Want to see a narcissist, psychopath or borderline go from aggressor to professional victim in .001 seconds flat? That’s easy. It typically happens whenever the narcissist is held accountable, publicly exposed for their misdeeds or actual crimes or someone pushed back and treated the narcissist the way the narcissist treats others. If you’re on the receiving end of this kind of role reversal otherwise known as DARVO (Deny, Attack and Reverse Victim and Offender) it can be incredibly crazy-making.
When most of us think of bullies, we tend to conjure up images of the playground bully who took our lunch money or the mean girl in high school who excelled in relational aggression — by socially excluding peers, gossiping and encouraging their followers and wannabe’s to follow suit. Bullies, whether they’re children or adults, are frequently the traditional in your face jerks. Their predations are overt and, therefore, easier to identify.
But there’s another kind of bully that’s more covert and difficult to identify — the cry baby bully. The bully who goes from smug, unrepentant asshole to a blubbering, sympathy-seeking gaslighter-projector as soon as they get a taste of their own medicine or are called out for their nonsense. Narcissists and their ilk also play cry baby victim when old or new potential targets enforce boundaries and don’t allow themselves to be manipulated or exploited by the narcissist. Why do narcissists, psychopaths and borderlines do this?
Because it’s effective.
Empathetic people feel compassion when observing someone in pain. When we see someone crying, we feel bad for them. Even more so if we’ve been hurt, treated unjustly or been abused, we empathize and sympathize when someone claims to have been harmed. Kindness, compassion and empathy are wonderful qualities. Narcissists and other predators know exactly how to manipulate these qualities to their advantage, however. They see kindness and compassion as weaknesses to exploit. If you’re the narcissist’s victim, you may even feel guilty and apologize to your abuser for the rotten thing they did to you. It’s the ultimate Narcissist Jedi Mind Trick — black belt level Narc-Fu.
A narcissist’s or borderline’s emotional and psychological landscape revolves solely around themselves, their feelings and having things their way. These individuals are so self-absorbed that they are their only frame of reference to understand the world and other people who occupy their world. “If it isn’t about me, how do I make it about me? If it’s about me, how does it effect me?” When narcissists experience frustration, embarrassment or disappointment (especially if they’ve created the circumstances through their behavior) they typically react as if they’re experiencing an extreme form of excruciating torture or extraordinary injustice. Then come the tears and indignant self-righteous outrage.
“Why is everyone picking on me!? Why is everyone out to get me?!! Why do you hate me so much!?!?! What have I ever done to you to deserve this?!?! I sacrificed my career, hopes and dreams for you!?! I didn’t ask to be born! Joe Blow/Susie Snow did the same thing just last week and no one made a big deal about it! My parents were alcoholics! How can you be so mean to me!!??!! You are so selfish!!! The only person you care about is you!!! What about MY FEELINGS!!!!!!?????!!!”
Call the wah-bulance. Or, better yet, get out your teeny tiny violin and play a sad song. Whichever you prefer.
This is nothing more than a sleight of hand — and not an especially sophisticated one. Toddlers and teenagers know how to do this. Why is it so difficult for so many people to recognize when a narcissist is reacting and manipulating like a toddler-teen? Because mature, responsible adults don’t behave like this. Instead, people reason, “She or he is so upset something really bad must’ve happened.” Yes, something happened. The tears and/or anger may very well be real, but not for the reasons we think.
The tears, anger and fear are often real, but very misleading. Narcissists are so desperate to get their way, to avoid consequences and to “win” at any cost, that they can work themselves into quite a convincing tizzy. Sometimes, their performances and lies are so convincing, they actually begin to believe their own BS and, thus, become even more convincing. Narcissists, borderlines and psychopaths count on friends, family, employers, strangers, judges and evaluators making this fundamental attribution error. The likelihood of making a fundamental attribution error increases when we have certain biases and/or identify with the person who’s conning us by playing victim.
This is why narcissists, borderlines and psychopaths frequently get away with their crap for as long as they do. When they become fully exposed and no one buys into their bull anymore, they don’t learn, grow and become better people. They just look for a new audience who’ll believe their bull. Wash, lather, rinse, repeat.
Narcissists are not victims. If they are victims of anything, they’re victims of their own behavior and choices. Most mature and reasonable adults understand that actions lead to consequences. Narcissists and other Cluster B disordered individuals believe they’re too special to suffer consequences. That’s the entitlement. There are two kinds of entitlement. The entitlement of, “I’m special because I’m so wonderful that rules and laws don’t apply to me.” And the entitlement born of being a professional victim. In other words, “I’ve suffered so much that I’m too special for rules and laws to apply to me. Never mind if I’m the cause of my own suffering.”
The next time the narcissist in your life accuses you of being “so mean” [to them], hit the mental pause button. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Are you mean or did you hold the mirror of accountability up to the narcissist in which they see their own cruelty and absurdity reflected back to them?
- Are you mean or did you enforce a reasonable boundary that limits the narcissist’s ability to manipulate or exploit you?
- Are you mean or did you tell someone who’s behaving like a jerk to buzz off because that’s the only kind of language that permeates their thick skull? (*Subtlety and politeness usually don’t register with these types especially when you have a history of enabling them.)
If your answers to the above questions are yes, please don’t feel guilty or that you need to JADE (justify, argue, defend or explain) yourself. Feel good about having boundaries, for not enabling the narcissist’s bad behavior and for not allowing yourself to be manipulated or mistreated. And then give yourself a pat on the back, you big meanie!
Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD helps individuals work through their relationship and codependency issues via telephone or Skype. She specializes in helping men and women trying to break free of an abusive relationship, cope with the stress of an abusive relationship or heal from an abusive relationship. Coaching individuals through high-conflict divorce and custody cases is also an area of expertise. She combines practical advice, emotional support and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Schedule a Session page for more information.
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