then manipulate the target into submission. Used on the uninitiated, this psychological assault is incredibly effective.

Get the latest news, knowledge and articles on narcissism — delivered direct to your mailbox


To endear themselves to the target, the narcissist needs to behave in an appealing way. The narcissist is an opportunist, and their role is spontaneous, coming about as required.

Examples of the narcissist’s guises are:

  • The loyal friend: The narcissist will listen attentively and agree wholeheartedly with what the target is saying. Regardless of what the target shares, the narcissist will be unconditional in their support and hearty in their praise. If the target complains about another person, the narcissist will be fierce in their mutual condemnation.
  • The fun friend: The narcissist will joke and laugh with their target, generally at someone else’s expense. Because it is all in the name of fun, the target will usually not object. This dynamic creates a feeling of being ‘buddies’ who have a great friendship.
  • The wise orator: The narcissist will speak passionately and confidently, exhibiting their alleged strength and knowledge, which gives them an air of authority and compels their target to pay attention, hoping to be enlightened by this captivating figure.
  • The victim: When in their borderline or histrionic state, the narcissist will express how difficult things are for them or how life has dealt them terrible misfortune. The target then feels compelled to empathise and invest in the narcissist’s ‘problem.’ Many people like to problem solve because it activates their saviour complex, or because problem solving helps distract them from the difficulties of their own life. When the narcissist plays the victim, the target will not only empathise, but also propose solutions for the problem. The narcissist has no intention of correcting their problem, however, usually brushing off these suggestions and instead keeping the focus on their alleged misfortune.
  • The actor/charmer: The most charismatic characters are usually narcissists in their histrionic or psychopathic state, their seamless persona impressing and disarming the people with whom they come into contact. Their eye contact is magnetic, and their zeal and lack of hesitation make for intriguing interactions.

The narcissist will mix and match these roles, shifting shape depending on the person. All of these guises are intended to disarm the target by giving them an ego boost.

The greatest guise of all

The most potent shape the narcissist can take is that of the great mother or father. This archetype usually activates when a person resonates with our parent’s face, voice tone, body movement and/or personality. Furthermore, a narcissist can seem arrogant and unreachable, which is a posture that many parents take with their children to project an air of control. Being exposed to this activates our parental complex, wherein we regress to our childhood self, and begin acting in ways that seem foreign to our adult self. When we are in our child, we become submissive, impulsive, and lose our boundaries. This gives the narcissist unparalleled power over their target, much like a parent has over their child.

Subliminally aware of this, the narcissist will emulate the body language and emotional coldness of a critical parent, which immediately activates their target’s split. The target then feels an irrational and desperate desire to pull their head in and avoid disappointing or upsetting the narcissist. Because the parent-child relationship was so lopsided and absolute, the target regresses to such a state naturally, much like riding a bicycle. The great parent’s gravitational pull is almost irresistible. The target has no idea that they are now interacting with an archetype rather than a person.

Before the narcissist can switch to condemnation, however, they need to charm their target into lowering their boundaries. They do this by playing the role of attuned parent, listening attentively while allowing a one-sided relationship to evolve. The narcissist will pay careful attention to what their target needs, and will fulfil the target’s wishes as perfectly as possible.

The better the narcissist is at channelling the great parent, the more their target projects their unresolved split and psychologically regresses. Their body softens, their ego loosens its grip, and they become agreeable as they slip into a submissive state. With enough time, the narcissist will endear themselves to their target, allowing them to drop the guise and switch to tyranny, shaming and terrifying their target while extracting narcissistic supply.


The best way to explore your shadow is to consider the qualities you loathe in others, since these are likely disowned aspects of yourself which lurk inside you. In the narcissist’s case, they avoid their shadow like the plague and focus on their false self instead. By creating a grandiose ‘light,’ they can avoid their darkness. However, when reality challenges this delusion, the repressed emotions of the shadow come howling out. The narcissist’s first defence against this is to attribute those emotions to someone else.

Scapegoating frees the narcissist from their shadow and bolsters their grandiosity. It is also a duality-based tool they use to boost their ethos. By putting others down in the presence of a third party, the narcissist creates the illusion of being ‘good,’ since they are the one pointing out the ‘bad’ person. This can be as subtle as poking fun at somebody they perceive to be weaker than them, pointing out somebody’s alleged incompetence, gossiping about someone they secretly despise or can be as overt as lashing out at a minority group.

Scapegoating is compelling for many reasons. It allows the narcissist to discharge their shadow onto another person, effectively relieving them of the burden of feeling negative emotions and pent-up rage. Scapegoating also helps the narcissist recruit allies by using a method of divide and conquer. The narcissist relies on scapegoating to create an ‘us versus them’ narrative, using ethos, pathos and logos to convince others to join the ‘us’ team. For the uninitiated, taking the narcissist’s side when they scapegoat can be an addictive ego boost. Owning your shadow is confronting and painful for anybody, narcissist or not. Life is simpler when you can disown your negative emotions and direct them at someone else. The narcissist knows this and uses it to powerful effect.


