How To Spot a Narcissist’s Flying Monkey (aka Henchman) and Protect Yourself From Gaslighting Messages

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You know how the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz has an army of nightmarish flying monkeys ready to do her bidding? Well, as it happens, flying monkeys tend to surround narcissists as well. Narcissistic flying monkeys are little “henchmen” of narcissists, those support their warped reality and self-centered behavior. And you might want to be on the look out for flying monkeys if you're dealing with any sort of narcissistic villain.

"The narcissist's henchmen are the people who want to keep the status quo, and in other words, not be willing to see how the narcissist is affecting you," says Ramani Durvasula, PhD, clinical psychologist and the author of "Don’t You Know Who I Am?”: How To Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility.

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According to Dr. Durvasula, flying monkeys are great at gaslighting and denying your reality, getting involved in triangulation and gossip to keep the narcissist happy by generating more chaos, getting caught up in 'smear campaigns' and other ways of besmirching you that seems to keep them allied with the narcissist, or just enjoying the drama of it all. To wit, recognize that flying monkeys are just really aggressive enablers, she says.

"Something to be aware of are two processes I term 'gaslighting by proxy' and 'gaslighting by [group],'" says Dr. Durvasula. "Gaslighting by proxy—'he's not that bad a guy, I've never had a problem with him'— occurs after you have spoken about a challenge you are having with someone. The proxy gaslighter in essence is doubling down on the original gaslighter's manipulation and substantiating them as a person."

Meanwhile, gaslighting by group is when multiple people doubt your reality and support the narcissist. Look out for red-flag phrases in the vein of "We think he is doing a great job" and "All of us know that he means well." It can be even more potent because it's harder to push back on the opinions of many.

If you're feeling like the flying monkeys are on the attack, don't worry. Below, Dr. Durvasula recommends a few methods to keep them at bay and protect your sanity and sense of well-being.

How to fend off narcissistic flying monkeys

1. Hold on to your own reality

This starts with baby steps, like recognizing that when you're cold, you're cold. Or affirming that when your stomach is grumbling, you're hungry. 

"Start by acknowledging your basic physiological states and don't let anyone tell you that 'you can't be hungry,'" says Dr. Durvasula. "But that means doing mindfulness work when you do just check in with yourself from time to time and trust your opinions and feelings."

2. Invite some non-gaslighters into your life

This sounds extremely obvious, but these are the people where you share a feeling or a thought and they let you share it and don't doubt it (and in theory this is what is supposed to happen in therapy).

3. Disengage from the narcissist and their enablers or flying monkeys

Dr. Durvasula acknowledges that this can be tricky or difficult to disengage from when you're dealing with your family or workplace. But if it's say, the troll on Instagram who thinks COVID-19 is a hoax, it's pretty easy to just hit mute. There's the temptation to engage with them, but setting those boundaries can give you space to be with your reality. 

4. Consider therapy

Especially if you have long history of dealing with a narcissist and their cohorts. Again, if you grew up with a narcissistic parent and a family that supported their toxic ways, for example, that's trauma that might need a professional's help.

"A good therapist won't deny your reality and will bear witness to it," says Dr. Durvasula. "Sometimes having that safe space makes a huge difference and allows you to practice trusting yourself."

5. Stop giving the benefit of the doubt and the second chances

Most narcissists possess the unfortunate gift of charisma. They tend to attract people into their orbit with ease. This is how they get a merry band of followers, and this is why you, my friend, might keep going back to them. Eventually, though, you really need to set up that hard boundary.

"Once someone gaslights you, recognize it and be on watch," says Dr. Durvasula. "Doesn't mean you just have to drop them, but you do need to become more cautious with them."

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