7 cruel ways a narcissist will play with your emotions

Let me start by saying – being in a friendship or relationship of any sort with a narcissist is a pretty traumatic experience. 

Forget the ups and downs you’ll face on a daily basis, just the emotional scarring you’re left with is enough to break down even the strongest of us out there. 

And that’s because narcissists are experts at figuring out your insecurities and using them against you. 

They’ll mess with your mind, memories, and emotions until they get you to a point where you hardly recognize yourself anymore – you’re essentially at their mercy. 

Here are 7 cruel ways they go about doing this: 

1) They’ll gaslight you

The easiest way to explain gaslighting is with an example:

I was with my (narcissistic) ex for about a year. Initially, like most, he started off very charming, very into me. 

I trusted him quite quickly into the relationship which is unusual for me. 

But after the honeymoon period wore off, he changed. 

I’d call him out on things like making a mean remark about me in front of friends or staring at pretty girls when we’d go out for dinner (something I find very disrespectful). 

Yet, he’d always find a way to make it seem like I was imagining it. 

“You’re too sensitive – anyone else would have found that joke funny.” 

“What are you talking about? Who was I staring at? Are you that insecure and jealous you’re imagining things?” 

 This is gaslighting in action – a narcissist will make you doubt your own memories and feelings. They’ll outright deny things that they’ve said or done. 

Which makes it pretty hard to hold them accountable for anything. 

2) They’ll love bomb you

Another way a narcissist will play with your emotions is by love-bombing you – coming on super strong and showering you with affection and attention. 

I recently just ended a friendship with a narcissist. And looking back, I totally got love-bombed. 

From the first day we met, she called me her “soul friend”. She even bought me gifts, like a book that I’d mentioned I was interested in. 

At the time, I thought all of this was her being a kind-hearted person.

But here’s where a narcissist will reveal their true colors:

They can only keep up this facade for so long. Once they’ve lured you in and they’re sure you’re not going anywhere, they switch. 

Unfortunately for my friend (and fortunately for me), I picked up on this thanks to my past relationship that I mentioned above. It still took me about 4 months though. 

Because ultimately, love bombing can be hard to spot – we all want attention and affection. Narcissists know this is a vulnerable spot for most, and that’s why they play on it so much. 

3) They’ll use triangulation

You might not be familiar with the term triangulation, but it’s something narcissists will commonly use to unsettle you. 

It’s essentially when they bring in a third person (real or made up) to make you feel jealous, tense, or competitive. 

Here are a few examples of how this might look:

  • Introducing a third party: They might frequently mention how attractive or understanding a co-worker is, leading you to feel threatened.
  • Comparing with others: They might often compare you unfavorably with other people, such as ex-partners, friends, or colleagues. 
  • Using others to relay messages: Instead of communicating directly, a narcissist might use friends, family members, or even children to convey messages to you. This can create confusion and misunderstanding.
  • Playing people against each other: They might tell different stories or versions of events to different people, causing those individuals to have conflicts with each other. This can be a tactic to divert attention away from their own behavior.

If you’ve ever encountered any of the above, I feel for you. 

It really sucks to be made to feel “less than”, but the bottom line is, this is what the narcissist wants. 

When they’ve broken your spirit, it’s much easier to manipulate and control you. 

4) They’ll neg and criticize

cruel ways a narcissist will play with your emotions 1 7 cruel ways a narcissist will play with your emotions

It took me the best part of three years to get over the insecurities my narcissistic ex gave me. 

He’d constantly tell me I wasn’t good at things, from driving to cooking. 

But don’t get me wrong, he wasn’t obvious about it. It was subtle little comments, designed to wear me down over time. 

Think backhanded compliments and that sort of stuff.

If you’ve experienced this, you’ll know how frustrating it is. You keep trying to do better because you want the narcissist’s approval, but nothing you ever do is good enough. 

And since they’re so sneaky about how they criticize you, it’s often an easy-to-miss red flag. 