Propaganda is usually attributed to fascist and authoritarian regimes, but narcissists also use it. The purpose of propaganda is to hijack a person’s mind by filling it with a series of carefully-cultivated and lopsided messages. It is a tool for misdirection, distracting the target from seeing the narcissist’s true nature.

The narcissist will use pathos and logos to overwhelm their target. They tell far-fetched stories which have a grain of truth while making outlandish fabrications. Often, their ‘story’ is so compelling that it becomes believable. They communicate with conviction, spurring vivid images and rousing their target’s emotions. But behind it all, propaganda is about creating an alternate reality and maintaining a target’s engagement. It is a smokescreen, and nothing more. Once it seeps in, however, it can be hard to see through.


Because the narcissist is in a dissociated, split state of mind, their behaviour cannot be understood through the lens of logic or ‘fairness.’ A normal person who bumps up against harsh reality will feel a spike of shame, then shift their approach to harmonise their inner reality with the outer reality. They empathise with others, consider the greater good, and then try to cooperate in a way that honours their needs as well as those of others. They understand the golden rule, that one should treat others as they would like to be treated. A narcissist, however, does it the other way around; outer reality must be manipulated and altered by any means necessary to support their inner reality. As a result, gaslighting is born.

Gaslighting is nothing personal. A narcissist, along with many of their associated protector personalities, becomes lost in their paranoia. They dissociate often while plagued with multiple, conflicting emotions or states. Their inner world is pure chaos, and they struggle to make sense of this confusion. Meanwhile, they know that on the surface, they need to be perceived as ‘normal,’ and of course, superior. Due to dissociation, the narcissist also has gaps in their memory. This is a horrifying reality to face, and the only way to fill the gaps is to create a fiction of what happened.

There is no logic to the narcissist’s mind-boggling storytelling. Their sense of self is completely fragmented, with no cohesive train of thought, emotion or narrative. Therefore, they stitch together a Frankenstein narrative using any trick or lie they can come up with. To avoid the horror of what they are doing, they believe this fiction as though it were true. In this way, the narcissist is not lying. They are simply creating an ‘alternative’ truth.

This manifests in such behaviours as:

  • Questioning: The narcissist will challenge your memory and argue against your interpretation of events. They will counter with phrases such as “that’s not true” or “are you sure I said that?”
  • Blame-shifting: When you express your distress at being mistreated, the narcissist will point out your bad behaviour. They will tell you that if they had a dollar for every time you did the same thing, they would be a millionaire.
  • Trivialising: The narcissist, after hurting you in some way, will tell you that they were only joking. They might call you “too sensitive” or tell you that life is too short to create drama out of nothing.
  • Diverting: The narcissist might simply try to change the topic, or ask you if you can just forget it and move on. They might shame you by telling you that your relationship could be amazing if you just stopped sweating the small stuff. By offering you an easy way out of conflict, they make you look like the person who wants trouble.
  • Compassion: In the middle of being called out, the narcissist will tell you they love you and how terrible it is for the two of you to be in this situation. This causes you to soften, and consider dropping it altogether to get back to the love.


The narcissist cannot bear to see themselves as an abuser, since it challenges their perception of themselves as all-good. As a result, they will do everything in their power to explain away their behaviour and cast you as the persecutor instead. Again, arguing with the narcissist using logic is pointless; they are not in the same reality as you. They will drag you into a washing machine cycle of nonsense by denying or playing down what they did, pointing out your supposed bad behaviour, and then drawing attention to themselves and the pain that they have to go through because of you. This is what Jennifer Freyd coined as ‘DARVO,’ which is an acronym for ‘deny, attack, reverse roles, victim, offender.’ It is an insidious way the narcissist avoids their shadow by reframing situations to cast themselves as the innocent person.

Projective Identification

To maintain their ‘all-good’ image, the narcissist can only feel emotions which belong to a ‘superior’ person. Shame, guilt, sadness, doubt, anger; none of it acceptable. Therefore, the narcissist must find a way to covertly syphon their negative emotions into others instead. This is yet another shadow-denial process which Melanie Klein labelled ‘projective identification.’

Projective identification is done in disguise, usually beginning as a harmless ‘chat’ about something small you did wrong. As the conversation progresses, the narcissist will slip in their judgements and ‘hint’ toward other things you do wrong. The conversation then gradually and casually ‘drifts’ from a reasonable heart-to-heart into a hypnotic monologue. On the surface, you are locked into a normal conversation. However, using subtext and conversational drift, the narcissist will make sweeping statements which cast you in a negative light. This is done so cleverly that you unconsciously take on the ‘all-bad’ role and its associated feelings while still believing you are having a normal conversation.

