‘Victim Narcissists’ Are Secretly Super Manipulative—Here Are the 8 Red Flags To Help Spot One

Photo: Getty Images / hkyume
One song you’ll never catch a narcissist singing at karaoke? “Anti-Hero” by Taylor Swift. The cheeky 2022 pop earworm, in which Swift admits that “I’m the problem, it’s me,” is the antithesis of everything narcissists believe about themselves. Because according to narcissists everywhere (and no matter which types of narcissists you're dealing with!), they’re never the problem—everyone else is.

This “always right” mentality is particularly strong with the “victim narcissist.” This subtype of narcissists—perhaps the most unexpected and sometimes hard to spot—always acts like they're the victim, and refuses to take accountability for any of their actions.

Experts In This Article

What’s behind their behavior? And perhaps even more worrisome, what do you do if you think you’re in a relationship with one? Experts share all they want you to know about victim narcissists.

What is “victim syndrome” in narcissism?

“Victim syndrome in narcissism is when narcissistic individuals act innocent and manipulate situations to receive sympathy, deflect accountability and/or responsibility, and to portray themselves as unfairly treated,” explains Natalie Jambazian, LMFT, a Los Angeles-based therapist specializing in narcissistic abuse recovery and the creator of the Self-Love Society, a self-love coaching practice for survivors of narcissistic abuse.

A narcissist with victim syndrome won’t accept fault even when it’s very obviously theirs to claim. Doing so wouldn’t fit the narrative they're trying to portray. “They act as though the world is out to get them, that everything always happens to them, rather than taking accountability for their actions or circumstances,” says Corissa Stepp, an ICF and CPD accredited and certified somatictrauma informed coach and narcissistic abuse specialist.She explains this is how narcissists exert power and control in their relationships.

"By adopting a victim mentality, they create a scenario where others feel compelled to offer support, further boosting the narcissist’s self-esteem," —Natalie Jambazian, LMFT

Jambazian agrees that the narcissistic person plays the victim card when they are, in fact, guilty, and won’t budge on that. Further, they resist feedback and constructive criticism, she adds. They do this to gaslight the person they're in a relationship with, causing the person to feel like they're the problem or the one who’s causing harm.

Playing the victim also provides narcissists with the validation they crave. “If others are not validating and acknowledging publicly how special they are, or maintaining their unrealistic—and often false—representations of who they are, they disconnect or fall apart,” says Antionette Bonafede, LMSW, a therapist with Gateway to Solutions. “Victimizing is just one way that a narcissist will use manipulation to keep their narrative alive.”

Why some narcissists pretend to be (virtuous) victims

To a narcissist, a positive image is vital. Jambazian says they want everyone to think they're intelligent, successful, and morally upright—and they’ll do whatever they need to do to make that happen. After all, having that reputation benefits them and allows them to continue doing what they're doing.

To support this positive external image, narcissists want to be treated like a person who’s been hurt and is completely innocent in every situation (when that’s not the case). “They receive admiration and attention from others as a source of validation and self-worth,” Jambazian says. “Creating an idealized image of themselves helps defend against any underlying feelings they experience, such as insecurity, unworthiness, or inadequacy."

By portraying themselves as the victim, narcissists are also able to affect how others see and treat them. “By adopting a victim mentality, they create a scenario where others feel compelled to offer support, further boosting the narcissist’s self-esteem,” Jambazian says. “This tactic allows them to maintain control over their perspective, painting others as the aggressors and positioning themselves as the innocent sufferers.”

Bonafede says the victim narrative ties into their manipulative behavior and feelings of grandiosity. “Narcissists thrive in scenarios where they are viewed as the person wronged or the hero,” she says, explaining this gives them the pity and empathy they're looking for. “As a result, the victim’s stance allows them to avoid accountability and often results in the person they are manipulating to then fall into caretaker roles and even apologizing.”

“When [narcissists] act as victims, their partners may jump in to try to ‘fix’ or ‘rescue’ the narcissist from the situation or circumstance,” Stepp adds. This gives them love and attention. “This helps the narcissist feel more important and valuable as the codependent prioritizes the narcissist’s needs over their own.”

It’s important to note that during love-bombing phases, or periods of over-the-top affection, the narcissist may praise the person for their care, too, according to Stepp. She says they may even “make comments about how they ‘couldn’t live without’ their partner.”

How to spot a victim narcissist

So what are the particular red flags to look out for when dealing with a potential case of victim narcissism? For better or for worse, the signs are abundant.

1. They blame others

This happens constantly, even with issues that they definitely created. Why? “Narcissists are insecure deep down inside, and they don’t like to be ‘wrong’ or admit to their mistakes,” Jambazian says. Instead, other people—particularly those with whom they are in intimate relationships—are the “problem” (except you’re actually not).

2. They constantly share “woe is me” stories (that have holes)

This goes back to needing other people’s attention and support 24/7. “You might notice them painting a picture of scenarios where they are brutally wronged or unfairly treated over and over again,” Bonafede says. But on closer inspection, you may get a sense that something’s missing or not right. “After some time, you will likely see that they are very vague in the details and either won’t follow up with an outcome or will give you a very one-sided story,” she adds.

3. They act like they're innocent

If you feel uncomfortable, they’ll act like that’s weird, like they couldn’t possibly understand why. “They will use gaslighting comments to distort your reality and confuse you,” Jambazian says.

In the situation of cheating, for example, she shares they may say something like “She/he is just a friend” or “They called to ask a question; it was nothing.”

That’s where it really gets tricky. It’s healthy for people to have friends of the opposite sex, for example. But narcissists will claim that when it’s not true. This is all to say that if you believed your partner and found out later that they were lying, there’s no reason to feel ashamed or negatively about yourself. This goes for any instance of their abuse.

