Narcissists and the Dog Whistle Effect in Toxic Relationships

Written by Angela Atkinson

What is the dog whistle effect and how do narcissists use it against you?

The term comes from the term Dog-whistle politics, but it is also a term that applies to narcissists as an extreme form of gaslighting.

Dog-whistle politics is defined as “political messaging employing coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has an additional, different, or more specific resonance for a targeted subgroup. The phrase is often used as a pejorative, because of the inherently deceptive nature of the practice and because the dog-whistle messages are frequently distasteful to the general populace.”

What is the dog-whistle effect in narcissistic abuse?

Clearly, the term is an analogy to an actual dog whistle, which has a high-frequency sound that is heard by dogs but is inaudible to humans. When it comes to narcissistic abuse, it can be used in gaslighting – especially in public.

Dog whistling, a form of gaslighting, is what happens when the narcissist manipulates you in front of other people without the other people knowing that they’re doing it. So, for example, the narcissist might give you a certain look or use a certain phrase that seems completely innocent to onlookers, but that causes you a great deal of anxiety or stress because you know that it means something different for you.

Examples of the Dog-Whistle Effect in Narcissistic Abuse

The ‘Secret Code’ Dog Whistle

One example of a dog whistle as a way to publicly manipulate someone without anyone else recognizing it is when a narcissist uses certain words that sound harmless to most people, but which are a sort of code inside the relationship.

Say a child is acting up in public and their mother bends over and sweetly says to the child, “Do we need to take a trip to the bathroom, Bobby?”

The child instantly straightens up and with wide eyes says, “No, Mommy. I don’t want to go to the bathroom.”

In that case, the use of “take a trip to the bathroom” implies some kind of punishment that will happen if they have to take that trip.

Of course, this happens in all kinds of toxic relationships and is exactly what it sounds like: the narcissist delivers a confidence-shattering dog whistle that only you can hear.

The Flirt Code Dog Whistle

In a romantic situation, there’s an additional kind of secret-code dog whistle, and it falls into the category of flirting. For example, the narcissist says or does something that their partner knows is one of their signature flirt moves, but that is ambiguous enough that it could appear they’re just being friendly.

So, if early in your relationship with your partner, a reference to “brunch” was a “flirty” code for sleeping over between the two of you, your partner might invite another attractive person to brunch. It might seem that they’re just being friendly in the context of the conversation, but a quick glance in your direction (to make sure you’re watching) followed by a quick, nearly imperceptible smirk will hit you like a ton of bricks – because you know the narcissist is subtly flirting. And they know you know, which makes it worse.

Of course, when you shrink or explode at the implication, what does everyone around you think? That the narcissist is right, and you really are crazy.

How do you deal with a narcissist who is dog-whistling?

You use the gray rock method; that is: you don’t react at all. You pretend you don’t notice, and if you need to distract yourself, do so. The narcissist will only continue this behavior as long as they know it bothers you. And while some will push it a little further, just to try to get you to crack, it’s worth holding out – not only to avoid giving them the narcissistic supply they’re seeking when they’re trying to get you to react to one of these painful manipulative attacks but to save your own sanity in the process.

In this video, I explain in more detail how narcissists use this tactic to manipulate and control their victims and how you can deal with dog-whistling effectively.

Resources to Help with Gaslighting in Narcissistic Abuse

If you feel you need additional help and support in your narcissistic abuse recovery, look for a trauma-informed professional who is trained in helping people who are dealing with overcoming narcissistic abuse in toxic relationships. Depending on your particular situation, you might benefit from Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Coaching, or you might do better with a therapist. You have to decide what to do from here – if you’re not sure, start with my free Narcissistic Abuse Recovery quiz. With your results will come recommended resources for your situation. It’s totally free.

More Help for Dealing with Gaslighting in Narcissistic Abuse Recovery

Related resources


  • Angela Atkinson

    Angela Atkinson is a certified trauma counselor and the author of more than 20 books on narcissism, narcissistic abuse recovery, and related topics. A recognized expert on narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder who has studied and written extensively on narcissistic personality disorder and narcissistic abuse in toxic relationships since 2006, she has a popular narcissistic abuse recovery YouTube channel. Atkinson was inspired to begin her work as a result of having survived toxic relationships of her own. Atkinson offers trauma-informed narcissistic abuse recovery coaching and has certifications in trauma counseling, life coaching, level 2 therapeutic model, CBT coaching, integrative wellness coaching, and NLP. She is a certified trauma support coach and certified family trauma professional. She also has a professional PTSD counseling certification. Her mission is to help those who have experienced the emotional and mental devastation that comes with narcissistic abuse in these incredibly toxic relationships to (re)discover their true selves, stop the gaslighting and manipulation, and move forward into their genuine desires – into a life that is exactly what they choose for themselves. Along with her solution-focused life coaching experience, Atkinson’s previous career in journalism and research helps her to offer both accurate and understandable information for survivors of abuse in a simple-to-understand way that helps to increase awareness in the narcissistic abuse recovery community. Atkinson founded Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Support, the SPANily Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Support Groups and the Life Makeover Academy. She offers individual and group coaching for victims and survivors of narcissistic abuse here at and at NarcissisticAbuseRecovery.Online.

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