Projective identification is what typically leads to ‘reactive abuse,’ where a target takes on and acts out the narcissist’s shadow emotions without consciously grasping how it happened. They only wake up from the shock of being triggered, where before that, slowly but surely, they felt the temperature inside them rising like boiling water, before they snapped from being cornered into the ‘bad’ position. As soon as their trigger hits, the narcissist then springs up and points the finger, piling on the judgements to drive home their point that the target is bad. In this way, the narcissist a) relieves themselves of their negative traits and emotions, b) gains the moral high ground, and c) reinforces their false self as being ‘all-good.’ To top it all off, they even force the target to blame themselves for the argument. All the while, the target has no idea how it all happened, and is completely unaware that the narcissist had injected them with their poison without their awareness. It is absolutely crazy-making.

Many of the gaslighting behaviours can leak into the other protector personalities. The malignant narcissist’s psychopath can gaslight in order to dominate, punish or torture you. The borderline can gaslight to regulate their overwhelming emotional state by offloading their pain onto another person via DARVO and projective identification. The narcissist also uses gaslighting to ensure the integrity of their grandiose false self. With each protector personality, the behaviours are the same on the surface, yet their underlying process is different.


Triangulation is the bread and butter of all cluster B personalities, wherein the abuser introduces a third person into the relationship dynamic with the aim of tipping the power balance in their favour.

Triangulation comes in two forms:

  • Physical: The narcissist flirts with someone in front of you while neglecting you, invites someone to mutual events and parades them, or spends increasingly more time with someone while talking them up in front of you.
  • Verbal: The narcissist talks about the other person favourably or compares you to them unfavourably. They often drop the person’s name into conversations, and gradually build them up in your mind. In a narcissistic family, a parent will do this between you and your siblings, often comparing you to your ‘superior’ sibling or so-and-so’s child. In a romantic relationship, this is usually done with an ex or a potential successor, where the narcissist reminds you of what the other person did right when discussing what you do wrong.

Triangulation can make you feel the following:

  • Jealous.
  • Undesirable and unattractive.
  • Threatened.
  • Afraid of being abandoned.
  • Insignificant.
  • Inferior.

Some reasons a narcissist might triangulate are:

  • It makes them feel wanted and in demand: Having multiple people show interest in them makes a person feel like a valuable commodity. Telling the people about each other then creates competition and amplifies insecurity, making the ‘competitors’ feel inferior and unworthy. It communicates: “You are not special, let alone the only one, so you must fight to please me.”
  • They want to control you: Triangulation can trigger a person’s jealousy and fear of abandonment, making them grow needy and insecure. They then become desperate to feel close to the person at the centre of the triangle. These feelings of insecurity make you reactive and panicky, and therefore easier to control. You are always on edge, doing everything you can to prove your worth and avoid being abandoned. A mother or father can also triangulate to get their way and direct their children how they want. In all such cases, it is about control.
  • It helps them win an argument: If so-and-so also thinks the same way as the narcissist, then that’s two against one. Often it can be dozens against one, since apparently “everyone” feels the same way as the narcissist.
  • Fear of commitment: The narcissist might keep multiple people around to avoid being ‘stuck’ in one relationship with all their eggs in one basket.
  • Backup: Having multiple people in their harem allows the narcissist to have their pick of narcissistic supply, as well as to have options when the relationship with their target gets rocky.
  • Grandiosity: The narcissist can never make someone as special or more special than them. Triangulation keeps others feeling insignificant and tips the power distribution in the narcissist’s favour.
  • Revenge: When the narcissist grows vindictive or resentful, they may triangulate simply to inflict punishment on their loved one.

Ultimately, the motives for triangulation depend on the protector personality. The narcissist uses triangulation to reassert their superiority and put their target ‘in their place,’ which is on the bottom. The histrionic triangulates to prove that they are still desirable, to garner fresh attention, and to remind their partner that they have options. The borderline looks to pull their partner in and keep their love by provoking their partner’s jealousy and fear of abandonment. The psychopath, of course, looks to punish their loved one by causing them maximum pain.

Devouring the target

Intimate relationships nurture the soul. When two people connect authentically, they separate feeling seen and satisfied. The ego, on the other hand, is insatiable. It has only ever been a survival tool, a layer which rests above the True Self. For all of its ingenuity, the ego can never give a person peace and fulfilment. Our resting mode was always supposed to be the True Self. By disowning it and dwelling in a mind-created state of paranoia, the narcissist creates an untenable situation. Once a grandiose false self has established itself, it must be fed at all times — without exception. The larger it grows, the more it takes to satisfy it, and the more painful it becomes when supply runs out. Like any addiction, a lull in narcissistic supply creates a crisis.

By gaining control over their target, the narcissist has secured their drug, and they begin a process of devouring their target one transaction at a time. They diminish their target’s freedom and self-esteem and demand reassurance of their grandiosity at all times. Meanwhile, they project their negative emotions on their target via shaming and projective identification. The target’s willpower and confidence quickly wane from the consistent assault on their being. There is no mercy from the devouring process; the narcissist’s thirst for narcissistic supply is unquenchable. Who in their right mind would agree to such a fate? Within this question lies the key to understanding how the narcissist maintains control for so long; being the target is not in their right mind.

To begin healing from narcissistic abuse, check out How To Kill A Narcissist.

Share this article


Further reading