4. They don’t take criticism well

As mentioned above, even constructive criticism won’t do with narcissists. “They interpret it as an attack on their character and may be reactive to your input and lash out, or act cold and shut down,” Jambazian says. As a result, you may have experienced many challenges in your relationship. After all, a relationship without healthy communication and feedback is a struggle, at best.

5. They're defensive and shift the blame

If you ask them about the holes in a story or question their role or reaction to a situation, prepare for a lot of emotion, and a non-answer. “You might notice defensiveness followed by outrage and then extreme hurt for your questioning their character in such a way, thus turning you into the aggressor,” Bonafede says.

6. They refuse to take accountability for their actions

Gaslighting comes into play here, too. “They won’t take accountability when you mention how their words hurt you,” Jambazian says. Rather, she continues, they may say “I don’t remember saying that” or “That’s not what I meant; you took that out of context.” (On that note, a friendly reminder that your feelings are valid!)

They may also make you apologize and feel like the problem. “They are entitled and controlling and would like to hear confirmation that they are not at fault,” Jambazian explains.

7. They engage in “reverse projection” and confuse you

Translation: A narcissist will twist the conversation, says Jambazian. “[They] make the other person feel guilty, [and] all the while they are the ones fabricating the story as if what you did hurt them,” she says.

Bonafede agrees. “This is a key sign to spotting a narcissist: They are masters at flipping the role to make you out to be the problem,” she says. As a result, she says many people in this situation may feel emotionally dysregulated and confused due to the manipulation.

8. It’s a pattern of behaviors, not a few one-off events

This is the best way to spot you may be dealing with a narcissistic person, according to Stepp.

She recommends asking yourself these summarizing questions: Do they constantly blame everyone else for things that have gone wrong in their life? Do they often bounce between jobs, lose friends/partners, or have a difficult time achieving their goals?

Stepp shares an acronym of three key markers of narcissism to keep it simple: E.R.A., which stands for empathy, remorse, and accountability. She encourages you to pay attention to whether you notice these in the narcissistic person or not. If a person never displays any of these three things, it’s highly likely you’re dealing with a narcissist.

What to do if you think you’re in a relationship with a victim narcissist

When a narcissist is mistreating you like that, it’s understandable you may feel like you can never win. You may feel confused, hurt, angry, and a host of other emotions. What can help?

1. Learn more about narcissism and how it works

Learning more about how a narcissist acts and how it impacts others can help you feel validated and less alone. In particular, Jambazian recommends educating yourself on narcissistic tactics, such as manipulation, gaslighting, blame-shifting, psychological projection, and guilt-tripping.

Bonafede encourages understanding that narcissism is a personality disorder. “Part of this condition includes a lack of recognition of how behavior affects others,” she says. “It also means that behavior may be challenging to change, so it is essential to recognize its effects on you and if you want to continue the relationship.”

2. Validate your feelings

This one may feel difficult, especially in the wake of the narcissist’s invalidation and manipulation. But Bonafede urges you to “stand by your truth and recognize that you are allowed to have needs and triggers as much as they are.”

The psychoeducation piece above can also help with this, as it reminds you that they invalidate you purposefully, not because your feelings are actually weird or uncommon.

3. Set and stick to your boundaries

Easier said than done, but do your best! Setting boundaries is a healthy and necessary step for you as an individual and for your relationships. It doesn’t make you a “bad” person or partner, either. “Be firm about what behavior is unacceptable and prioritize your own well-being,” Jambazian urges.

As difficult as it may be, try to stick to them as much as you can, too. “Consistency with boundaries is imperative as it teaches the person that you cannot be manipulated,” Bonafede says. If boundaries are crossed, she continues, have a contingency plan in place and follow through “because they will test you.”

4. Take a breath and separate yourself from their words

In other words, Jambazian says, try to not let their tactics affect you emotionally and outwardly (again, easier said than done). “Learn to respond to the narcissist versus react,” she continues. (Basically, don’t just knee-jerk react to what they’re saying, because that will just keep sucking you into their manipulative behavior and drama.) “Create a mental and emotional buffer to protect yourself.”

For starters, it may help to remember that their words and actions aren’t personal or on you. You can also try the “grey rock method,” which basically means not engaging at all.

5. Journal your thoughts and feelings, and/or make lists

This can help you focus on what you know to be true and avoid rationalizing their behavior, says Jambazian. She especially believes it can be helpful when the narcissist distorts facts, events, and dynamics to make themselves look better.

“A great tool is to write two lists down: one is what the narcissist says to you (distorted truth) and the other, what you believe is the actual truth,” she says. “This will help you understand what truly is happening in your relationship with the narcissist.”

6. Work with a professional who specializes in narcissistic abuse

This tip is similar to psychoeducation, but can be more individualized and supportive. “It is important for survivors to feel validated for their experience, as many survivors in narcissistic relationships are gaslit so often they feel like they are always the problem,” says Jambazian.

Therapy can help in a multitude of ways, too. “If you are scared, overwhelmed, or even if you recognize these things in your life are present, and you aren’t sure where to start, therapy allows you to process and understand your feelings and learn coping skills to manage your emotions,” Bonafede adds.

Some databases that can help you find the right fit include Psychology Today, Open Path Collective, and Therapy Den.

7. Consider cutting contact

At the end of the day, you deserve to be treated better. Stepp says that a professional can also help you plan a safe exit or share strategies and tools that can help you deal with the narcissistic person. “The last thing you want to do is confront a narcissist as it could potentially create a dangerous situation, even if there has been no signs of physical abuse,” she says.

If you need help making a plan or feel unsafe, and a therapist is not available option for you, personalized safety plan worksheets can be helpful. You may also want to contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline by either calling 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), texting “START” to 88788, or using the chat function on the organization's website.

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