5) They’ll withhold affection or communication

Another cruel way a narcissist will mess around with your feelings is by giving you the cold shoulder.

Imagine this:

You have an argument. It was over something petty and you try to resolve it. 

But your partner? They’ve got other plans. 

They give you the silent treatment. You try to hug them and break the ice, but they swiftly move away. 

You’re left wondering, “Where do we go from here? How long will this last? Is what I did really that bad? Was it really all my fault?” 

This is what the narcissist wants – by ignoring you and withholding affection, they want to make you spiral. 

They get to control the narrative, and they get to control when you guys finally make up. 

Essentially, they want you to feel powerless and hopeless. 

6) They’ll play the victim

Ever noticed how it’s never the narcissist’s fault? 

Everyone around them is out to get them. Including you. 

Whenever there’s a disagreement, they always find the angle of being the victim – even if they’re the perpetrator. 

So why is this? And what does it do to your emotions?

Well, quite simply, a narcissist plays the victim because they know it’s the easiest way to get sympathy. They also do it to avoid taking responsibility for their role in the situation. 

But more importantly:

To get control.

You see, when they do this, good-hearted folk like you and I will naturally feel bad. 

We’ll assume guilt. 

And then we work harder to please them. To not upset or hurt them. What we don’t realize until it’s too late, is that they were never the victim in the first place! 

We were. 

7) They’ll project

I remember a friend telling me about their narcissistic mother. She was a deeply unhappy woman. 

Whenever my friend would go around to visit, her mom would start pointing out everything wrong with my friend’s life…her partner was lazy, her job uninspiring, and her home bland. 

None of it was true, though. 

Luckily my friend has now learned to deal with her mom and set strong boundaries. But for a long time, she’d feel bad about her life whenever she visited her.

This is a classic example of projection. 

Her mom was unhappy, so she projected those emotions onto her daughter. 

Other examples include a cheating narcissistic partner who’ll constantly accuse their partner of being unfaithful. 

By doing this, a narcissist gets out of dealing with their own emotions – they essentially pass them onto you to deal with instead! 

So, we’ve covered 7 ways a narcissist will play with your feelings, but we haven’t touched the most important part yet…

How to protect your emotions from a narcissist 

I know how tough it can be to have a narcissist in your life. If they’re extreme in their narcissism, the best thing to do is cut them out completely.  

Especially if it’s a friend or a partner. But if it’s family, sometimes, that’s just not an option. 

In any case, here are a few things you can do to emotionally protect yourself when around a narcissist:

  • Set strong boundaries. Be clear about what behaviors you’ll tolerate and when the line is crossed, stick to the consequences you’ve put in place. Remember – a narcissist will always push the boundaries, so you need to be firm and consistent. 
  • Distance yourself. Emotionally and physically. Don’t allow the narcissist to drag you into their problems. Avoid certain topics, and limit the amount of time you spend with them.
  • Educate yourself. Reading articles like this one and others online can help you understand how a narcissist works and how best to respond to them. 
  • Practice self-care. When you feel strong and healthy within yourself, it’s much easier to stand up to emotional manipulation. 
  • Seek support. Whether that’s through friends or a professional, emotional manipulation is easier to heal from if you have a support network around you.

And last but not least – don’t feel bad for falling into the trap of a narcissist. As you’ve seen, I’ve been a victim twice, even though I thought I’d learned from the first experience. 

But narcissists are cunning and clever. The best we can do is educate ourselves, set strong boundaries, and build up our inner confidence and worth.

Picture of Kiran Athar

Kiran Athar

Kiran is a freelance writer with a degree in multimedia journalism. She enjoys exploring spirituality, psychology, and love in her writing. As she continues blazing ahead on her journey of self-discovery, she hopes to help her readers do the same. She thrives on building a sense of community and bridging the gaps between people. You can reach out to Kiran on Twitter: @KiranAthar1

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